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Wireless And Glitches At CES

January 9, 2011

Jen-Hsun Huang, CEO of Nvidia, learned how insidious and demanding mobile devices can be when he tried to demonstrate a tablet computer at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

While demonstrating the tablet PC, so many people in the audience had their devices connected to the Web that the network collapsed and his presentation short-circuited after a few minutes.

“You guys suck,” he exclaimed.

Huang’s remark betrayed a private sentiment shared by some of technology’s old guard, who face the painful task of reinvention as the mobile Internet overshadows the personal computer’s role as the main workhorse and leisure tool.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that 70 percent of all devices — including everything from televisions to printers — will have an Internet connection by 2014, from virtually none just a few years ago.

The trend signals a shift in the tech balance of power from the so-called Wintel hegemony and the PC makers like Dell that thrive off of it, to smaller companies like chipmaker ARM Holdings and Netflix.

Microsoft made a big move, not by unveiling some amazing new PC or software, but by stepping from its decades-old alliance with Intel Corp and moving toward ARM processors, as it dabbles in the mobile device market.

“Windows PCs will continue to adapt and evolve,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the show’s opening keynote speech, but the company’s dilemma was illustrated by the range of half-built machines, which Microsoft hastily assembled to demonstrate the new ARM capability.

Ballmer’s PC demo was a far cry from Apple’s slick product rollouts. The company kickstarted a trend in people getting access to “the cloud” anytime, anywhere, with its iPhone, and now its iPad tablet PC, which could ship more than 36 million units in 2011, according to research firm iSuppli.

Although Apple was not on the show floor, its presence was felt. More than 30 tablets were announced in a 48 hour period, nearly all mentioning Apple was the one to catch up to.

All these connected devices require two things to prosper: a super fast Web connection and content. The former’s absence on and off the tradeshow floor made itself known as emails went unsent, Web pages remained unvisited and stage presentations went awry.

All major US carriers announced at CES that they are upgrading their networks, spending billions of dollars in the process, to 4G technology. Verizon Wireless said it will carry 10 new 4G devices in the first half of the year.

Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile USA battled it out to show that they were in the best position to get people to use their high-speed wireless data services, setting the stage for an all out wireless war this year.

New applications were also in short-supply as operators pushed to show that the ability to get quality video to smartphones would go a long way toward impressing consumers and giving them reason to buy high-speed services.

“It (video) has always failed in the mobile space,” Cole Brodman, T-Mobile USA’s chief marketing officer, told Reuters. “Now 4G can make it a nice experience.”

At Verizon, the push for video will come in many directions including multi-player gaming and video chat, making use of front- and back-facing cameras in smartphones and tablet PCs.

Intel Corp CEO Otellini waved off the Microsoft-ARM alliance as “not a big deal.” The company unveiled a new core processor for personal computers at CES.

Otellini was puzzled with the media frenzy over Microsoft’s move to ARM processors, rather than his company’s new Sandy Bridge processors.

He reiterated that the first smartphone with an Intel processor will make its debut this year.

ARM, enjoying the attention of its Microsoft partnership and an announcement that Nvidia will begin making CPUs based on its architecture, couldn’t resist making a remark at the chip giant.

“Intel has been saying for years they’re going to get into mobile. They’ve had a totally inappropriate product until recently,” ARM President Tudor Brown told Reuters. “Their product has been improving in terms of power consumption, it’s still not as efficient as ARM, but it’s getting closer.”

“At some point it becomes viable to start building those things into tablets. But it still doesn’t really make sense in mobile phones,” he said.

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