The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) news deluge has already begun, with approximately 20,000 consumer electronics companies from around the world vying for our attention on the eve of the show. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, which produces CES, the big trends this year are Internet/device integration, app stores, tablets, and 3D—at least three of which are repeats from last year's show. But despite the variety of companies on hand, including some truly major players, the single most important consumer electronics company on Earth isn't at CES, as usual. And as usual, that company could derail the whole thing with just a single product announcement.
Whether an Apple announcement comes is currently a mystery. But Apple has silenced the noise from CES more than once in the past. In 2004, HP's then-CEO Carly Fiorina announced that her company would sell a specially branded version of Apple's ubiquitous iPod, overshadowing all other announcements at the show. (HP's deal with Apple subsequently fell apart when it became obvious that Apple had out-negotiated Fiorina, and the product was discontinued a year later. Not coincidentally, Fiorina was also discontinued: She was ousted as HP's CEO in early 2005.)
Apple announced its industry-changing iPhone in January 2007, coincidentally on the second day of CES. You can assume that every single journalist onsite in Las Vegas was following the iPhone event electronically. But many simply left Las Vegas to attend the Apple announcement in person.
There were new MacBook Pro laptops in 2008, ill-founded rumors of CEO Steve Jobs' pending death in 2009, followed by iTunes Store, MacBook Pro, iLife, and iWork announcements in 2009—all relatively minor compared with the clamor of CES, but all overshadowing the show in one way or another.
Apple's most conspicuous derailing of CES, perhaps, came last year, when rumors of an Apple tablet device had every competitor on earth in a tizzy. Fear of the then-upcoming new Apple product was so rampant that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer infamously spent much of his CES keynote focusing on a supposedly new category of PC-based tablets, none of which actually materialized during 2010 as promised. The most widely acclaimed new product at CES, the Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid notebook, was cancelled a few months later, and this very week Lenovo announced a new version of the U1 with a retooled architecture. As for Apple, it didn't reveal its plans for iPad until weeks after CES, long after it had spoiled the party.
Apple may or may not make a surprise announcement this week in an attempt to steal CES's thunder yet again. (Apple is releasing a beta version of its Mac Apps Store on Thursday.) But the company's product plans hang over the show regardless. There are widespread rumors of a Verizon version of the best-selling iPhone 4. Apple is absolutely planning a second-generation iPad, the only question being one of timing. The company is rumored to be working on a cloud-based or subscription version of its popular iTunes software. And many expect Apple to expand its Apple TV's capabilities with apps and access to more services.
An announcement about any one of these products would instantly relegate CES to the back page, thanks to the media's fascination with Apple and its popularity with consumers. And let's face it, CES could use some help: The last notable technology introduction at the show was Blu-ray, and that came back in 2004. Microsoft's only truly historic CES introduction was its original Xbox. That happened way back in 2001, 10 long years ago.
With all eyes on Las Vegas this week—but all ears pricked for any news out of Cupertino—Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will once again take to the stage tonight for Microsoft's annual keynote address, kicking off CES and, hopefully, reenergizing consumers about the company's chances going forward. Microsoft is widely expected to unveil its plans for a new Windows version at the show, discuss a new generation of tablet devices, reveal its plans for Windows Phone and Kinect momentum, and more.
Will any of it matter? Will Apple overshadow CES yet again?