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I’m in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, the massive tech-fest that usually sets the tone for the year ahead in the world of technology and consumer electronics.

Well, that’s how it used to be at CES, which this year will attract in excess of 120,000 visitors to Sin City. In recent years, the show has been overshadowed by Apple Computer, which until a couple of years ago ran its own MacWorld conference in San Francisco closely timed to CES.

When I was last at CES in 2007, Apple released the iPhone, sucking the the thin desert air out of CES completely and sending journalists rushing to their hotel rooms to find out the details of Apple’s new phone. Since then, the tech sector has been scrambling to catch up with Apple and already that is very much in evidence at the show this year.

The main announcements will come in the next few days, but already several tech vendors have been showing off tablet computers designed to emulate the iPad which Apple released last year and had sold eight million units of in the first six months of it being on the market.

Tech giants take their tablets

The onslaught on the iPad is coming in the form of big-name vendors touting devices running a version of Google’s Android operating system, which to date has been restricted to mobile phones. A version of Android dubbed Honeycomb is set to power a new generation of tablets that will look to gain an edge on Apple by bundling in extra features, such as a camera that would enable video calling from the tablet. Lenovo and Asus today showed tablets running on Android and tonight, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer is tipped to unveil a version of Windows 7 custom-built for tablet computers.

Netbooks orphaned

What is striking about the show this year is the lack of buzz around netbooks – the market segment that was all the rage a couple of years ago with Asus leading the pack in the compact laptop space with its best-selling Eee PC line-up. Asus has obviously sensed the potential for tablets, debuting the Eee Pad Transformer – a mini notebook that can separate from the keyboard to be used as a touch-screen tablet. Essentially, the Taiwanese computer maker is putting a buck each way offering two different formats for consumers. With analysts predicting 55 million tablets to be sold in 2011, it may be a smart strategy. Dell, Acer and Motorola also expected to unveil tablets at CES.

Asus boss Jonny Shih summed up how the wider tech industry views Apple as he unveiled the company’s new tablets at a press conference today:

‘We admire companies like Apple that offer great innovation, but they provide very limited choices for the customers. Different kinds of customers have different kinds of needs, and the best way to better serve them is to provide choice.’

Asus chief executive Jonny Shih

Asus chief executive Jonny Shih

More on CES as announcements are made – so far it is all about tablets, applications that work on tablets and 3D TV without the need to wear glasses…follow my tweets at twitter.com/sciblogsnz

Peter Griffin attended CES with the help of Microsoft.

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