Image: A Motorola Xoom tablet is displayed during the first day of the 2011 International CES in Las Vegas
Steve Marcus  /  Reuters
A Motorola Xoom tablet is displayed during the first day of the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada January 6, 2011.
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By Wilson Rothman
msnbc.com
updated 1/10/2011 2:26:58 PM ET 2011-01-10T19:26:58

The economic woes and innovation sparseness that brought a pall to the Consumer Electronics Show in 2009 and 2010 seemed to have been forgotten, and overall there was a more upbeat spirit in Vegas this month. Tech companies actually had something to talk about that meant something to consumers, after years trying to drum up excitement for products that nobody really cares about.

Ironically, they have Apple — a company that never attends CES — to thank for this.

At the show, everyone from Asus to Panasonic shared their tablet dreams. This is real. It's not something impossibly thin, or impossibly expensive to make. It's not 3-D, which will soon be a standard feature on heavily marked down TVs, or a me-too product like an e-reader that doesn't benefit from individual manufacturer's design tweaks. It's a new device, one that we want, and one that we'll buy. For this reason, even the goofiest tablets spotted on the CES show floor represented part of something genuine, even if they never sell.

Smart TV was the other hit of the show. Instead of visual tricks or insane thinness, you get a TV that’s connected to the Internet and runs apps, just like your phone, but geared toward a home, high-definition experience. Make sense? You know it does.

The previous years have been a lot messier. After Blu-ray won the shiny movie disc format war, excitement as it was centered around OLED TVs, which never made it to market, and wafer-thin LCDs, which proved too expensive to matter. Last year everyone had e-ink readers, but most never came to market, since there’s not a lot to differentiate them from the Kindle, and it’s basically impossible to sell them cheaper than Amazon can. The latest hype monster, 3-D, suffered from its own self-importance: It still has yet to prove itself as something people want in their home.

Tablet fever
No one can deny that Apple is the cause for the tablet hullabaloo. The iPad surprised people as much as the iPhone did, and the forces of opposition took a time out to observe it. At CES 2011, they readied their response.

Some, such as Microsoft, denied the usefulness of a tablet a la iPad. Nevertheless wanted to get in on the tablet buzz. "People still want a full-fledged computer," goes the Redmond argument, despite the evidence to the contrary. So Microsoft used CES to state, officially, that it would not be launching Windows Phone 7-based tablets, but would be sharing a touch-tablet friendly version of Windows with hardware partners. This ostensibly enables them to build ultra-thin tablets with long battery life that run full-blown Windows. It meant Microsoft would sit out of the tablet war for another year, but it was tablet news. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Google, of course, did the opposite. Along with launch partner Motorola, Google previewed the soon-to-launch Honeycomb operating system, a super-sized version of Android with finger-friendly versions of key Google apps. Honeycomb tablets, starting with the Motorola Xoom and the LG G-Slate, will be the first real competition to the iPad. They'll even have certain one-up features — 4G connectivity, dual cameras — that force Apple to get cracking on that iPad 2.

Smart TV: Smarter than 3-D
Smart TV, as envisioned by Samsung and LG, among others, was another big winner. People don't care much about 3-D, but they do care more and more about connecting their TVs to the Internet, for streaming video, social networking, online photos and more. It's not a fluke that, according to Samsung, the growth curve for smart TV is greater than the growth curve for 3-D TV — by about 50 percent next year — and probably more the following year.

Although Apple is a participant in this category, too, it's worth noting that even Apple had to try a second time to get this right, and still hasn't hit a home run. Nevertheless, the Apple TV model is one that companies are using, both software and hardware. Not surprisingly, it was the Korean TV giants who rolled out the biggest app platforms, including games, broadcaster showcases, social networking and more. (LG even has a little black box that is all too reminiscent of Apple's.) Since the apps are free, you don't really have to feel bound to the platform, like iPhone users do. It was a great move for Samsung and LG, and should make even Apple work a little harder. After all, we have yet to see the long-rumored app-equipped Apple TV.

Soon, every TV will have a bevy of Internet options, and apps that you can select and configure. You and your friend can each buy the same model TV, but they will work very differently, and you'll both be happier for it. Apple TV aside, there are other current products that do this, my favorite being Roku . These smaller companies will probably get hurt by this, as LG is promising to sell a small black box that will go right for the Roku market: Smart TV apps and streaming video via Wi-Fi.

There were plenty of recurring themes at CES 2011 — smarter cars, tighter data security, cheaper cameras and weirder robots among them — all of which help to make this show as diverse and fascinating as it is. But even if a lot of what's on display is vaporous, to some extent, it's great to know that at least some of it will solidify into objects for sale that people actually want.

CES highlights:
Automated two-wheeler aims to be the car of the future
Testing a hard drive, with a shotgun
Meet Sphero, the robotic ball controlled by iPhone
A robot lover's robot (iPad not included)
Pixeloptics glasses electronically adjust to your eyes
Avatar Kinect will be a very fancy chat room
LG dual-camera Hom-Bot makes Roomba look like a chump
Motorola demonstrates Atrix smart phone laptop dock 

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman, or join in the conversation at the Technolog Facebook page.

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