As usual, tech insiders are about to descend on Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, but, judging from hotel availability, the economy is likely to take its toll on attendance. As of New Year's Eve -- just a week before the show - some brand-name hotels were selling for under $90 a night. Most years you'd be lucky to find a room during CES for under $300.
One conspicuous absentee from this year's show will be Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the perennial CES keynoter who quit his day job in June 2008.
Gates will be replaced by Steve Ballmer, who I consider to be a more energetic and charismatic speaker. But as good a CEO as Ballmer might be, he's no replacement for the arguably the most successful businessperson of our time. Ballmer is likely to talk about Windows 7.0, the replacement to the much-maligned Vista operating system, scheduled for release late this year.
The show, which officially takes place at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo Center, also spills out to hotel suites throughout the city where companies hold private briefings with press, analysts, major customers and partners. Suites are often used simply because they're cheaper than buying a booth on the show floor, but they can also afford a bit more privacy for secret briefings on as-yet-undisclosed products.
Speaking of disclosure, most companies do not pre-announce the products they'll showcase at CES. But some do, and there are always plenty of leaks and rumors -- and just plain trends -- that provide a pretty good overview of what we can expect to see at the show and, later in the year, on store shelves.
One trend that will be omnipresent at CES is the convergence of networking, media and Internet connectivity in home entertainment systems. For several years running, CES has seen products that promise to distribute music and video signals to screens throughout the house as well as plenty of schemes to bring the Internet to your living room TV.
At the last several shows, Microsoft, Intel and a host of PC makers demonstrated media PCs designed more for TV, recorded video and music than for productivity but, despite lots of hype and some interesting products, the idea of installing a PC in a home entertainment cabinet has not caught on.
This year Yahoo and Intel are expected to take a different approach by showing prototypes of Net-enabled TVs with Yahoo-supplied "widgets" that will stream video from YouTube, Hulu and other sites or display photos from Flickr. The sets might also enable TV watchers to use the TV's Internet connection to discuss programs with friends or find get the bio of an actor they see in a show.
While these sets will probably be able to connect to home PCs, they will not require PCs nor be PC-centric. The idea is to make accessing Internet content as easy as watching soap operas. There are already plenty of net-connected set-top devices including Apple TV, the Netflix Player from Roku and Internet-ready gaming devices like the Xbox 360 and PS/3 that can also stream media, but now we're talking about connectivity being built-into the TV set itself. The key to making this work is for it to be easy and reliable. People don't want their TVs to be as complicated or buggy as PCs.
Those willing to spend big bucks will be able to watch those TV and Internet programs on even thinner HD-TVs. LG, for example, is expected to show off an LED backlit TV that's less than 1-inch thick. While that will certainly win the Korean company plenty of "wows," I doubt that many consumers will want to pay more for such a set. Thin is terrific if you're hanging the TV on the wall, but pretty irrelevant if, like most people, you put the TV on a stand or in a cabinet.
Last year, Sony showed off an 11-inch OLED (organic light-emitting diode). OLEDs don't require a backlight and are far more energy efficient than other displays. This year, Sony is likely to introduce a larger (perhaps 30 inch) OLED and Samsung may also show an OLED screen. But with Sony's 11-inch XEL-1 selling for of $2,500, don't expect that 30-inch model to be affordable by mere mortals.
For several years, TV makers competed to see who could show off the biggest LCD or plasma display. Last year the honors went to a 150-inch plasma screen. But the size wars may be over for a while. Just as with the newly enlightened automakers, TV manufacturers are focusing on energy efficiency rather than bigness says CNET's David Katzmaier. Actually, this may be the year of the small HDTV with more 24-inch models designed for bedrooms, bathrooms and other small spaces. We'll also see TVs with higher refresh rates (the number of times per second that the image is refreshed).
Faster speeds mean less blurry images, but -- as is typically the case -- it's not clear whether most people will even notice the advantage of the superfast (480Hz) rate we're likely to see from LG and others at CES. LG's Trumotion 480Hz is likely to start shipping in the second half of 2009.
Last CES saw the demise of HD-DVD which paved the way for the domination of Blu-ray. But even with a defined standard for high-definition DVDs, consumer uptake for Blu-ray players has been tepid, probably because they're still expensive (typically around $300) and because the quality difference between standard DVDs and Blu-Ray, while noticeable, isn't nearly dramatic as the difference between standard and high-definition TV.
This year we'll see cheaper Blu-ray players as well as models that allow Internet streaming, enabling users to watch YouTube, streamed Netflix movies, Hulu, CinemaNow and other Internet programming. LG (a name that keeps popping in this and other CES preview articles) will be one of the vendors with Blu-ray players that stream internet content.
We've recently seen plenty of innovation in laptop PCs with the increased popularity of so-called "netbooks." Ultra-small, less expensive and more energy efficient notebook PCs have become the latest trend and we can expect more of them at CES. Sony, which is actually a pioneer in ultra-small notebook PCs but not yet a player in the netbook market, has teased the press with an invitation to see "the revolutionary new VAIO" that will "change the way you look at laptops." We'll find out what they're talking about when they announce it on Jan. 9.
We'll see plenty of netbooks from the likes of Dell, HP and Lenovo but we'll see an even smaller offering from OQO which, several years ago, introduced tiny hand-held Windows PCs. Mobile Magazine speculates that year's offering is likely to be equipped with an OLED display, a pull-out keyboard and 3-G connectivity.
Apple impressed the world with the multi-touch interface in the iPhone and, later with the MacBook's touchpads. Multi-touch technology allows you to use your fingers to zoom, scroll and otherwise manipulate what's on the screen. In all likelihood, CES attendees will see similar features on Windows laptops. I also expect to see laptops with WiMax wireless networking, which is much faster and more far-reaching than WiFi.
At least year's CES I got to play with a Lenovo laptop with a 64 GB solid state drive. Solid state drives use memory rather than a hard drive to store data, making them faster, more energy efficient and less vulnerable to data loss. They're also a lot more expensive than hard drives and, at least at last year's CES, had far less capacity. This year Toshiba is expected to show off a
There will be plenty of action in the smart phone market. Rumor has it that Motorola will show off a phone running Google's Android operating system. Palm has a major press announcement on Thursday which is could be the unveiling of its long-awaited new consumer-friendly operating system. The onetime market leader has been falling on hard times lately with impressive competition from Apple, Blackberry and other phone makers.
I'm sure that there will be plenty of other great products on display, but the big question is whether people will be able to afford them. Until the economy starts to turn around, the only thing thinner than the newest HD-TVs will be consumers' wallets.
Happy New Year.