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Surprise! CES Matters Again

An Eversense electronic thermostat by Allure Energy. The electronic energy management system allows a user to control the a home environment using a smartphone.
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An Eversense electronic thermostat by Allure Energy. The electronic energy management system allows a user to control the a home environment using a smartphone.

Lots of tech cynics (a category that often includes me) will tell you this year's Consumer Electronics Show is a waste of time.

Guess what? They're wrong.

It's not that there's some jaw-dropping big-company product launch. It's mostly ginormous TVs and streaming video boxes and a flood of gadgets from ambitious little companies. The big announcements this year are pretty predictable: Apple's newest iPhone and iPad, Samsung and Google's next smartphones and tablets, and Amazon ... well, if they come out with a phone that's a pretty big deal.

The reason CES is important again this year: The smartphone revolution has brought us to a pivotal moment in the post-PC era.

It's that moment when a lot of dumb gadgets are getting smart. I'm talking home security gadgets, laundry machines, bathroom scales. Not only do they connect to the Internet -- many of these gadgets have done that for a while -- but they're also starting to do it in a way that actually makes practical sense.

A few things are driving this:

One, smartphone apps can make it easier to quickly connect and interact with gadgets and appliances because apps are speedier than the web.

Two, accessories like webcams and remote control robots can now go mobile with a Bluetooth or WiFi connection to a phone.

Three, wireless radios have gotten cheap enough that manufacturers can build them into more devices -- making setup even easier. For example, some of the newest wireless home security systems have door and window sensors that operate on the cell phone network, so you can get a smartphone alert within seconds if a door opens unexpectedly, or if your teenager misses curfew.

So we're in an odd phase of the tech cycle that's something like the Hobbesian State of Nature for gadgets -- most of the ideas we see here will have lives that are nasty, brutish and short. But a few concepts will survive and define the next era of computing -- one where accessories get their smarts from their connections to smartphones, wireless networks, and the cloud, not from PCs.

That's why CES matters this year. We might not see the next big thing -- but it's the beginning of an era.

CES 2013 Videos

  • Rocco Pendola, TheStreet.com, weighs in on whether it is time for Apple to drop Best Buy, and why it may not be in the tech giant's best interest to produce cheaper versions of its products.

  • CNBC's Mary Thompson reports American Express is cutting 5,400 jobs; and Dan Ackerman, CNET senior editor, discusses some of the hottest items at the Consumer Electronic Show this year.

  • CNBC's Jon Fortt is at CES in Las Vegas, where he interviews John Aden, executive vp of general merchandise for Wal-Mart. Aden talks about what he finds interesting and what is lacking on the show floor.