Consumer Electronics Show 2008

What does the Xbox have in common with the digital video recorder (DVR), high-definition television, the DVD, the Nintendo Entertainment System, the compact disc and the camcorder? Each bit of technology made its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show, arguably the largest tech-related trade show on earth.

Next week 140,000 geeks and gadget freaks will descend on Las Vegas and (largely) eschew wickedness for widgets. Gambling will take a back seat to gawking at gewgaws from Jan. 7-10 as some 2,700 exhibitors unveil 20,000 new products spread over 1.8 million square feet of convention hall. And what happens in Vegas, contrary to conventional wisdom, will likely not stay there. If device makers and content providers have their way, it will be beamed, streamed, Bluetoothed, plasma-screened, GPS'd, microscopically USB'd and otherwise hardwired into your home, office and car before too long.

Drooling yet? Relax. The tech world won't entirely transform next week, analysts say. "I expect this to be much more evolutionary than revolutionary," says Michael Gartenberg of Jupiter Research. So what can the average consumer get excited about at this year's show? Here are the people and trends to watch out for:

Bill Gates
The Microsoft Chairman (and erstwhile world's richest man) has a close relationship with CES. He'll be delivering his 10th keynote address—and most likely his last, as he phases himself out of Microsoft's day-to-day operations and shifts his focus to his philanthropic endeavors. His most memorable announcement came back in 2001, when he introduced the Xbox. Since then he has generated considerably less buzz. "We'll see whether Mr. Gates goes out with a bang or a whimper," says Gartenberg. Gates may pass the CES baton to Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's Entertainment & Devices division, and some rumors have floated that Microsoft will unveil an Xbox with an internal HD-DVD drive. More exciting is the ASUs R50, a supermobile Windows-powered handheld computer with GPS, webcam and wireless connectivity. Gates (or, for that matter, Bach) may also tout the "Surface" touch-controlled computing table that shoppers at T-Mobile stores have already had an opportunity to play with. And, speaking of touchscreens, keep an eye out for the Toshiba Portege G920, a Windows-powered smartphone that might be the company's best contender against Apple's iPhone. Which brings us to…

Apple
Steve Jobs and his Cupertino crowd tend not to officially participate at CES, but Apple's presence is always keenly felt. Macworld, Apple's very own solo trade show, takes place just one week after CES, and already people are abuzz about the rumored new (say it with your best French accent) wafer-thin Apple laptops, teeny desktops and third-generation iPhones. "Apple typically casts a long shadow, even though they're not there," says Gartenberg. "Count how many times people [at CES] say 'This is our strategy to compete with Apple'." OK, let's start with…

Phones
Google won't have a booth in Vegas this year either, even though cofounder Larry Page delivered a keynote address in 2007. But an absent Google doesn't mean third-party device makers won't be on hand running prototype phones on Android, the company's forthcoming open-source mobile platform. What some analysts hope to see is continuing evolution on the simplicity front, especially among smartphones. "Even though people will be looking for the next killer app, it's still messaging and e-mail" that customers want, says IDC's Chris Hazelton. But simplicity is hard to come by, especially as tension heightens between device makers and service providers. Just as we saw when Apple's iPhone came handcuffed to AT&T's service, we're going to have more fighting for customers. Other device makers will just be fighting for survival: Motorola, the nation's top handset company, unloaded both its CEO and CTO recently. One would expect some news from newbie chief executive Greg Brown next week. Meanwhile, Palm's recent layoffs have observers wondering whether the onetime top handheld maker is floundering. What about on-the-go technology that doesn't fit in your pocket? Look no further than your…

Cars
Consider them ultramobile devices. General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner will be delivering a keynote address this year, the first time a Detroit chief will be headliner at the gadget bonanza. GM may be dethroned as the world's largest automaker, but it's still a technology leader. "They've been getting it for a long time," says Brian Moody, an analyst at Edmunds.com. "Their OnStar was introduced in 1996!" Now the company is fast-tracking the Chevy Volt, a 150 mpg plug-in electric car, for production as early as 2010 or 2011. But GM is hardly the only automotive innovator. Last year Microsoft teamed up with Ford to introduce Sync, a voice-activated in-car communications and entertainment system. Next, Hughes Telematics will debut an OnStar competitor in the United States in 2009. "You can get a state-required smog check from your driveway, download music without having to connect the car to anything and upgrade the software in your car without having to take it to a dealership," says Moody. "It's not like 20 years ago, when the decision of what car to buy was driven by the fact that these cars were reliable and these cars were not. There's a thinking now that the playing field is fairly level when it comes to antilock brakes and traction control." So the next time you buy a car it might boil down to whether the model you want has connectivity, Bluetooth integration, Internet navigation systems and multiple video screens. And of course, you can't have content-on-the-go without…

The Content Industry
For the first time this year major content providers have reserved exhibitor space in the hall. Sony Pictures-Television will be exhibiting right along with Sony electronics, and the CEO of Comcast will be delivering a keynote address. NBC Universal will have two studios in its exhibition space as the first "official" CES broadcasting partner. "As digital technology evolves, you're going to see this closer connection between content and tech companies," says Beth Comstock, president of NBC Universal Integrated Media. Their booths will showcase digital content and serve as a hub where, Comstock vaguely promises, "some partnerships will be announced." Sounds as if we can soon hope for more good stuff to watch in…

High-Definition
Usually, when it comes to cutting-edge technology, it's all about making things smaller—smaller phones, smaller mp3 players, smaller 802.11n Wi-Fi cards. But when it comes to television, big is where the buzz is. Rumors are flying that Samsung will unleash the largest-ever, 40-inch organic light-emitting diode TV—a new, energy-saving alternative. Not to be outdone, Panasonic will unveil a monster 150-inch plasma screen, the largest of its kind. A cute trick, perhaps, but who has room for a screen that big? "We've already gone beyond the maximum capacity that most customers can embrace," which, according to Gartenberg, is 42-to-50-inch screens. Still, 2007 was the first year sales of LCDs outpaced the old-school cathode ray tube sets, and you can expect that number to climb: broadcasters will be required to phase out their analog signals on or before the Feb. 17, 2009. Second-tier companies like Olevia have already benefited from this trend by offering excellent sets at competitive prices. Mitsubishi may announce widespread availability of the laser TV it debuted at CES last year. And a group that calls itself the High-Definition Audio-Visual Alliance will demonstrate how to fling high-definition content around the home through a multiroom networking solution that uses a single wire to connect an array of HD sources and TVs. Clearly, not for the faint of heart whose VCRs (remember those?) still flash 12:00.

Want more? Check in throughout the week as NEWSWEEK blogs from Vegas, enduring the blinding glare of shiny new toys so you don't have to.

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