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.
Copia and Blio Update
Both Copia, the social media–driven e-reader and e-retailing platform, and Blio, the visual and multimedia enhanced e-reading software developed by Ray Kurzweil and launched in collaboration with Baker &Taylor, made a big splash at CES. In fact, Copia was a hit at last year's CES, attracting attention for a suite of aggressively priced devices that were coupled with a social media platform that offers both social connection and sharing with the ability to immediately buy the books you're talking about. But late in the game Copia dropped the notion of producing its own branded devices in favor of partnerships with OEM manufacturers to bundle their devices with its Copia software.
Copia is already available for Mac and PC desktops, and it announced tablet and mobile phone device partners at CES—Microsoft, Motorola, and Samsung—putting Copia on 100 million Windows and Android devices. Sol Rosenberg, v-p new business development, outlined their plans in a conversation at the Copia booth—a large space with towering banners emblazoned with "reading"—on the CES floor. Besides reading and social media functionality, Copia is also providing the backend retailing infrastructure for forthcoming partnerships in addition to offering independent booksellers a program that turns Copia into a branded turnkey application that can be used to give bricks-and-mortar indie stories an e-book retailing presence. Rosenberg said to look for promotional support for Copia to roll out as soon as manufacturers begin shipping the devices (likely to begin in the spring or early summer), and plans to roll out a global version of the software "with local partners, as our hardware partners begin shipping devices all over the world."
Bob Nelson, president, digital group, Baker & Taylor, was in Las Vegas doing much the same as Copia: making plans to release the Blio software on a multitude of new devices. While Nelson said he cannot name his partners yet, he was quick to respond to a blogpost ("Where Are All the Book Publishers?") we wrote asking about book publishers at CES. According to Nelson, publishers may not have been formally exhibiting at this CES, but they were attending the show, and a lot of them were invited to the Dell suites (Kurzweil was said to be on hand) set up in the Palms and Mandalay Bay hotels to show off Blio displaying all kinds of visually enhanced content on a wide range of devices from smartphones to large-screen TVs.
The B&T/Blio plan is to power both physical and e-book retailing through a series of "microsites," or dedicated Web pages, as well as through apps installed on devices, providing the e-commerce infrastructure and converting publisher content into the Blio format to make it ready to sell. Nelson announced a partnership bundling Blio on Dell devices, as well as launching BookStage, a book retailing application for Dell devices powered by B&T/Blio, along with a branded e-book retailing site for Toshiba (Toshibabookplace.com) and a marketing site (www.hp.blio.com) for Hewlett-Packard offering downloads of Blio for the Windows OS. HP will begin shipping devices loaded with Blio this month. (PW also stumbled on a sneak preview of Blio for mobile, which has yet to be announced, when we found Blio running on a phone supporting Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's new mobile phone OS, at the Microsoft booth.)
"We'll have more than a million-plus titles available, both for free and for pay," Nelson said. "We've had a lot of meetings with publishers, who wanted to be here to see how their titles will be sold and marketed."