Discovering tablet mobile technology (other than the iPad) at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

I was on the casino floor at a fabulous new hotel in Las Vegas when a diminutive but muscular African-American man in a $4,000 suit smiled at me just as his massive bodyguard shoved me aside, yelling, “Make some room, people.” I thought he was a boxer. Turns out he was 50 Cent and he was in Las Vegas for the same reason as me: the International Consumer Electronics Show, the trade show to end all trade shows.

50 Cent, or Fitty to his friends, was courting the lucrative consumer market for headphones with his own line of product. Fitty and I didn’t have much time to discuss his overview of the show as I was nearly upended by his protector, which was fine, I thought, because headphones were only a small part of the two million square feet of consumer electronics at the trade show being attended by some 130,000 people.

I was there to give BCBusiness readers a view of the latest in tablet computers, the biggest revolution in consumer electronics since the flat-panel TV. I know, the sacrifices I make for you: four days in Vegas with all of the glitz and glamour. Tough job, but someone has to do it.

I walked the massive show floor and counted 23 new tablets, not including those announced but not yet beyond the vapour stage (HP’s unnamed tab and Motorola’s Xoom, for instance). Samsung’s Galaxy tab, already out on the market, is smaller than the iPad and runs on Google’s Android operating system (one of the three dominant operating systems, which include iOS from Apple and BlackBerry’s QNX; Microsoft is playing catch-up with its Windows Phone 7). Sharp showed two tablet versions: one is the size of the Galaxy and the other is bigger than the iPad.

You will note a theme here: it seems all the other tablets are trying hard to not be identical to the iPad, the runaway leader in the category today. Differentiation starts with the size of the screen. Toshiba showed a large tablet behind glass apparently running ­Windows Phone 7, but the company hedged its bet and built an Android version as well.

The Dell Streak is a joke. It is only an inch or two larger than a touch-screen smart phone. I can’t imagine why you would want a smart phone and a slightly bigger smart phone that isn’t really a phone. Dumb. Motorola did have an interesting twist with its Atrix smartphone. You buy a laptop-looking device from them as well as the phone. The laptop-ish device is just a keyboard and a display with a battery inside. You “seat” the Atrix in the back and voila, the “laptop” is running off the phone with a much bigger screen and optimized Android productivity apps. Now that makes sense to a business user. 

The belle of the Apple-less tablet ball though was our good old Canadian technology giant, RIM. The PlayBook tablet it is launching in March in the U.S. and in May in Canada was getting very good reviews. RIM is late to the party, yes, but it built the PlayBook with the business user only in mind. If you don’t own a BlackBerry smart phone, there is no point getting the PlayBook. This sounds market limiting at first blush, but the degree of integration when you “bridge” your phone to the PlayBook via Bluetooth is what sets the tablet apart from all the others I saw. IT departments will love how it stores none of the proprietary business data on the device (saving it back to the phone). In short, the PlayBook is the first tablet I have seen that legitimately threatens the business laptop market. 

I am sure Fitty had a good time at the show and he will make millions on his headphone brand, despite the fact that he missed a chance to chat with me. I left the show dizzy with the prospects and new market opportunities coming with the tablet. Or was I dizzy from a hangover and lack of sleep? Either way, thank you, Vegas. As always, it was eye-opening and entertaining.

Brent Holliday heads the technology practice for Capital West Partners, a Vancouver-based investment bank.