The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is the place where the world's leading tech companies claw and scratch to get their products seen by an invite-only media crowd. Every company, that is, except Apple. This year, Steve Jobs stole the show by scheduling his own company's trade show, Macworld, for the very same week in San Francisco. Apple's iPhone debut Tuesday morning sucked the oxygen out of CES. "The whole place is moping like a dumped boyfriend," an NPR reporter wrote me from Vegas. "It's as if everyone here went to the wrong party."
If you're not one of the jilted tech journalists stuck on the ground in Las Vegas or San Francisco, it's easy enough to roll CES and Macworld into one big trade show. The unofficial theme of this year's presentations is the Internetification of consumer electronics. TVs and phones are becoming nodes on the network, just like your PC.
Apple's iPhone is this week's superstar. It's not an iPod that makes calls, it's more like a Mac Nano for your pocket. It runs OS X, the same operating system that powers Apple's $5,000 professional workstations. The iPhone, which doesn't hit stores until June, will have a set of familiar Mac applications, like the Safari browser, iTunes, and iChat, that have been customized for use on a cell phone. There's also built-in e-mail through Yahoo! and maps from Google. Apple touts it as three gadgets in one: It's a revolutionary phone! It's a widescreen iPod! It's a, uhm, "breakthrough Internet device," or something. And buried down the list is a two-megapixel camera.
The iPhone's whiz-bang touch is the no-buttons touchscreen interface. This includes a keypad mode, plus special sensors that detect when the phone is next to your ear and whether you're holding it vertically or horizontally. It knows whether to display the screen in portrait mode, landscape mode, or dim it altogether, changing settings mid-call as necessary should you move it from your ear to your face to look up a contact. In a far more impressive tech industry breakthrough, Jobs arm-twisted Cingular to change the data structure of their voice-mail system so iPhone users will be able to pick and choose messages rather than having to listen to all of them in order. If your time is money, that's probably worth the $499 entry price alone. (That price will get you an iPhone with 4 gigs of storage. It's $599 for the heftier 8GB model.)
At Apple events past, journalists were often invited to a room lined with a dozen or two of the products Jobs had just shown onstage, for unscripted hands-on test-drives. This time the iPhone is being kept behind glass. So, I can't tell you whether it'll rock my world or drive me nuts with a fatal flaw akin to my old iMac's noisy fan. I'll have to settle for linking to David Pogue's one-hour test for the New York Times, and note that Pogue, a notorious Apple fan, complained, "Typing is difficult. The letter keys are just pictures on the glass screen, so of course there's no tactile feedback."
You've got close to six months before you can own one, so no rush. My suggestion: If you're tempted by an iPhone, pay attention to how much time you spend typing on your current phone. My Blackberry is my last line of defense against marauding editors, co-workers, and my wife, the speed-thumbed executive. I'm sure an iPhone would be a better Web surfer and music player, but I worry the touchscreen keyboard won't let me type back at everyone fast enough to survive. Also, I've already quit Cingular once; do I really have to sign up with them again? And unless I can install third-party applications, as I do on my Mac, I'll surely get frustrated. I'll have to do a shootout against the real thing in June.
Five hundred miles away in Las Vegas, there are countless more phones, TVs, and other gadgets on display. I picked three that plot the future direction of consumer gadgets as Internet devices.
Sony Bravia Internet Video Link
Available: 2008 Price: Not yet decided Sony's prototype add-on for Bravia flat-panel TV sets—so proto Sony didn't hand out press photos—promises to let viewers download video directly over the Net without a computer in between. In this PC World video from CES, Sony demonstrates a mix of big-name HDTV content and amateur home clips. The drawback: The Bravia link won't play just anything on the Net. It only connects to a Sony service populated with content from partners. The big picture here isn't the Bravia gadget itself. It's that Sony will probably have competition from Comcast, TiVo, and everyone else to merge TV shows, movies, live broadcasts, and YouTube clips into a single feed.
Dell 27-inch widescreen PC display
Available: Now Price: $1,399 Apple showed a new Apple TV gadget that plays iTunes videos and DVDs. But what do you plug it into? Computer monitors make lame TV screens. They have low contrast ratios, and their pixels aren't designed for viewing from the couch—rather, they're packed close together for reading tiny text. Dell's solution: a compromise monitor that takes the 1920x1200-pixel array of its 24-inch PC display and stretches it another 3 inches to a more TV-like size and appearance. Its contrast ratio, at 1000-to-1, is a letdown. That's better than my Mac but still far behind the 10,000-to-1 of a top plasma set. I wouldn't hang this Dell screen on my living room wall, but this display is an indicator that TVs and PCs are becoming more alike than different.
Nokia N800 Internet Tablet
Availability: Now Price: $399.99 Nokia's gadget has been buried by iPhone hype, but tech trend-spotters have jumped on the N800's built-in Skype software. Skype is the program that allows users to plug in a headset and make free phone calls over the Internet. It seems Rube Goldberg-like to use a phone to run a Net application to make phone calls, but the truth is that many calls are already partly routed over the Net behind the scenes. The iPhone still dials over Cingular's voice network, but the Nokia proves phone service is on its way to becoming one more application over a wireless Net connection. Instead of buying minutes, you'll buy a data plan for everything. In at least one way, then, the iPhone is already behind the times.