Convertible PCs weren't entirely new then, but Dell's XPS 11 was novel enough to stir media attention at the world's second-biggest tech show.
At this week's 2014 show, Dell -- along with hundreds of others -- were displaying the same sort of two-in-one or even three-in-one PCs. None, however, are creating the same sort of buzz.
"To be very honest, there's not much breakthrough this year in terms of innovation," says Avril Wu, an assistant vice president with information-technology market research firm TrendForce in Taipei. "For the PC right now, it's in the very end of the product life cycle."
Exhibitors at the computer show -- second-largest behind CeBIT in Germany -- are trying to grab about 38,000 visitors this week by playing up perks as minor as a VGA graphics port on a new tablet that works in other ways like every other one on the market.
Some exhibitors say they couldn't compete for mainstream consumers and instead chased wealthy niche markets such as gamers or the medical industry.
This year's show lacks IT milestones such as a new Microsoft (MSFT) operating system or a new line of Intel (INTC) processors, which could herald new product lines and reshuffle PC developer market shares.
Financial losses dog much of the industry.
Acer -- the world's fourth-largest computer maker -- lost money most of last year on a quarterly basis as it tried to shift its longstanding traditional PC business to handhelds.
Intel has struggled to make money on mobile device processors.
Today's conditions favor brands already ranking high on market share charts -- namely Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Lenovo (LNVGY). All they have to do is pump stuff out and keep up their marketing.
"Their brand awareness is already dominating," Wu says of these three companies. "They are enjoying the upside of the demand."
Demand is growing despite the moribund technology. Laptop and desktop sales should slowly rebound this year after a long downturn, market research shows, because Microsoft has said will quit supporting Windows XP, nudging about 650 million PC users to consider Windows 7 or 8 machines.
Tablet sales will grow 19.4% this year, market research firm IDC says, more than doubling the number of companies showing them.
The only trick is to pile all that into one device.
"You have to think about everything you do, not just 'oh, it's a tablet,' That's where it gets silly. It's actually about the way you think of the entire ecosystem," Dell tablet group Vice President Neil Hand said.
Gigabyte Technology flashed its own two- and three-in-ones but has almost given up trying to vie with the likes of Dell. The Taiwanese developer is going mainly after gamers with fast, sharp-resolution laptops.
Gamers make up 1%-2% of the market but their ranks are growing and they pay up to $2,899 per machine, Gigabyte product manager Jone Chang notes.
About 60 exhibitors showed wearable devices, mainly for athletes who already use tablets or smartphones. Wearable technology lacks must-have apps, long battery life and fashionable looks, analysts say, but the pressure is on to make a name in case the world wearable market reaches research firm IDC's forecast of 112 million devices shipped per year by 2018.
Just six exhibitors showed wearables at last year's show.
"I always say it's not a race, it's a marathon," says Manuel Linnig, spokesman for Acer in Europe, as he showed a smart armband, a smartphone with three SIM card holders and an ultrabook resembling the MacBook Air. They will sell separately, not as a three-in-one. Will that change?
"Any company change is not going to happen in two months," Linnig says. "But as long as you're running you're still in the marathon."
At the time of publication, the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.
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