What really mattered at CES: An OS, a tablet a network, a surrender

Android, LTE and tablets will drive this year's IT decisions

During big waves of product announcements, like at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, there is so much static from me-too product announcements that the announcements that matter tend to get swamped.

There are too many phones to pay attention to any single one; Internet-connected TVs are great, and I'd watch the 3-D version if I didn't have to pay for one; I support only on a Constitutional basis the right of anyone to drive, build or rock giant, expensive sound systems in cars customized into complete stupidity.

Intel and Nvidia's attempts to invade one other's markets will matter. So will Microsoft's decision to port Windows to the kind of chips that run tablets and phones.

Tablets are going to make the big difference, both in the way most people use computers, as will the operating systems that run on them. There are just too many to look at individually, though.

So which ones really mattered?

The next version of Android

The tablet product that will have the greatest impact wasn't even really at CES. Google demonstrated Honeycomb, the next version of its Android OS, and posted a video showing why it matters.

It's slick, it's pretty, it's customizable and it's designed for tablets. You can switch between tasks, see a list of tasks running now, which is awkward on phones, and is set up to synchronize wirelessly and automatically with apps in the cloud.

The demo version links with Google Books and Maps and Talk, but the same sync function should make integrating it with an enterprise app or network pretty straightforward.

Honeycomb also builds on an installed base and community of developers big enough to make it a credible alternative to the iPad and Apple's iOS which, even if the next edition of the OS didn't look sharp, would be enough to make Honeycomb the most significant demo at CES.

Motorola has committed to running Honeycomb on its upcoming high-powered Xoom Tablet, and Samsung will certainly upgrade the Galaxy Tab to run it. Its openness, especially compared to the iPad, should also help it compete, despite the iPad's dominance.

The next crackberry

The RIM BlackBerry PlayBook is important mainly because it's from RIM and will be a good choice for RIM's enormous installed base, the BlackBerry Tablet is unique in being both a solid product and a tablet that doesn't run Android, the iOS or Windows. It runs its own TabletOS that looks like RIM skipped a couple of generations between the last version of the phone OS and the tablet.

It's such a departure from the BlackBerry that there probably won't be much inertial carryover -- BlackBerry users picking a BlackBerry tablet because they know the system and the provider.

It's big, it's powerful and it seems to seems to be on target both in design and execution, according to CIO reviewer Al Sacco.

It's not perfect, but it appears to be a good option for corporate IT, which is not always the case with the first effort of any vendor in the tablet market.

The next big network

The last big-news item is the December rollout of Verizon's high-speed LTE network in 38 markets, its plan to expand to 140 markets by the end of the year and 10 devices it will release to use the full 5Mbit/sec download speed of that network.

LG's Revolution and Samsung's 4G phones will support it, as will mobile hotspots from Samsung and Novatel. Skype will also be available on it until Verizon gets tired of people clogging up its network with traffic they don't pay for directly.

Motorola's Xoom tablet will come with LTE support, as will Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Cisco's Cius.

Next to building a light, simple device end users will actually enjoy carrying and using, connecting it at high enough speed to keep them happy is the next big step.

Verizon, never the low-priced option, hasn't announced prices or policies for the LTE network yet, but told reporter Nancy Gohring it is unlikely there will be an unlimited-use option.

That restricts the kind of apps you can put on a tablet, especially if they're being used by employees in the field who create and use a lot of PowerPoint or other large files they have to send back and forth across a cell network.

Rival Sprint is betting its unlimited plans will attract customers turned off by Verizon's nickel-and-diming price policies. Sprint is trailing on mindshare, though, and in the list of devices that support its 4G network, leaving it a lot of catching up to do even before the wave of tablets hits Verizon's network.

LTE will be important for its high bandwidth and comparatively wide availability; there's a very good chance Verizon will price many prospective customers out of the market for the tablet-and-phone networks it's working hard to promote at CES.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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