At CES, Android's rise, Windows' demise

Four days spent at CES 2011 can be summarized by four booths with two competing personal-computing dynamics: two of the booths represent the PC's future, two do not.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read
Nvidia's CES booth: lots of Android tablets.
Nvidia's CES booth: lots of Android tablets. Brooke Crothers

For me, the essence of the four days I spent at CES can be boiled down to four booths with two competing personal computing dynamics: two of those booths represent the PC's future, two do not.

Here's the quickest way to make the point. Google's Android is the future and Microsoft Windows--let me put this delicately--is the present. More specifically: Motorola-Nvidia (Android) are on one side, and Microsoft-Intel (Windows) are on the other.

The Motorola and Nvidia booths shouted future. Lots of Android tablets, high-end Android smartphones, and a very interesting Motorola technology called Atrix 4G. (See embedded video of the Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone: it plugs into a dock that looks and acts just like an ultrathin laptop. Be sure to wait until the 1:00 mark to see why it's not a laptop).

Motorola's booth was easily one of the most forward-looking at CES. Right out front was the Atrix 4G demo and just behind that was its Xoom tablet. Both extremely impressive products--and both powered by Nvidia dual-core Tegra 2 processors. (The Xoom tablet, by the way, won CNET's Best of Show award at CES.)

My not-too-bold prediction is that the Xoom becomes one of the iPad's biggest rivals, just as the Droid has successfully taken on the iPhone. Motorola obviously takes the Android Honeycomb-based Xoom design very seriously. Plus, there is no laptop legacy holding Motorola back. It's obviously going after the PC customer aggressively with both the Droid and the Xoom.

Nvidia's floor area was stuffed with tablets powered by its Tegra processors based on the power-frugal ARM chip design. Graphics chips for gaming PCs, Nvidia's strong suit to date, seemed to be a side show.

And the two companies seem to be synchronizing their visions of the future. Simply stated, put the PC in your pocket. Nvidia is betting the company on ARM chips and Motorola--for now at least--is betting its products on Nvidia processors.

The scene was very different at the Microsoft and Intel booths. I didn't see a lot at either booth that I couldn't see by visiting a local Best Buy. Yes, Kinect is an exciting technology, so I'll give Microsoft credit there. And Intel's newest Sandy Bridge processor is the best piece of silicon the chipmaker has produced yet. So kudos there, too. But the dynamic duo seem to get instantly flummoxed when faced with tablets (not to mention smartphones).

At the Microsoft CES booth I sampled the Windows 7 Asus Eee Slate. In a couple of words: not pretty. It was big, heavy, and packed a laptop-class Intel Core i5 processor. I was completely unimpressed.

And in another part of the Microsoft booth, Windows 7 products that seemed impressive a few months ago have quickly petered out, e.g., the hybrid tablet-Netbook Dell Inspiron Duo. I asked the guy in charge of tablets at the CES Microsoft booth on Friday what he thought about the Inspiron Duo. "It's thick." That curt response said it all.

The same Microsoft guy did seem to be more impressed with Samsung's Netbook-tablet hybrid that is essentially a tablet with a slider keyboard. (But a Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet it's not.)

And right next door at the Intel booth there were lots of laptops and Netbooks--some very slick designs but nothing to get really excited about. Even Netbooks, a heretofore Intel monopoly, seem to be transforming right before our eyes into 11- and 12-inch class ultraportables (the un-Netbook) based on Advanced Micro Devices' Fusion processors.

So, the question is, will WinTel get their act together by next year's CES? Perhaps. Or maybe they'll go their separate ways and forge new destinies.