CES: More than Consumer Electronics

Techies of every ilk will head to Vegas in January
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Techies of every ilk will head to Vegas in January

LAS VEGAS

When the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show opens Jan. 8-11, virtual tents will expand over 23 specialized pavilions-ranging from HDTV and home networks to mobile telematics and storage technologies. Video and home theater systems-once among the centerpieces of CES-are now merely high-visibility elements in a digital bazaar that is expected to attract at least 115,000 people, about the same-sized crowd as in 2003, according to the CEA.

The product range, in turn, lures hordes of attendees from beyond CES's original cadre of electronics manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers. Cable TV executives show up-this year in packlike troops organized by CableLabs and CTAM-on the prowl for deals, including ones relating to the plug-and-play agreement that the FCC recently blessed. The cable moguls will also be fleshing out plans for their industry's move into the retail market, as underscored by recent broadband collaborative deals with Office Depot, Best Buy and Staples.

Satellite TV, with its HDTV jump on cable, is also high on CES's agenda. The show will feature a face-off among the three DBS chiefs: Eddy Hartenstein of DirecTV, Charlie Ergen of EchoStar and Charles Dolan of the newly launched VOOM.

Digital video recorders and similar media center devices will be on display from dozens of manufacturers, extending far beyond TiVo, ReplayTV and earliest pioneers. Several vendors are expected to unveil micro-drives built into TVs, paving the way for integrated TV/DVR sets.

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Meanwhile, one of the largest CE makers acknowledged the looming demise of the videocassette recorder business, pointing out that his company would only show two standalone VCRs at CES, but will have seven DVD models, plus a variety of combination DVD+DVR, TV+DVD and combo DVD/VCR/TV devices.

CES has revived its videogame presence, thanks to the direction in which Sony PlayStation and Microsoft XBox are taking that sector. The growth of laptops and PDAs on college campuses is attracting academic purchasing officers to look in on the education/productivity tools on display.

Hollywood has been showing up in greater numbers at CES in recent years, especially studio technology executives who are trying to foresee the ways in which their output will be viewed on big and small screens and via an expanding array of storage and transmission devices. Predictably, Texas Instruments and its DLP technology, plus Kodak's expanding Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) products-now named "Nu-Vue"-will be on display, in larger and brighter configurations.

And reflecting the legislative/regulatory implications of the CE industry-on everything from trade policy to Internet telephony-CES typically attracts more than a hundred federal, state and local public officials. It's hard to gauge how the FCC's recent travel cutback may affect the Washington contingent at this year's event.

On the global scene, the top government technology officials from France, Germany and South Korea will be touring the CES floor.

The 100-plus conference sessions, on topics ranging from copyright policy to digital TV installation procedures, account for some of the throngs at the Las Vegas tradeshow.

Also pulling crowds who want to do face-time with digital notables are the daily keynote sessions, featuring top executives from an array of allied industries, including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates; Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel; Carly Fiorina, chairman and CEO of Hewlett Packard; Gary Forsee, chairman and CEO of Sprint; Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon amd Fumio Ohtsubo, president, Panasonic AVC Networks, and senior managing director, Matsushita.

GIZMOS OF TOMORROW

CES throngs come to see and play with gizmos, not just to hear visionary pep talks about the industries on display. While the 1.1 million square feet of trade floor exhibits would seemingly fulfill most of these hands-on desires, the best viewing will inevitably be in the hotel suites and private exhibit rooms around town. During the past few years, specialty chip-makers such as TransMeta, Cirrus Logic and dozens of other microprocessor companies have showcased their components to manufacturers seeking to put advanced features into their future devices. Getting invited into the suites, or more importantly into the backrooms where the "best stuff" is revealed, is the hottest ticket in Vegas.

With a month to go before CES, handicappers are cautious about equipment debuts. Leading contenders include voice-recognition and voice-activation, designed for phone and remote control products, according to industry sources.

On the business front, China will be one of the most-discussed topics, both as an emerging consumer of CE devices and as a competitive supplier. One insider noted the "palpable panic" among Japanese and Korean mainstays, fraught with fear about what's coming next in HDTV or other products from China, a country that has already produced the $29 DVD player, thus altering the economics of the global hardware bazaar.

Closer to home, there's considerable anticipation about what the Media Lab from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will display. MIT's much-lauded Media Lab has signed up for its first-ever booth at CES, and lots of visitors are wondering what the visionaries will show off.