The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is usually a vicious contest among gadget makers, each one seeking the spotlight amid a glittering array of the latest gizmos.

This year's struggle for attention, however, may well be impossible for anyone not introducing tablet computers.

"There is going to be a plethora of tablet launches at CES. Dozens upon dozens," says Shawn DuBravac, chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association, the organization that runs the high-voltage trade show, which officially opens Jan. 6.

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Tablet time. Top, RIM's Jim Balsillie poses with the coming PlayBook tablet and the new BlackBerry Torch. (Reuters) Middle, the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab at the Berlin consumer show in September 2010. (Reuters) Bottom, Models show Sharp's newest electronic books at Japan's biggest consumer show in October 2010. (Associated Press)

"I would not be surprised to see 60 to 80 tablet launches."

While tablet computers have been around for years, it was only in April 2010 that a market for them finally emerged with the launch of Apple's iPad.

The device burst out of the gate and has sold more than eight million units since, inspiring competitors along the way.

In November, Samsung launched the Android-powered Galaxy Tab, while Ontario-based Research In Motion is promising its own offering, the BlackBerry PlayBook, for sometime in 2011.

The thinking among market watchers is that while Apple may have the early lead, there is still plenty of room for others in the category.

The potential of tablets and the apps they run is nowhere near full realization, says DuBravac, and this will allow manufacturers plenty of room to experiment.

Sensing the market

Many of the tablets to be unveiled at the CES are expected to come loaded with different sensing technologies as their primary differentiators.

The iPad currently has a GPS and an accelerometer, but competitors will have cameras and other inputs, which will allow customers to extract more value from the device.

Displaying 60 to 80 new tablets seems excessive, but many of those won't end up seeing a production line. Such is the nature of CES, where electronics makers show their cards and see what clicks.

"The same thing happened with e-readers. We saw a couple of dozen launch last year and many of those have not made it to market," DuBravac says.

"That was another category where the uses were not all defined, and they still aren't."

Fighting Apple

In the case of tablets, new makers will also have the difficult task of taking on Apple and the mind-share it has already established among consumers. But that needn't be an insurmountable obstacle, industry analysts say.

Kaan Yigit, president of the Toronto-based Solutions Research Group, says Apple has only scratched the surface of tablet sales, capturing only about one per cent of the potential market.

"There is 99 per cent to duke it out over and Apple couldn't fill that demand if it wanted to," he says. "Tablets will come out of cereal boxes in 10 years. They'll be generic appliances — we will thank for Apple for being the first to lead the way."

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Not just a toy. Doctors at Mayanei Hayeshua hospital near Tel Aviv were the first to employ the Apple iPad to treat patients and study X-rays and CT scans. (Reuters)

Ironically, Apple's non-participation in the CES — North America's largest trade show, which attracts about 2,700 exhibitors and 120,000 people annually — is often as much of a story as the event itself.

The company makes a habit of launching products independently, sometimes stealing CES's thunder, as it did four years ago with the announcement of the first iPhone.

This year, Apple is launching its app store for Macintosh computers on Jan. 6, the day CES officially kicks off.

The return of 3D

DuBravac says it is unfortunate that Apple doesn't attend the CES but, in the end, "Apple is only one piece of the story. To see all of these other enabling technologies around is really the bigger story."

BridgeCo, for example, will be at the show. The small company makes the technology that enables Apple's new AirPlay wireless printing feature, and it will be looking for other firms to partner with.

Devices to watch

  • Applification. The "apps" made popular by smartphones are expected to expand their reach to everything from alarm clocks to televisions and cars.
  • Internet-connected TV: It took a back seat to 3D last year, but this year web-surfing, email, Netflix and the like are all coming to TVs without the need for an additional set-top box.
  • Building and appliance intelligence: Sensors such as cameras and GPS are being built into everything home-related, which should take green technology to a different level.

Last year's big story was 3D television, a category of electronics that has so far proven to be a flop. Only about three per cent of high-definition televisions sold in 2010 were 3D-enabled, according to the Financial Times.

Poor sales have been attributed to the fact that many consumers have already recently bought expensive new high-definition televisions, and that there has so far been a lack of 3D content available. Many consumers also complained about wearing the glasses.

The facts have led some industry analysts to suggest that 3D television may not appeal to anyone besides hard-core videophiles and gamers, but manufacturers disagree.

"That segment alone is enough to justify it," says Frank Lee, public affairs manager at LG Canada. "We knew 3D is relevant but it wasn't going to have a mass appeal initially."

3D should still be a big story at CES this year. Manufacturers are aware that consumers don't like the glasses and will be showing off smaller-sized TVs and other 3D devices that don't require them.

One of the challenges has been to incorporate glasses-free viewing for the large 3D screens where there are different viewing angles.

But that problem doesn't exist when a manufacturer can reasonably predict how far a viewer will be from the screen, which is why glasses-free 3D will likely pop up in cameras, mobile phones and in-car televisions.

"The storyline for 3D around home entertainment may be more muted relative to last year, but the broader story could be just as big or bigger because you'll see it in more places," DuBravac says. "Things are ramping up exactly like one would expect for a new technology."