Apple looms over CES from afar

A device that doesn't yet exist from a company that doesn't even exhibit at CES was the most buzzed-about thing at the biggest gadgetfest in the world.

LAS VEGAS--The most buzzed-about device at CES 2010 wasn't even on display here.

A tablet or slate computer from Apple was basically all anyone wanted to talk about, and it's not even a confirmed product yet. As a result, Lady Gaga might be the only thing that was actually at CES 2010 that could even be described as generating large-scale buzz.

Ballmer CES slate
Steve Ballmer shows off a slate PC during his opening keynote at CES 2010. James Martin/CNET

We can partly blame both Apple and Google for this. Google sucked all the air out of the Las Vegas Convention Center Tuesday, two days before this whole show even got started, thanks to its introduction of the Nexus One phone and accompanying online retail platform for it.

But Apple's specter has once again haunted the show it doesn't even attend. It seems the whole PC and consumer electronics industry is waiting with bated breath to find out if Steve Jobs' infamous tablet/slate PC really will come to fruition. We'll find out on either January 26 or 27--reports are conflicting right now--when Apple is allegedly planning a big announcement to be held in San Francisco.

Speculation regarding such a tablet, which is believed to be a 10- or 11-inch touch-screen device with wireless connectivity and a price tag under $1,000, has been building for more than a year. And perhaps not coincidentally, a flood of news that it might be coming sometime in the early part of this year rushed out in the weeks just prior to this year's CES. It peaked on Monday, two days before the show's start, when The Wall Street Journal reported that the tablet, or slate, might begin shipping in March . And you could see its effects the instant the tech world started gathering in the desert for this year's show.

You could see it in Microsoft's keynote , where Steve Ballmer revealed a tablet from Hewlett-Packard. HP's been making tablets for years. Why one of them was suddenly thrust into the spotlight makes more sense when you put it in context: Apple might be doing a tablet, therefore there's going to be a consumer market for it. And everyone seems to want a piece of it.

You could see it at Dell's press conference too. Besides an announcement that their Mini 3i smartphone would be coming to AT&T, Dell's biggest news was that they, too, might do a tablet . Vice President of Marketing Michael Tatelman held up a concept prototype device with a 5-inch touch screen, running Android software, and showed a video rendering of what the device, tentatively called the Mini5, might be able to do someday, should they actually go ahead and manufacture the thing. There may or may not be more where that came from, Tatelman cryptically told the gathering of reporters Thursday morning.

Dell CES tablet
The Dell Mini 5 tablet that it might make someday. Dell

"You can imagine that there are other form factors and other screen sizes we're working on in our labs," he said. But, he followed it up with, "I can't commit whether we'll ever bring it to market or not."

"Then why show it?" is the natural question. Likely answer: because if Apple does one, they want to be ready to respond with their own model, and of course like any company prototype, they want to show that they're innovative and forward-thinking.

You could see it in reporters' questions for executives. At a discussion with Sony's chairman and CEO, Sir Howard Stringer, the third question following a discussion about 3D TVs was where an Apple tablet fit into the PC and smartphone ecosystem.

Even in the months leading up to CES, an Apple tablet was top of mind. In September an Archos exec, who was introducing an Android-based tablet of its own, told CNET they'd be glad to be in the same category as Apple because customers will follow: "We'd love Apple to be in this...they will create a market."

This, if you'll recall, isn't the first time Apple's managed to do this. When MacWorld Expo was held during the same week in January as CES 2007, Steve Jobs stood on a stage in San Francisco and introduced the iPhone. People in Vegas talked about little else tech-related that whole week.

This time, however, might be an even bigger feat. This time, Apple's managed to turn the attention of the entire tech world away from tech's biggest stage without actually doing or saying anything.

 

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