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Top 5 Things I Learned at CES 2012

LAS VEGAS -- CES 2012 was an historic show for multiple reasons. It marked Steve Ballmer's last keynote address as Microsoft shifts gears to produce its own press events. And it marked a new beginning for Windows Phone, with the chief executive officers of Microsoft, Nokia and AT&T sharing the stage to promote the Lumia 900, a critical product for turning the Android-iOS standoff into a three-horse race. Ultrabooks were the buzz word of the show, though, with nearly every PC manufacturer — and even one TV maker — announcing one. After meeting with dozens of companies, seeing a plethora of gadgets and apps and hosting a session on the future of tablets, I came away with five key lessons.

5. Ultrabooks Are Here to Stay … Until Hybrids

From the glass-covered HP Envy 14 Spectre to the head-turning MagicFlip door on the Acer Aspire S5, Ultrabooks were the talk of CES 2012. In the short term, driving down prices on these slim, light and fast-resuming machines will be the big trend. We'll also see experimentation with different sizes. (My fave was the Series 9 15-inch.) But Lenovo showed where the category is going with its IdeaPad Yoga. The device morphs from notebook to tablet with a patented dual-hinge design, making it a good showcase design for Windows 8. Sony showed a variation on this theme with its VAIO Hybrid concept, which adds pen input. Android tablets with keyboard docks announced at CES, such as the new ASUS Eee Pad Transformer TF700T and Lenovo IdeaPad S2 10, show that the hybrid trend will accelerate into next year.

4. Intel Is Playing for Keeps in Mobile

It seems that every year Intel reveals a nice-looking prototype phone using a promising new chip, only for it never to see the light of day (see LG Intel GW990). This is also the same company that promised 35 Atom-powered tablets last year (many of them running Android). Cough. But this year's CES was different. The company's low-power but very capable Medfield processor will find a home in the Lenovo K800 Android phone in China. More impressive, Intel and Motorola — you know, the company Google almost owns — have struck a multiyear deal for Android devices. Meanwhile, a separate Clovertrail chip for tablets will start showing up in Windows 8 and Android tablets by the end of the year. In other words, the arms race with ARM is finally getting interesting.

3. Embracing the Cloud Isn't Easy

After Acer announced its AcerCloud service at its CES press conference, some mistakenly labeled it an iCloud knock-off. As it turns out, it's actually quite different. Although you can upload content from your mobile device to your PC over the web, the laptop essentially doubles as a smart server. It's a unique approach, and Acer argues it's cost-effective because you're only limited by the storage on your computer. Plus, unlike iCloud, AcerCloud works across Windows and Android. The challenge for Acer and other hardware makers is to more clearly communicate what makes their solutions different or better.

2. Ice Cream Sandwich Won't Solve Android Fragmentation

During Nvidia's press conference, CEO Jen-Hsun Huang made a pretty bold statement by admitting that his company played a role in fragmenting Android when the first wave of Tegra-powered Honeycomb tablets debuted. However, he and many other executives at CES professed that Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich would help unify the platform, making things easier on application developers. That argument is only partially true. While tablets such as the upcoming ASUS Eee Pad MeMO 370T could be a boon for the platform -- quad-core power for just $249 -- Amazon and Barnes & Noble continue to completely hide Android's interface. Worse, I saw a number of very low-cost Android 4.0 tablets with lower screen resolutions than mid-range phones. Is that progress?

1. Too Many Companies Are Chasing -- Not Challenging -- Apple

Just a few minutes before I got on the plane back to the East Coast, I overheard an executive trying to summarize CES to a colleague. The gist was that he believed that Apple would soon be launching a TV with voice control and that his and other companies needed to act quickly to combat whatever Cupertino was cooking. He was understandably worried about the millions in sales an iTV would snatch away from his market share. But this is exactly the wrong take on Apple, a company that is very deliberate about the innovations it brings to market and how it goes about executing them. I almost wanted to stop him mid-conversation and say, "Don't bother." At least Samsung is thinking about ecosystems with its Galaxy Note, a tablet-phone hybrid that integrates pen input. The company had developers in its booth showing off pen-enabled apps and even caricature artists. Point well-taken.