Apple's ghost hangs over CES

@CNNMoneyTech January 13, 2012: 12:32 PM ET
Accessory maker iLuv drew crowds at CES to its Apple store-like showcase of iEverything add-ons.

Accessory maker iLuv drew CES crowds to its Apple store-like showcase of iEverything add-ons.

LAS VEGAS (CNNMoney) -- The world's most influential gadget company famously shuns the annual Consumer Electronics Show extravaganza. Apple gives no keynotes, has no flashy booth, launches no products and doesn't officially attend. But as ever, it's the star around which thousands of other companies orbit.

One entire wing of this year's show, the 80,000-square-foot iLounge, is devoted to showcasing add-ons for Apple's iGizmo universe. Exhibit space there sold out in record time: two hours.

More than 350 vendors are packed into the iLounge zone, and hundreds more throughout the show play primarily or exclusively in the Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) ecosystem. There's the obvious add-ons -- cases, docks, speakers and apps -- but there's also a growing wave of wholly new tools and toys powered by Apple's constellation of gadgets.

Take the iGrill. It's the debut product from iDevices, an eight-person startup in Canton, Conn. Would you like to use your iPhone as a meat thermometer? Company founder Chris Allen wanted to. Seven months after coming up with the idea, he had a production-ready appliance that's now available in Apple's retail stores.

IDevices came to CES to tout the newest addition to its lineup: iShower. The waterproof $100 gadget, slated for a March release, lets you stream music from any Bluetooth-connected device located within 200 feet. "Water damage is the number-one return reason at Apple," according to iDevices chief financial officer Jonathan Conelias.

Awesome unreleased gadgets at CES

IDevices is rapidly expanding its own lineup -- it's planning at least two or three more product launches in 2012 -- but it's also working with a range of outside manufactures to "i-enable" their devices. "We're getting a lot of requests," Conelias says. "Everyone has ideas they want to explore."

My vote for "most creative Apple add-on" goes to OhMiBod, a New Hampshire-based startup that takes iPod love to the extreme. Literally. The company's 99-cent app and integrated, um, "personal massage" devices let users coordinate the vibe from any iOS device. Want to sync the beat to your favorite playlist? No problem.

"I gave my wife an iPod and a vibrator one year for Christmas. She said, 'Two best stocking stuffers ever!,'" company co-founder Brian Dunham explains. "So we saw a clear market need. Combine them."

The Dunhams were uniquely positioned to do it: Brian's wife Suki spent a decade with Apple as a marketing executive. Launched in 2007, OhMiBod has caught on in the club scene and recently debuted a custom line with "Real Housewives of Atlanta" cast member Kandi Burruss.

The reaction OhMiBod drew from CES attendees was a hoot. "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh," one murmured as he wandered up to the booth and, seconds later, made a quick getaway.

So, I'm assuming we won't be seeing this in Apple's retail stores any time soon ...

"We actually design our products so they could one day be," Dunham says, pointing out the minimalist and discreet packaging. "I mean, we know it won't happen, but we want to redefine a market that has a social stigma attached to it."

It's not that Apple is the only manufacturer able to inspire the gadget world. LG caused traffic jams at the show floor's entrance with its massive 3-D image wall. (When a digital soccer ball came flying, dozens of people ducked and flinched.) Intel's (INTC, Fortune 500) ultrabook demo zone drew crowds of test-drivers, and Samsung's gadget-packed brand temple -- the size of a city block -- was perpetually packed.

But Apple's ability to unleash a new device and invent an entirely new market in its wake is still unmatched. While CES delivered a fleet of new TVs, the one drawing the most buzz -- Apple's mythical and unconfirmed iTV -- doesn't even exist yet.

Can Apple finally make the "television plus streaming media plus devices" connection simple and intuitive?

Let's hope so. It'll give CES 2013 a much-needed blast of innovation -- even if Apple remains conspicuously absent. To top of page

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