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Not About the Expo: Does Anyone Remember CES?

Over the past week, you may have read a number of stories covering the latest Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. But did any single product or concept truly stand out? Think about it.

Sure, Bill Gates made his swan song appearance, but did he present any real promises about future Microsoft developments — real or imagined? At least he didn’t bore us with that combined coffee table/touchscreen PC called Surface that was touted last year. Has that dreadful thing even gone on sale yet?

And who would buy one anyway? An interior decorator? Give me a break!

One news source made an attempt to judge Gates’ predictions of the past decade against reality and found him to be a poor prophet when it comes to envisioning new technology, even from his own company. But that revelation came too little and too late to do any good. If they knew that in the 1990s, Microsoft’s shell game might have been exposed long before they did any real damage to rivals, such as Netscape and even Apple.

But what’s most telling is that it seems the larger amount of news last week was not so much about new technologies on display at CES as about what Apple might reveal this week.

Now the sponsors of CES did learn one thing last year, and that was that holding their event during the same week as Macworld Expo would make it almost invisible. Most people remember just one major product announcement from a year ago, and that’s the iPhone.

This year’s CES featured introductions of larger and cheaper flat-panel TVs, inklings that the high definition war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD might soon be over, and a lot of lesser developments. But none of that will be remembered for very long.

You know that there will be minor 2008 upgrades to 2007 consumer electronics gear, but most of that’s for show. Few compelling new features will be in evidence. Sure, you might find some fancy-sounding monikers for various and sundry features that are supposed to improve on existing technology in some fashion, but, in the end, most of that is probably just marketing talk. In the real world, the differences aren’t apt to be significant.

As I said in yesterday’s commentary, the technology industry seems to have grown more and more dependent on what Apple is developing. In the wake of the fast uptake of the iPhone, other wireless carriers are pushing their own touchscreen-powered products. No doubt, when you go into one of their stores, some sales droid will tell you, “See, it’s just like the iPhone,” but it’s not. Having a few matching features, or a few the iPhone doesn’t have, doesn’t necessarily made the imitation better than the original, or even as good.

Apple’s expertise is in integrating all these features so they work seamlessly, not piling them on in order to look good as a bullet point in a presentation or on a spec sheet. One example is the new LG Voyager, a $299.99 iPhone knock-off offered by Verizon Wireless. Is it worth $100 less than the iPhone with the requisite two-year contract? Well, consider that, to dock with a PC and share files, you still need to buy the extra cost microSD card.

So, for the sake of argument, what does an 8GB microSD Flash card cost? Well, they really aren’t easy to come by. I saw one for roughly $140, but it was out of stock. 6GB memory is approximately $90, although you might save a little if you shop around.

So the LG Voyager becomes even less of a bargain, and I haven’t even begun to talk about its actual interface and what advantages and disadvantages it might offer in real world use.

However, you can see where I’m heading. At one time, CES was the harbinger of key technologies in the consumer electronics industry. Nowadays, other than minor product improvements, or showcasing a handful of product prototypes that may never see the light of day, the entire event seems to serve as the poor handmaiden to Apple.

What to know what’ll happen next year at CES? Check Macworld Expo this week for some very significant clues.