If it's possible to identify a single moment of clarity at a convention that attracts more than 140,000 people, then I'd point to Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walter Mossberg's talk at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Speaking as part of the HigherEd Tech Summit, a mini-conference on education and technology held at CES, Mossberg made two very interesting points.
First, he declared that tablet devices—easily the overwhelming cash crop at this year's CES—represent more than a neat consumer trend. They represent, he said, "a new kind of computing" and have "a serious chance of challenging the longtime role of the personal computer." Then he emphatically declared: "If digital texts aren't going to be cheaper, then we're all wasting our time. It has got to be cheaper to move bits around than atoms."
Nearly 100 tablets, a growing number using the Android OS, were unveiled at CES, a show that was also focused on 3D TVs and high-end "in-vehicle" wireless systems. Mossberg, who is also a trustee at Brandeis University, made his comments to highlight both the rising cost of education and textbooks as well as the ability of technology to address these issues. And if the sales of tablets come anywhere close to the projections—a study released at CES projected 48 million tablets in 2011 with up to 150 million in the marketplace by 2013—we'll get a chance to find out if he's right.
Tablets, Tablets, Tablets
In a show offering lots of tablet computers, we were most impressed by Blackberry Playbook The device offered a 7-in. ultra-crisp touchscreen, micro-USB port, gesture-activated bezel (you can swipe the border to initiate stuff), and a new operating system by QNX, a company that normally provides operating systems for nuclear power plants and medical facilities. The Playbook offers pure multitasking (the device ran smoothly despite multiple open windows with a game, a movie, and a download all running at the same time) in addition to supporting Flash, unlike the iPad. No pricing was announced despite rumors that it will be under $500. It should be released in Q1 (a shipping mantra at the show), and a presenter at the Blackberry booth said the device would launch with e-reading software by Kobo (with about 200,000 titles) on it.
Right behind the Playbook on our listing of cool tablets is the Motorola Xoom, hyped as a curtain-shrouded mystery device in a pre-CES tongue-in-cheek video on the "history" of tablets (which started with stone tablets). The device has a 10.1-in. color touchscreen, USB port, and will run Android 3.0, making it among the first devices running Honeycomb, the Android OS optimized for tablets. We were also told that it will ship with a Google eBooks app, giving it access to several hundred thousand for-pay titles as well as to e-reading apps sold through the Android Market. Next most impressive was a trio of Viera tablets (10-in., 7-in., and 4-in. touchscreens) from Panasonic running Android 2.2 and offering the ability to shift content from a Panasonic handheld device to a large flatscreen TV instantly with the swipe of a finger. When can you buy them? Sometime in 2011.
And in a show full of impressive technology, Mirasol Displays, a Qualcomm company, showed off new screen technology that was certainly among the most impressive. The Mirasol technology (mirasoldisplays.com) combines the low power consumption of e-ink screens with the color and multimedia support (i.e., video) usually associated with power-draining backlit LCD touchscreens could lead to very competitively priced digital reading devices. Cheryl Goodman, director of marketing at Mirasol Displays, said the company expects its screen technology to show up in the U.S. market sometime in 2011.