Report From CES: What’s Hot In Electronics For 2011

As entire tech world returns from the Consumer Electronics Show, David Kirkpatrick reports on what was hot. From iPad rivals, 3-D televisions, these are the devices the pros are buzzing about.

What was most notable about this year's massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was what was missing. And it wasn't only Apple, the industry leader whose elegant devices have come to define quality in both computer and mobile technology. Apple's Steve Jobs is legendary for his disdainful absence from CES, where so many other companies seek vainly to show they can match his product magic. But this year there was a broader absence—because it is no longer "electronics" per se that define or symbolize the state of the art in consumer technology. And the most important electronic device that was present at the show was confined to a corner and mostly unmentioned by the crowds of reporters and analysts who professionally opine on what matters.

What matters most now is software—especially software delivered via the Internet. But Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Foursquare weren't prominent—none of them had a formal booth or presence. Their executives wandered around having meetings, but didn't give keynotes or proclaim new industry directions. Their stuff was frequently shown on various hardware devices proffered by other companies, but software's innovation cycle will never be represented by an annual show. One reason Facebook, Google, and others are so successful at building behaviorally transformative products is beause their evolution is constant. A new idea can be conceived, built, and launched in months, or sometimes even weeks. ‘

The hardware that did make most waves was the hardware that best leveraged software—like HTC's gorgeous new smartphones employing Google's sophisticated Android mobile operating system, or the Samsung PCs and TVs that intelligently convert conventional video into 3-dimensional images in real time, or Lenovo's notebook PC that runs Windows on an Intel chip but whose screen detaches and independently becomes an Android-based tablet with a chip from Qualcomm inside. The coolest thing about this machine (or machines—depending on how you count) is special software developed by Lenovo (working with both Microsoft and Google) that enables media and documents to be moved from the PC to the tablet and back again simply. This device will shortly go on sale in China, where it has the name LePad, but is slated for a U.S. launch later this year. (Lenovo also showed off laptops on which the time it takes to turn on the computer has been radically reduced—from off to full Windows in less than 10 seconds. This is a huge marker of progress for PCs.)

Every company seemed to have some sort of tablet that in some fashion sought to mimic Apple's iconic iPad. At a dinner Friday night that included many major tech journalists, the consensus was generally negative about the entire non-Apple tablet constellation.

3-D TV was hot at the show, and LG and Sony, among others, showed impressive sets that didn't require those awkward glasses—but did require you to stand in one exact spot in order to experience the effect. While this technology will surely be perfected in coming months and years, 3-D TV is unlikely to do much more than provide the next modest growth boost for a relatively unexciting industry. For all the hullabaloo about 3-D at the show, consumers themselves don't seem that impressed, so far.

What holds greater promise: the integration of the Internet with the large home displays we now call televisions.

What holds greater promise is the thorough integration of the software and information of the Internet with the large home displays we now call televisions. About a fifth of all TVs sold last year had 'Net capabilities of some sort, and at CES every manufacturer and scores of partner companies showed variant methods to display and control Internet content on the TV. To manage that 'Net stuff up there, companies showed pads, docks, keyboards and remotes of all sorts—but none that I saw held the promise of making the 'Net in the living room an experience as elegantly satisfying as using an iPad (to set the bar appropriately high). And as usual, most consumer electronics companies were deploying clunky, awkward software interfaces on the screen that undercut the potential of their devices.

Ironically, a solution to this chaos was hiding in plain sight. Microsoft, disregarded and increasingly ignored by an Apple-and-Facebook-obsessed press corps, was letting show-goers play with its hit game product Kinect. This add-on to Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console enables you to play games using only ordinary hand gestures and no remote physical device at all. It just puts a little box and camera next to your TV-connected game machine, and watches you. Microsoft had the consumer electronics smash hit of late 2010 with Kinect, which sold well over $1 billion worth of units in the mere two months between the product's release and the holidays.

Kinect's ability to see what a person is doing with great subtlety is, for me, the obvious solution to the Internet-on-TV control problem. You should be able to just point at the TV screen with your finger, or maybe even your nose, to navigate the Web and applications. In a keynote, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer described how you can already use Kinect and the Xbox to control online video applications from Neflix and Hulu. I predict that by next year's CES, Microsoft will begin finding many ways to extend this revolutionary technology. It is what the world needs for a fundamental revolution in home entertainment control. Kinect is the most elegant non-Apple integration of hardware and software we've seen in years.

I hope in future years CES can find a way to expand its mandate to become more than a stage for flashy but predictable alterations to what already exists. What was most missing from the show was a fundamental acknowledgement of the software-centric innovation that really matters most to consumers.

David Kirkpatrick writes about technology for The Daily Beast. A former Fortune reporter, he is the author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World.