Nokia, Microsoft the big winners at CES 2012

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is over, and according to organizers, it was the biggest ever. Peter Nowak takes a look back at the massive event, and pinpoints this year's winners and losers.
Nokia and Microsoft, who collaborated on the new Lumia smartphone, impressed journalists at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Here, host Ryan Seacrest, left, holds the new phone during Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's keynote address at CES on Jan. 9. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Another Consumer Electronics Show has come and gone, which means it’s time to step back and analyze just what went on. Each year, thousands of exhibitors big and small bring their wares to the show in the hopes of getting attention, both from media and potential buyers. This year, it happened in record numbers.

CES 2012 was the biggest one in U.S. history, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, the group that organizes it. More than 3,100 exhibitors used 1.8 million square feet to attract 153,000 attendees, who surely felt the size of the show in their sore feet.

The event was without a doubt huge, but size in no ways guarantees success for the participants. CES is, in fact, the ultimate gamble, where technology makers roll the dice. Sometimes they win, sometimes they crap out.

Hitting the jackpot

Nokia: The star of the show was certainly Nokia, a fact that illustrates how quickly fortunes can change at CES. Just a few years ago, attendees were wondering if the Finnish cellphone giant was finished, since its products lagged well behind Android and iPhone. But early into 2011, Nokia was anointed by Microsoft as the designer of its flagship Windows smartphones. At this year’s CES, the company unveiled that long-awaited "hero" phone – the Lumia 900 – to rave reviews. The high-end smartphone, which runs on next-generation Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless networks, is expected to arrive in the United States in March, although no Canadian release has been announced. It’s already being pegged as a solid competitor to iPhone and Android devices and has single-handedly done much to restore Nokia’s once sterling reputation in cellphones. Of course, just because the media takes a shine to a device doesn’t mean the public will. A few years ago, Palm received similar praise at CES for its Pre smartphone. The device failed to catch on with consumers, and the company was soon swallowed up by HP.

Microsoft: Microsoft’s Windows Phone Mango operating system powers the Lumia 900, so it shared some of the spotlight enjoyed by Nokia. Attendees also liked what they saw from the upcoming Windows 8 operating system, which will power computers and tablets when it is released later this year. A number of other electronics manufacturers tried to emulate Microsoft’s success with Kinect, the motion-control system for its Xbox 360 video game console, by incorporating similar interfaces into their own products. All of these pluses added up to an unusual result — a number of media outlets proclaiming Microsoft to be "cool" again. The big difference at this year’s show, however, was that the company adopted a show-don’t-tell philosophy – usually, Microsoft executives are only too eager to talk up their products, but this year they let them speak for themselves. The company says it won’t be back at CES next year, which is ironic given that people now seem to want to hear what it has to say.

Corning: What? A glass maker as one of the hits at a gadget show? It’s true. Corning announced Gorilla Glass 2 at CES, the second generation of the popular glass that is now 20 per cent thinner but with no loss in strength. That means thinner and lighter electronics, with Gorilla Glass used in everything from smartphones to tablets and laptops. The thinner substance will also mean more responsive touchscreens. It seems like such an innocuous innovation, but it’s actually integral to current electronics trends, which is why Corning attracted so much attention at its booth.

Even odds

Intel: The processor maker dedicated this year’s show to making a big splash with Ultrabooks, its trademarked name for super-thin, lightweight laptop computers. The devices are similar to the Macbook Air laptops Apple has been selling for a few years, except that many will run either Windows 7 or 8. Intel said it expects more than 75 new Ultrabooks to be released in 2012, so there will be lots of competition in the category. The only questions are: How fast will prices come down on these premium machines and will that be enough to spur consumer interest? As CES wound down, analyst reports found that PC sales dipped in 2011 as buyers spent their dollars more on smartphones and tablets. The computers that were the most successful, according to consultancy Gartner, were large all-in-one machines with big monitors. On the other hand, Ultrabooks are expected to make up 13 per cent of laptop sales this year, up significantly from only two per cent in 2011, according to analysis firm IHS iSuppli. The future for laptops – and therefore Intel’s big bet on them – looks uncertain.

Alternative interfaces: The 2012 CES was touted as the introduction to the "year of the interface," where the gadgets around us would get new forms of control. With internet connectivity and features coming to all forms of electronics, from televisions to cars, the old ways of interacting with that computing power – such as mice and keyboards – are declining in usefulness. Many manufacturers turned to the success of Microsoft’s Kinect and Apple’s Siri, which incorporate motion and voice controls, respectively, for inspirations with this year’s gadgets. The likes of Samsung, Intel and others showed off televisions, remote controls and laptops that incorporate such alternative interfaces, but for the most part it remains to be seen whether consumers want any of them. In some cases, the interfaces appear to be technology for technology’s sake – they’re neat innovations, but they don't work as well or as quickly as the interfaces people are already used to, such as plain old remote controls. How such new interfaces evolve over the next year is anybody’s guess.

Crapping out

Research In Motion: The BlackBerry maker had a disastrous 2011 and probably would have benefited from taking a break from CES this year. Unfortunately, with booths needing to be booked a year in advance, that just wasn’t an option, so RIM was forced to show off something, anything. What it brought to this year’s CES was the 2.0 software update for the PlayBook, which will finally bring applications such as email and calendar to the tablet. Analysts and observers were underwhelmed by the announcement, saying it should have come with the PlayBook’s original launch last spring. RIM didn’t necessarily do anything wrong at this year’s show, but the resurgence of Nokia and Microsoft is clearly bad news for BlackBerry. RIM already has an uphill battle against Apple and Android – with another strong competitor added to the mix, things will only get more difficult for the company.

Cameras: Not only did the news of Kodak’s possible bankruptcy swirl around CES, there were notably fewer cameras at the show itself. The trend may be indicative that Japanese manufacturers such as Nikon and Canon are focusing less on the North American market, but the writing seems to be on the wall. With smartphones sporting increasingly powerful cameras – Taiwan’s HTC introduced the 16-megapixel Titan II device at the show – the days of the humble point-and-shoot may be numbered. While smartphones are unlikely to ever match the power of large single-lens-reflex cameras, they are rapidly closing the gap with smaller compact devices.

Tablets: There are no two ways about it – despite an expected flood of new tablets, no single device unveiled at CES appeared to be a legitimate contender to Apple’s iPad. In many cases, manufacturers are still not getting it. They’re either tying their devices to wireless contracts, as Samsung is doing with its Galaxy Tab 7.7 in the United States, or they’re overpricing it, as Toshiba is doing with its Excite X10, which will sell for at least $529. A few companies are trying to differentiate from the iPad with different form factors, such as Sony’s Tablet P – which folds in half and is small enough to put in your pocket – but none put forward a compelling competitor to Apple. With the unveiling of the iPad 3 expected soon, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Apple is going to run away with the tablet market, much as it did with iPods.