Anti-Apple brigade readies group therapy session

January 5, 2011

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The anti-Apple brigade is ready for its next group therapy session. The Consumer Electronics Show, the giant annual tech confab, kicks off on Thursday, when some 125,000 gadget-heads will descend on Las Vegas. Yet again, none of Apple’s hipster crew will attend. Their absence will be more acutely felt than ever, as rivals strain to show off answers to the iPad. Expect plenty of happy talk, defensive posturing and denial but not much in the way of consumer validation.

The Mac and later the iPod helped establish a clear divide with the rest of gizmoland. But it wasn’t until 2007 that Apple truly eclipsed CES. Boss Steve Jobs stole the show remotely by unveiling the iPhone at a rival event. Meanwhile, the CES best-of-show award that year went to a now nearly useless combination HD-DVD/Blu-ray player.

The stark and humiliating contrast served notice to Apple competitors. But their attempts to compete head-on continue to be derivative and dorky, at best. The top prize at CES 2009 was the Palm Pre, a phone that never caught on from a company that no longer exists. Other big pushes, such as last year’s 3D TV hoopla, increasingly look like a depressing journey into groupthink.

There won’t be much catharsis this year either. Apple sold about 15 million iPads in 2010, making it the fastest growing consumer electronics good ever. Nearly all of the big gadgeteers in attendance will unveil rival tablet devices. Many will run on a version of Google’s Android operating system due out later this year. They have a fighting chance, considering Android-powered smartphones are catching on.

But Apple was hobbled in its phone fight by an exclusive and unpopular AT&T deal. That’s not the case with the iPad. Furthermore, when it comes to electronic playthings, established winners usually retain most of the spoils. These tablet-come-latelys will struggle for market share. Apple is nearly ready to sell its second-generation iPad.

So while Apple won’t be at CES, it will still loom large as attendees try to work out their Malus domestica phobia. It will probably require more sessions on the couch, though.

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Interesting strategy for Apple not to appear; they effectively become the “elephant in the room” and wind up with an arguably greater presence – without investing a dime.

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