Jan. 4, 2011 at 1:00 PM ET
When was the last time you referred to your computer as a "486-DX66"? When was the last time that you even thought about what microprocessor was beating at the heart of your PC/laptop/phone/game?
Computer processing has leaped so far so fast that sometime in the past decade it became commodified. Consumers no longer pay attention to what's inside their devices because just about any computer they can buy is guaranteed to be far more powerful than they probably need for everyday browsing, storage and media.
This is odd if you stop to consider it. Think of it in terms of cars: Sure, there are gearheads who obsess over things like fuel injectors and cubic capacity, but normal humans just pick a general category and trust that whatever they buy has the appropriate engine for their needs and it will get them from Point A to Point B with the greatest efficiency.
What determines buying decisions are the personal choices drivers make that are peripheral to actual driving. You might be raising a family in the suburbs, so you buy an SUV with a DVD system to keep the kids occupied. Or maybe you're single and looking, so a sporty convertible is more your speed, or you want to save the world, so you seek out a hybrid or even an electric car with no air-conditioning. If you're like most people, you're not interested in a turbocharged racing car to get you to the grocery story,
It doesn't work that way with computers, which mostly come in two racing classes that all look alike, like Formula 1 (desktops) and NASCAR (mobile computers). The odds are you're computing on the equivalent of a Ferrari when all you really need is a nicely detailed Honda.
That's inefficient, which is why it's so encouraging that if you're browsing previews of this week's 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, you're probably reading a lot about old-fashioned computer guts: processors and screens and inputs and size.
You can thank Apple for that. When it introduced the iPad a year ago, Apple shocked the palsied tablet market back to life, reminding people that when it's done right, a hardware form can be just as vital as a software function. It's gets you online and plays your music, sure, but it's also a neat black slab with a beautiful screen that you run with your fingertips. It's useful, but it's really cool in and of itself.
That's why convention-goers will be walking through the CES halls this week like Michael Jackson in the "Billie Jean" video, unable to move without stepping on some lighted, beeping slab. Tablet computers will be everywhere, and they'll be differentiated as much by their form — 7-inch screen or 10-inch? Oak Trail, Tegra or Snapdragon processor? HDMI out? — as by their function.
Under the hood, their all pretty much the same. The differentiator is what you want to do with them, which determines what hardware you end up buying.
This is true even of e-readers like Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook — they're full Linux-based handheld computers that do everything the other tablets do if you know how to tweak them. They're just not marketed that way, because the market has shown that millions of people want a simple box to store and present their books. It's a hardware choice on the part of both builder and buyer.
If you're most interested in listening to music and playing movies, the iPad is probably for you, and you get what Apple decides. But if you're more of an on-the-road worker, dozens of smartphones and tablets run Google's Android OS — seamlessly integrated with its cloud-based services, like GMail and Docs — and you get to decide what your device looks like and how you use it, because they're almost infinitely customizable.
Do you like small, cool touchscreen devices? There are plenty to choose from. If productivity is your thing, there are nearly as many with real keyboards — qwerty, Dvorak or roll-your-own.
A caution about Android tablets: All of them now on the market run earlier, less-powerful versions of Android meant for smartphones. They're not supported by Google, which doesn't let most of them — except a few like Samsung's three-quarters-baked Galaxy Tab — install GMail or the Android Market, which is how you add new applications. You're better off waiting for soon-to-come tablets running Android 3.0, which Google is expected to fully optimize for tablets.
But we're talking about personally customized tablet hardware here, and of you can't wait a few months, the other OS makers have you covered.
Microsoft is here pushing hardware: Windows 7-powered tablets from major manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard and Asus. The advantage is they're tablets running Windows. The disadvantage is they're tablets running Windows. You get to make the call.
Microsoft is also expected to announce that whatever follows Windows 7 will work on ARM processors — the ones that are in the vast majority of mobile phones — which should make the experience seem even less cobbled together. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC News.)
Palm partisans should have a variety of WebOS devices in the pipeline, which could will be formally announced this week. They cover the middle ground between the clean, chef's-choice intuitiveness of the iPad and the sprawling buffet of Android tablets. There will even be a BlackBerry tablet, the PlayBook, for hard-core corporate types.
And all the major phone carriers are rolling out next-generation superfast 4G/LTE networks to make them seem even more like a miniature laptop in your pocket.
It's very different from what happened with netbooks. The miniature notebooks were extremely popular, but consumers never made a personal connection to them because Intel imposed rigid specifications to meet its battery life goals. New netbooks are still being churned out, but they're essentially identical commodities — you've probably never had anyone stop you in the middle of a document to coo over your Eee netbook — and there's zero buzz about them at CES.
Google, the supposedly hardware-neutral cloud king, has figured this out, and that's why even it is branching out into old-fashioned metal and plastic. It has designed and distributed its own notebook computer to beta-test its Chrome OS operating system, which many analysts expect to be an intermediate step on the way to a full device-neutral platform merged with Android. You would have identical experiences on your desktop at work, the notebook in your bag and the phone in your pocket, experiences you would be able to personalize limited only by what you can dream up to do in the browser.
Last month, Google bought the New York City Port Authority Building, where it had been leasing space for its New York headquarters. One of the reasons was that the building sits on top of Manhattan's nexus of underground fiber-optic cables, making it one of the most important telecommunications centers in the United States.
At $1.7 billion to $1.9 billion — estimates vary — it was the biggest real estate deal in America last year. Now, that's hardware.