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Software makes a showing at CES 2013, but underwhelms

At CES 2013, apps and software were spread thinly about the convention floor. There were some diamonds in the rough, but overall we were disappointed in the showing.

Photo by Jaymar Cabebe/CNET

LAS VEGAS--While the presence of software and apps at CES has certainly grown over the past few years, the fact remains that downloads still sit in the shadows of home theater components, gaming equipment, mobile devices, and other hardware at the annual show. At this point, we're beginning to think that software may never take center stage at CES. From an economic standpoint, it might not make much sense for a company to double down on an expensive booth to showcase a straightforward, downloadable app when the show continues to gravitate toward colorful plastics and shiny metals.

Rather, we think the role of apps at the week-long electronics show is more likely to evolve. For instance, this year, we noticed a lot of growth in apps that are developed solely to control and power hardware and peripherals. Take Flower Power, for instance, a BlueTooth gadget that takes care of your plants. The only way to interface with the device is, you guessed it, through a mobile app. Similarly, we saw Chevy MyLink, an in-dash interface slated for release with the new Chevy Impala that gives you a customizable smartphone-like layout and lets you program each icon to do common actions so you're not distracted while driving. We also liked the iSmart Alarm, a do-it-yourself home alarm system that you can monitor and control, all from your smartphone.

Gadgets like Parrot Flower Power may be indicating a shift in focus toward app-controlled hardware. Josh Miller/CNET

There were a few apps we found at the various shows and on the CES show floor that were worthy of note, but they were often hidden between booths selling smartphone cases, dongles, and other hardware. TLDR (short for "too long, didn't read") is a plugin for browsers and soon an app for both iPhone and Android that gives you accurate news summaries so you can get the gist without having to read the whole story. Another great find was MindMeld, a Skype-like app for iPad where the app detects key words from the conversation and displays information so you have potentially important info at your fingertips.

TLDR, one of the more impressive pieces of software at CES, plugs into your browser and summarizes the article you are currently reading. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The only show that truly focused on emerging apps was the Mobile Apps Showdown, now in its third year at CES. There were 10 finalists that included MindMeld mentioned above, and an assortment of other apps that were interesting, but not really standouts from what we've seen before. One notable exception was MyScript Calculator, an app that lets you write math expressions freehand and delivers solutions to complex problems instantaneously. But overall, while there were definitely apps of note at the Mobile App Showdown, none really jumped out at us as particularly new or groundbreaking.

My Script Calculator won the Mobile Apps Showdown with its ability to solve complex, hand-drawn math problems. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

But this is not us saying that software will eventually disappear from CES. In fact, this year's Mobile Apps Showdown was bigger than ever, and we think it will only continue to grow. Whether the relatively niche award show earns a spot as a major focal point of CES, though, is another matter.

At the end of the day, apps and software aren't going anywhere. But if you're wondering whether software and apps are poised to take center stage at CES in the near future: they're not.