This is not a column about Facebook or any of the other over-hyped, time-wasting social engineering networks. Nor is this column about lasers or optoelectronics. You can look elsewhere in this magazine or on the web site for such information. Instead, this is a column that takes a mildly jaundiced look at some recent developments in the world of consumer electronics, as exhibited at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Hopefully, this will guide your potential future purchases.
First, let us consider the recent explosions in the world of "tablets." By tablet, I mean the computer variety, notably the Apple iPad, and not the medically dispensed variety. The tablet is your door of entry to the Brave New World of cloud computing. If you have no idea what I am talking about, then you are clearly a loser. Do a Google search on cloud computing. Don't even think of purchasing a tablet until you have spent some quality time figuring out whether cloud computing is for you.
The newer tablets can be distinguished from the more venerable electronic book readers, such as Amazon's Kindle, in that the readers offer only one usable application. To show that we are au fait with applications for both tablets and e-readers, we will call these programming nuggets "apps." The e-reader app reads books, magazines, newspapers, and the like, and displays the text in a form acceptable to the viewer. In my view, the e-reader is doomed to economic failure within a year or two.
Tablet apps, on the other hand, will allow the display of a broad range of graphic results that should permit the user to read and send e-mail, read books, play electronic games, browse the Internet, and a whole host of more or less desirable activities. In about the same timeframe as the life of the e-reader, the tablet and/or its tiny sibling, the smart phone, will kill desktop computers and the laptop PC as we know them today.
If you haven't already done so, buy a cheap smart phone today. Your choice is between Apple's iPhone and the rest of the field based on Google's Android software. This is an extremely competitive arena where the technology will be fixed for the next few years, while the software will change rapidly. However, you will be able to do software upgrades tomorrow with today's hardware technology. The choice of smart phone is up to you.
You can safely put off a tablet purchase for about a year. There will be minor changes to tablet technology and possibly significant software changes during this time. If you must have a tablet, then buy the cheapest model. Or you can buy a used model on eBay or Craigslist. Caveat emptor if you decide to go the Craigslist route, though.
The other major ballyhooed area at the Consumer Electronics Show was Internet-enabled TV sets. In my view, these TV sets are simply not ready for prime time. The user interfaces are crude and slow at best. It is going to take an Apple or a Microsoft to develop an appropriate technology pricing model for the Web.
On the hardware side, the Kinect extension for the Xbox has the most potential. Kinect "recognizes" its users and responds appropriately. You can buy a Kinect from Amazon for less than $150. Then all you need do is wave your hands at the TV screen to be in total command.
While I am on the TV topic, I will just note that 3D TV is definitely not ready for prime time, either. Until someone solves the problem of glassless 3D and the expensive video-on-demand distribution problem, then 3D TV is going to be a very late starter. Another major problem is economics. Set-top boxes are already expensive and the additional cost of 3D-ready sets will limit their market growth.