What to look for this year at the REAL "Biggest Show on Earth" - 01/07/2012

The biggest spectacle in the tech industry kicks off Sunday evening, when an estimated 150,000 people will flood into Las Vegas not to place a wager on Monday night’s national championship game between LSU and Alabama (I’m taking LSU +1) but to gear up for the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show. Next week’s show will set expectations for 2012: can anyone catch the iPad? Are Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) and Nokia (NYSE: NOK) capable of providing the third leg of the mobile operating system stool? And are we finally ready to embrace Internet TVs en masse? Here’s a look what we expect will be the major themes of the week:

Android Tablets, Take 3: A year after several Android tablets which appeared to be strong contenders against Apple’s iPad were introduced at CES, expect the hype to be much more subdued following the dismal year suffered by Android tablet makers. Several companies will likely showcase tablets based on Google’s Android 4.0 software, which unifies the smartphone and tablet versions in one operating system. But it’s the success of other takes on Android, such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire, that will have the mobile folks wondering how committed Android tablet makers are to Google’s vision.

SEE ALSO: Android Tablets, Take Two: All Eyes On PC Vendors, Retail Partners, Amazon

WinNok: Nokia hasn’t had much success selling its wares in the U.S., but it will likely make a splash next week with new Windows Phone 7 phones designed for U.S. networks, such as AT&T (NYSE: T). T-Mobile’s version of the Lumia 710 will start shipping on Wednesday, and Bloomberg reported Friday that it will introduce a version for AT&T’s 4G LTE network at the show.

Despite app fatigue, there’s a sense that the mobile market can accommodate a third mobile operating system that would replace the declining BlackBerry brand. Microsoft and Nokia are perhaps best positioned to do so, but will have to generate demand beyond bribing carrier sales people to recommend Windows Phone 7 handsets.

Internet In The TV: Heard this one before? Google (NSDQ: GOOG) TV hasn’t exactly made a splash, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) continues to slow-play its television hand, and a host of other companies haven’t really succeeded in marrying Internet content to the television. However, this is going to happen one of the these days, and so expect to hear a whole new round of reasons why Vendor X’s approach to this market will win.

With so much money invested to this point, the TV industry also can’t ignore an opportunity to promote 3D television. Toshiba will introduce a 3D television that doesn’t require glasses, according to CNET, although if it’s as expensive as versions that sell in Europe and Asia, don’t hold your breath.

Ultrabook: NetBook 2.0: The venerable PC industry would love to steal back some of the thunder from Apple and the mobile companies, and led by Grandpa Intel (NSDQ: INTC) they’ll be promoting Ultrabooks left and right during the show. They’ll conveniently ignore that the Ultrabook is basically just a Windows take on the MacBook Air and promote the virtues of mobility.

All jokes aside, this is a smart idea: make affordable notebook-style PCs that have more horsepower than netbook without weighing as much as much as traditional notebooks. People are enamored with smartphones and tablets but only a brave few have taken the talk of "post-PC era” literally enough to ditch their personal computers, and Windows 8 seems like it will take more than a few cues from mobile design principles focused on simplicity.

End of an era?: CES has come to represent the best and worst of the tech industry in the years since the demise of Comdex and the rise of the "consumerization of IT,” a shift where consumers, not executives in Fortune 500 tech departments, became the people who drove industry trends. It brings an industry together for the types of invaluable personal meetings that are harder and harder to schedule each year, but is usually long on style and short on substance: Samsung used an extremely valuable evening keynote slot last year to put on some sort of weird furry convention, and the celebrity list this year includes Justin Bieber and Snooki.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will deliver his company’s last CES keynote show this year, ending a years-long tradition in which Microsoft has kicked off the festivities. CES is simply too big at the moment to go downhill all that quickly, but the 2012 edition could be a high-water mark.

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