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Jan 11

CES: the second annual tablet-fest

No matter how hard I Google, I can’t find the exact number of tablets that were launched at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas. Best I can come up with is “dozens.”

Whatever the number was, it’s a perfect match for the number of tablets that have been largely forgotten in the 12 months since. Steve Ballmer, Vapor Master, made the keynote speech in 2010, delivering a non-demonstrative demo of HP’s Slate tablet, which never saw the light of day. At least he didn’t try to hype Microsoft’s own Courier tablet, which was quietly euthanized three months later.

Now comes CES 2011. Once again, Ballmer will take the stage for the keynote, giving him a chance to wash down the emptiness from last year. With the tablet floodgates opening, one would hope he’d have an easier time coming up with a few devices that actually work. Logic says he’ll try to wash away the bad memory with sheer quantity.

Another company with big dreams is Toshiba. A quote from their director of marketing in today’s New York Times sums it up perfectly: “We could have done this a year ago and rushed it out, but it wouldn’t have had the right features.”

He might just as well have said, “We could have done this a year ago and rushed it out, but we didn’t yet know what to copy.”

There’s really only one strategy these guys can follow: offer more features than iPad, hopefully at a better price. The problem, of course, is that iPad is more than just iPad — it’s rich ecosystem with 300,000+ apps and countless accessories. A few more features or a slight savings don’t quite make up for the lack of such things.

While one of the favorite anti-iPad zingers is “It’s just a giant iPod touch,” we will now see a deluge of tablets that are simply giant Android phones. This is not a criticism, as I’ve long felt that this is exactly what tablets need to be — a faster and bigger-screened version of the smartphones we’ve already come to love. Now that the Anti-Apple is following Apple’s course, we’ll see if that put-down begins to fade.

Expect also to see the haters out in force, damning Apple’s evil plan to control us all, cheering on a spate of superior devices that will finally turn the tide against Apple. By necessity, they will gloss over the fact that none of these new devices would exist if it weren’t for Apple’s invention. And never mind that Apple customers have been enjoying the tablet’s benefits a full year before everyone else.

As always, the problem with copying Apple’s technology is that you’re copying last year’s model. Just a month or two after all these new models show up at CES, Apple introduces iPad 2. For the most part, competitors are playing a game of leapfrog in which they never manage to leap the frog.

This year, I refuse to get my information second-hand. I will be journeying to CES to get my furry little hands on these devices myself. I’ll let you know how it goes…

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