Mobile Computing Takes Center Stage at CES

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A wave of more than 80 new tablets is introduced, many running the Android OS.

 

Mobile computing is hitting the IT sector like a tsunami, and the underlying quake is sure to affect the landscape for IBM professionals. Users want to take their computing on the road, and last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) suggests we're on the threshold of a new mobile paradigm.

 

More than 80 new tablet computers were unveiled at last week's Las Vegas show, a new breed of smart phone tagged a "super phone" was introduced, and the Microsoft-Intel grip on the consumer computing sector has been lifted in favor of energy-efficient chips from ARM and NVIDIA running Android-powered devices.

 

Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless, which introduced its 4G LTE network last month has inked a deal with Apple to carry the iPhone 4, freeing captive AT&T subscribers to switch to another carrier and making the iPhone available to current and new Verizon subscribers. For now, however, the iPhone 4 will work only on Verizon's 3G network. Existing Verizon customers will be able to pre-order on February 3 with general availability beginning February 10. With a two-year contract, the 16GB version will be $199 and the 32GB version $299. It's not clear yet whether Verizon will offer its unlimited data plan with the iPhone or whether it will introduce tiered pricing as AT&T had to.

 

One new feature with the Verizon-based iPhone is that it can serve as a mobile hotspot for up to five different devices, a feature so far unavailable to AT&T subscribers. With Verizon's CDMA network, however, data and calls cannot be simultaneous, a fact that makes searching for an address while talking not possible. That should change later, when the next generation runs on Verizon's 4G LTE network.

 

Much of what was displayed at CES was still not quite ready for prime time but is expected to be available sometime within the first quarter. Apple, of course, which introduced the iPad shortly after last year's CES, did not participate, so a refresh on that tablet is likely to be announced in the near future. Meanwhile, however, Google is poised to introduce a version of its Android operating system called Honeycomb that is tuned for tablets versus the present Android 2.2 OS designed for smart phones and adapted to the larger tablet form factor.

 

Surveys suggest that tablets already are gaining traction in business. A ChangeWave survey of more than 1,600 business IT buyers at the end of last year indicated that 7 percent reported their companies already provide employees with tablets. Of that number, 82 percent were Apple iPads, and the remainder was split largely between other providers, including Dell and HP. Among those who intended to buy tablets this year, some 78 percent indicated it would be the iPad. What users are actually doing with their iPads is a bit of a mystery, however. While 73 percent indicated they use them to access the Internet, and 69 percent said they use them for email, nearly half said they use them for "sales support" and roughly an equal number said for "customer presentations." Since the iPad doesn't run MS Office or PowerPoint, it's not clear how those presentations are being delivered.

 

Based on the CES, however, IT decision-makers may wish to re-evaluate their choices favoring Apple based on the plethora of new devices displayed at the show. Here is a rundown of what's hot:

  • Motorola Xoom (pronounced "zoom"), the company's new flagship Android tablet, sports front- and rear-facing cameras, including one for HD (compared with none on the current iPad). It has a larger screen and higher resolution, supports Adobe Flash, and uses the Verizon network versus AT&T. The Xoom will be the first device to use Google's Honeycomb OS, which supports multi-tasking. The first versions of Xoom, to be available in the first quarter, will be capable of running in 3G only but "are capable" of being upgraded to 4G later in the year. No word yet on what the Xoom will cost. The device has the NVIDIA dual-core Tegra 2 processor, with each core running at 1 GHz. It has a variety of accessories, including a speaker dock and Bluetooth keyboard.
  • Motorola Atrix is a smart phone that doubles as a PC replacement and has both desktop and laptop docks. The Atrix also will run on Verizon's 4G LTE network. The Atrix can run a variety of apps, including Firefox's Web browser and virtualized desktop client apps. Basically, the phone hooks up to a larger 13-inch LED screen/charger and keyboard to morph into a PC or laptop.
  • LG Mobile Phones announced its G-Slate tablet running Honeycomb on T-Mobile's HSPDA+ 4G network. Availability is expected sometime in the first quarter.
  • RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook running BlackBerry's new tablet operating system, QNX, on a smaller 7-inch form factor sports a zippy interface. Reports are that the WiFi version, however, will not support corporate email due to security concerns. And while developing apps for QNX reportedly is fairly straightforward, it represents yet another OS for developers to support with the obvious implications.
  • Samsung's Sliding PC 7 is a hybrid laptop/tablet running MS Windows 7 and has a 1366 x 768, 10.1-inch multitouch screen, so it can serve as either a tablet or Netbook. Running the Intel Atom Z670 CPU, it has 2GB of DDR2 RAM and either a 32 or 64 GB SSD drive with 3G and WiMax connectivity. It's slightly larger than the iPad at 10.47 x 6.88 x .78 inches and weighs 2.18 pounds.
  • Dell introduced its Streak 7, a follow-on to its Streak tablet released last year. The tablet features a new design, a dual-core 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra T2 processor, a 7-inch screen, support for T-Mobile's 4G network, dual cameras (5 megapixel rear camera and 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera), Android 2.2 and full Flash 10.1 implementation (upgradable to Honeycomb in the future), 802.11n Wi-Fi, and live news, sports, and entertainment television via T-Mobile TV. It weighs less than a pound and is expected to become available through T-Mobile retail stores, T-Mobile.com, and Dell in the coming weeks.

 

The tablets and hybrids mentioned above are only a handful of the 80 or so introduced at the show. In selecting a tablet, however, keep in mind that some manufacturers have been given the nod by Google and others have not, despite the fact that anyone can use the Android OS. Those manufacturers that are not officially supported by Google do not have access to the Android Market, Google's answer to the Apple App Store. So, as we hear so often, price isn't everything—value is.

 

Intel showed off its line of new Sandy Bridge second-generation core processors, built around a new 32nm micro-architecture. The processors, designed for PCs and laptops, are more energy efficient and have better 3D and graphics performance.

 

With all these devices capable of running on wireless networks, one wonders if the networks will be able to handle all the traffic. That question was the subject of a CES keynote by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who said one of the priorities for the Commission in 2011 is "unleashing spectrum." A lot of the spectrum today apparently is occupied by TV broadcasters, even though much was freed up after the recent transition to digital signals. The FCC would like to see more sharing of channels and voluntary "incentive auctions" by those who currently hold spectrum.

 

The CES show, which this year hosted 140,000 attendees, hosted only 120,000 last year. This year, overflowing with energy, represented a watershed year for mobile computing and wireless tablets and phones. While the tablet form factor was introduced by Apple, in the space of less than a year it has caught the eye of dozens of manufacturers who are trying to improve upon the concept. Whether Apple will be able to hold onto its lead position with the iPad 2 will be evident when the new device is introduced, likely in the next few months. In the meantime, users, including management, may be clamoring for their new tablets today, so IT once again may be put in the position of asking everyone to wait—just a little bit longer.

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