CES Preview: Will 2008 show live up to iPhone?

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Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has a tough job ahead of him when he kicks off the keynote speeches at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2008 in Las Vegas on January 6.

He’ll be hard pressed to make sure CES outshines the Macworld Conference & Expo. Last year, Steve Jobs stole the technology-world spotlight at Macworld when he announced the iPhone. It overshadowed everything at CES and has been as big a hit as everyone thought it would be. Jobs is on tap to speak again at Macworld Expo this year and rumors say Apple could reveal anything from its own ultramobile PC to an online movie rental service.

What will Gates announce? Last year, rumors of the iPhone, and poor scheduling with the two shows running at nearly the same time, prompted some people to skip part of CES to hear Jobs’s speech at Macworld. At least this year the scheduling is better, with Macworld starting just after CES ends. But what Microsoft rumors are there? Vista Service Pack 1? Internet Explorer 8? The Xbox 360 might get motion-sensored game controllers so it can compete with Nintendo’s Wii? Yawn.

Details on the rumored next-generation Windows OS, code-named 7, might be interesting, but since Vista is still new for most people, it’s hard to guess what a new Windows OS might look like. The most exciting Microsoft rumors today are corporate, not product; namely that the software giant might buy Yahoo, or Bloomberg.

CES officially runs January 7 - 10 in Las Vegas, but Gate’s keynote is on Sunday, Jan. 6. The show is one of the largest technology expositions in the world, with companies displaying thousands of gadgets to an estimated 150,000 attendees. Macworld Expo runs from January 14 - 18 in San Francisco.

There have been a few disconcerting signs that CES might not be so hot this year. One is the fact show promoters are pushing out lists of sports stars, actors and other celebrities who will be on hand at the show, including Yoko Ono, race car driver Danica Patrick, actor Michael Douglas, world champion Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and singer Mary J. Blige.

Certainly, there are so many new and improved gadgets at CES every year that companies have to find ways to stand out. More than 2,700 companies will be jostling to show off their wares at CES in venues that take up several huge buildings including the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands Expo and Convention Center and most of the meeting rooms in The Venetian and other resort hotels.

But does CES need celebrity power to take the place of hot gadgets? So far, there are only a few known trends and product announcements on the horizon for the show.

Mobility is a major theme this year due to strong sales of laptop PCs, which people are starting to favor over desktops. The notebook computer market is growing at a 30 percent a year clip, compared to single-digit growth for desktops.

Motorola is expected to show off new handset and other products at CES, while Yahoo is said to be previewing new mobile technologies, which may possibly counter Google’s Android. Some companies may even show off Gphones made with the Google software. Rumors say that Taiwan’s HTC has handsets it has designed for Google’s software, and is currently tweaking and perfecting the devices.

Companies are also expected to show off satellite technology for mobile TV, and HDMI (high definition multiple interface) technology to let users connect high definition video cameras and cameras to their HDTV for high-definition display.

There will also be laptop computers with huge hard drives, 500GB to 1TB, as well as a number of new ultramobile PCs and smartphones on display.

Samsung is expected to unveil a 31-inch to 40-inch OLED TV (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode television set) that uses less than half the electricity of a comparable-sized LCD TV and is only 4.3-millimeters thick, far easier mounting on a wall than LCDs, which are five to ten times larger.

This year, green is gold at CES. Companies are clamoring to become known as environmental allies with less-toxic or more power-efficient PC gear. Expected products range from a PC made from corn by Fujitsu to a laptop PC from Asustek that uses bamboo for its casing. The Fujitsu PC uses plastics made from biodegradable products, including castor beans and, its U.S. publicist says, corn. Does that really make the casing biodegradable? In the end, the company will have to prove the casings do break down, and how long it takes. If it can’t, then hopefully Fujitsu will be a good corporate citizen and offer a free-recycling program to buyers.

Other companies are expected to show off energy-efficient components such as microprocessors, memory chips, batteries and other gear, as well as full systems including servers, PCs, laptops and more.

Automotive electronics will be more prominent at this year’s CES. And it’s more than GPS (global positioning system) devices (of which, there will be many). Rick Wagoner, chairman and CEO of General Motors (GM), will give a keynote speech at CES, purportedly about new technology for cars.

Electronics have found their way into more parts of cars, including orchestrating how hybrid cars use different power sources such as gas and electricity. Other car technologies include software to allow you to tell your car to turn on the radio or answer the phone, such as Sync, so you can keep your hands on the wheel.

There will be plenty of new stuff to check out at CES. But we’ll have to see if it can beat out the Macworld Expo for this year’s technology spotlight.

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