CES: Apple’s Huge Role and Invisible Presence

Apple is the elephant in the convention center here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Apple has zero official presence at CES but the specter of Steve Jobs shadow looms large over every single bit of activity at the annual tech convention. While the company’s execs remain in Cupertino, waiting for Jobs to make his black turtlenecked announcements on his own time, Apple’s reach and influence at CES has never been larger.

Apple iPad
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Apple iPad

Apple plays two key roles at CES.

First, it is the standard-bearer: the maker of the tablet to defeat. Every new tablet to be introduced by Panasonic, Motorola or Microsoft , every demo of Google’s Android or Honeycomb technology on a large glossy screen faces direct (and harsh) comparison to Apple’s iPad.

When the electronics-makers at the show talk of Google’s upcoming new Honeycomb operating system, we can expect investors and show attendees to start rumbling about Apple’s second generation device, which is expected to debut in April.

The same holds true, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, for the iPhone and Apple TV.

While Google Android-powered phones from Motorola, HTC, and Samsung celebrated blockbuster sales last year, the iPhone is still considered the aesthetic ideal.

AppleTV is slowly but surely gaining traction as a viable way to watch web video on your TV. This stands in stark contrast to GoogleTV, which is still living down the disappointment of its limited content deals. GoogleTV will not have an official presence at CES this year, which means the set top box makers and connected TV proponents will be looking at Apple (and Netflix ) as their competition — not Google.

CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report
CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report

Second, Apple gadgets will be in nearly every corner of CES – in booths like NBC Universal’s (both NBC Universal and CNBC are owned by parent company General Electric) to demo new services and streaming video. Any tech exhibitor that doesn’t make its own tablet is likely to use Apple’s. For what? The iPad can be programmed to be a remote control for a giant new flatscreen to an interactive map for the various demos at the booth.

Plus, thousands — if not tens of thousands — of iPads are sure to be floating from booth to booth. Journalists will use them to take notes and entrepreneurs will whip them out for investors to outline business plans. These things will be littering the show floor – just wait for the roar of complaints about how bad AT&T reception is in the convention center.

Look for CNBC's in-depth coverage of CES 2011 online and on-air. Julia Boorstin will report from the show beginning today and Maria Bartiromo will anchor "Closing Bell" from CES on Thursday and Friday, January 6 and 7, 3-5pm ET.

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