CES: Spotlight on current trends, not tech breakthroughs

The annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year will focus more on technologies that support current trends rather than those that promise to break new ground for consumers.

User adoption of the so-called “connected” digital home and high-definition video didn’t take off the way some predicted at last year’s CES and so will continue to be the focus at this year’s show in Las Vegas next Monday to Thursday. About 150,000 attendees are expected.

CES will feature exhibits by the usual who’s who of industry heavyweights such as Microsoft, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard, as well as about 2,700 other companies large and small hoping to showcase the next killer app or device that will win over consumers in 2007. IBM will have a large presence at the show for the first time in 10 years.

Companies from Australia will for the first time attend CES, which draws participants from more than 135 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the U.K. CES also is celebrating its 40th anniversary and will mark the occasion with a special celebratory event on the first day of the show.

Microsoft Chairman and co-founder Bill Gates will make his 9th annual appearance to kick off the show in a keynote speech Sunday night. Among other things, Gates is expected to promote Windows Vista, the latest version of Microsoft’s OS due for release to consumers on Jan. 30.

Other technology executives who will give keynote speeches are Ed Zander, Motorola chairman and chief executive officer; Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, Nokia president and CEO; Michael Dell, founder and chairman of Dell; and John Chambers, Cisco Systems’ president and CEO.

But large technology vendors aren’t the only companies represented in keynote addresses this year. As the latest digital technology is beginning to merge with entertainment, media conglomerates are becoming key figures—and partners—for companies promoting consumer electronics. Because of this, appearances by Robert Iger, president and CEO of Walt Disney on Monday, and Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS, on Tuesday should seem entirely appropriate to the CES audience.

Among technology trends, storage will once again be a big topic at CES. A year ago, the companies behind HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc announced plans for big launches—players and movies would be released and redefine the way people watch movies, or so they said. A year on and the two formats are indeed on the market but thanks to the format battle, no one is particularly interested in them. Look for cheaper players and recorders to be announced during the show and pronouncements that 2007 will be the breakthrough year for the systems.

On the desktop, the upcoming launch of Windows Vista means several new technologies aimed at speeding up data read-and-write are on the horizon. Drive makers should be coming out with products within the first quarter supporting the ReadyDrive system, and Microsoft will likely demonstrate it as a major reason to upgrade to Vista. Also look for higher capacity drives and the continuing march of digital storage into consumer electronics products.

The aforementioned connected home also promises to get tongues wagging at the show. While the idea of connecting televisions, computers, stereos and mobile phones has been promised as the next big thing for several years, so far the only consumers who have been able to achieve this unified communications system at home are true technology enthusiasts.

Among industry heavyweights, Microsoft and Intel will likely continue to promote previously introduced technologies to enable this trend. Microsoft built in features that previously were available in its Windows Media Center OS directly into Vista, which makes the OS a platform for marrying the television and the PC in the home, the company says. Intel, too, will promote its thus far nonstarting Viiv package—technology on a PC designed to make it a hub for a digital entertainment system—as a way to make connecting various digital devices in the home less painful.

A number of new technologies and initiatives also promise to help consumers create a connected home, and many of them will have a presence at CES.

For example, UWB (ultrawideband) is the short-range broadband wireless standard that can link devices, including televisions, computers, modems, stereos, set-top boxes and even cell phones. However, even though the last few CES conferences have included announcements about impending products, no UWB offerings are yet commercially available. This year, following the maturing of the standard, leaders in the UWB market, including Alereon, Tzero Technologies, and Belkin International, may make announcements about products that are likely to hit shelves soon.

UWB isn’t the only networking technology fighting to take root in the home. It will compete in some cases against Wi-Fi and fiber as well as other emerging technologies such as power-line networking. Expect companies from each camp to tout the benefits of their technologies in the connected home.

This year, Cisco Systems, best know for its enterprise networking gear, may make a significant mark on CES. During Chambers’ keynote on Tuesday, he’s likely to describe the company’s newest forays into the consumer market. With Cisco’s recent acquisition of Scientific-Atlanta combined with it Linksys division, the vendor now offers products to the service providers that deliver content to the homes as well as to the consumer who wants to receive and shift that content around the home.

Some of the alliances that aim to unify all the developments in the connected home space also plan to have a presence at CES. The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) with members including IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, Sony, Samsung Electronics, and others offers a set of guidelines so that hardware and software developers can make sure that their offerings interoperate in the connected home. The DLNA will be showcasing its work at CES.

(Ben Ames in Boston, Nancy Gohring in Dublin and Martyn Williams in Tokyo contributed to this report.)

Editor’s Note: This story was reposted on January 4, 2007 at 11:50 a.m. PT to correctly identify Disney CEO and President Robert Iger.

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