January's other trade show

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The beginning of January is a time when most Mac fans, as well as many in the press, are gearing up for Macworld Expo, anxiously awaiting news of new products from Apple and other Mac developers during the week-long trade show. But for fans of non-Apple consumer electronics, it’s the time for another event, and one that utterly dwarfs Macworld Expo (in size, at least, if not in hype): the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

CES is the world’s largest trade show dedicated to “CE” (as vendors like to refer to the consumer-electronics market)—and certainly the largest trade show in the U.S. of any kind. Much like Macworld Expo, CES is a venue for companies that make consumer electronics to gather each year to tell everyone else about their new products. But unlike Macworld Expo—which is, for the most, part limited to Apple products and third-party products for use with those Apple offerings—anything with a circuit inside is fair game at CES. (In fact, even many Mac- and iPod-accessory vendors attend CES, although Apple itself prefers the all-eyes-on-me attention Macworld Expo brings.)

The other major difference between CES and Macworld Expo is that, unlike many trade shows, CES isn’t open to the general public; rather, it’s restricted to vendors, distributors, and members of the press. Yet even with these restrictions, it’s estimated that more than 140,000 people, from over 140 countries, will attend the 2008 show.

And for good reason: CES offers the unique opportunity to get personal face time with representatives of pretty much every major consumer-electronics vendor, as well as get the latest information about their products. And that information is often newsworthy: CES has been the venue for countless industry-changing product debuts. For example, over the past 40 years, companies have used CES to announce the VCR, camcorder, PVR, CD, DVD, and plasma TV, as well as technologies such as RDS, HDTV, HD Radio, and Blu-ray. (It’s also hosted the debuts of countless less-memorable flops.)

On the other hand, CES has gotten so large over the years that it’s become nearly impossible to cover it thoroughly. This year’s show includes 2,700 vendors (compared to approximately 450 for next week’s Macworld Expo) occupying 1.8 million square feet of exhibit space. If you can’t quite grasp that figure, consider that CES occupies much of the meeting and exhibit space in the modern Las Vegas Convention Center (which is itself bigger than San Francisco’s Moscone Center), the older Sands Expo and Convention Center, and the Venetian and Las Vegas Hilton hotels, as well as countless hotel suites and meeting rooms around the Las Vegas Strip area.

Still, will some careful planning, it’s possible to hit most of the important products in particular areas. My colleague Dan Moren and I are wandering the vast confines of CES this week, keeping our eyes peeled for the kind of iPod- and iPhone-related gear that Macworld readers might be interested in. (And if you’re interested in more immersive coverage, be sure to check out what our cohorts at PC World are writing about CES.) We’ll also be looking at some new and notable products as well trends we’re seeing in consumer electronics and how those might affect fans and users of Apple products. Stay tuned.

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