Car electronics manufacturers such as Pioneer and Alpine are going to have lots of company this year as the market is expected to explode. (Peter NowaK)
Annual techno-circus ready for kick-off
All eyes will be on digital content and car electronics at this year's Consumer Electronics Show
Last Updated January 3, 2008
By Peter Nowak
For the average person, January is a quiet month — one in which to relax and recuperate from the hustle and bustle of the just-passed holiday season.
Not so for the electronics industry, which kicks off its version of the Super Bowl this weekend in Las Vegas. The annual Consumer Electronics Show has for the past 40 years been a showcase of the latest and greatest new technology, where manufacturers unveil what are going to be the must-have gadgets and gizmos for the coming year and the next holiday season. Thousands of buyers from electronics retailers and a horde of journalists from all over the world cram into the show to catch a glimpse of what's coming.
With more than 140,000 attendees expected this year, CES — the city's largest annual convention — rarely disappoints in that regard. Products that have made their debut at the four-day expo comprise a virtual greatest hits of consumer electronics, including the VCR (1970), the compact disc player (1981), high-definition televisions (1998) and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox (2001).
The resultant techno-circus, based around the show's two main sites — the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo and Convention Center at The Venetian hotel — turns an already bustling tourist city into a cacophony of chaos. The exhibition floors are as packed as the city's streets and moving around inside is just as tough as it is outdoors. The din, meanwhile, is incredible as exhibitors try to outdo their neighbours with louder and more lavish booths that are more spectacle than display. Dancing women, rock bands, flashing lights — CES is like an amusement park on steroids.
There's usually a "big thing" each year — the one gadget or trend that has everyone's eye. Last year it was the war between competing next-generation DVD formats, the Toshiba Corp.-supported HD DVD and the Sony Corp.-backed Blu-ray. Attendees clamoured to find out if Toshiba, trailing Blu-ray's momentum, would throw in the towel — it didn't, and instead increased shipments of HD DVD players. Toshiba's move signified the format war, which has often been likened to the Betamax-versus-VHS battle for VCR supremacy of three decades ago, was far from over.
The DVD format war will continue at this year's show, with the Sony and Toshiba camps expected to announce new devices and movie deals, but all eyes will focus on music, television and movie downloads.
Online content taking off
Content producers, whether music labels or movie studios, are finally getting wise to the huge consumer appetite for downloaded media and are realizing there is little way to fight the technology that enables it. In dragging their heels thus far, producers have watched billions of dollars of their revenue evaporate because of illegal file-sharing. What hasn't been pirated has migrated to legal download services, such as Apple Inc.'s iTunes, run by companies that previously had no business in selling content.
Some producers are looking to finally address the issue this year with a raft of content-deal and new-service announcements, according to Sarah Szabo, spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes CES.
Brian Roberts, chief executive officer of Comcast Corp. — the largest cable television provider in the United States — is for the first time giving one of the conference's keynote speeches, joining a cast of speakers that includes mostly electronics and technology luminaries, such as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Intel CEO Paul Otellini. Roberts is expected to announce his company's digital content strategy during his keynote on Tuesday morning. Gates opens the show for the 10th year in a row on Sunday evening, while Otellini gives his keynote on Monday afternoon.
NBC Universal, meanwhile, will for the first time have exhibit space at the show while Sony Television Pictures is also expected to make major content announcements.
The growing presence of the media producers, Szabo says, reflects the changing nature of consumer electronics, from hardware to content.
"You'll see and hear a lot of deals from the content community coming out of CES," she says. "It reinforces that CES is becoming more of a hub for content."
Of more interest to Canadians will be how the big media companies plan to make their online services available north of the border. Online television and movies have been slow to arrive in Canada because of licensing rules that are more complicated than in the United States. In many cases, Canadian broadcasters such as CTV or Canwest own the internet rights to U.S. shows, which means they need to be negotiated with before any sort of streaming or downloading can be made available in Canada.
Google is coming
Eyes will also be on Kevin Martin, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, during a media event on Tuesday morning. The head of the U.S. telecommunications regulator will face many questions after paving the way last year for search engine giant Google Inc. to enter the cellphone market in the United States. Martin agreed to a request from Google for open-access rules in an auction of wireless airwaves that will take place this month, a move expected to transform the industry by loosening the grip cellphone carriers have over what applications can be put on devices.
Cellphone makers such as Motorola and HTC will also attract considerable interest, given that last year they joined Google's Open Handset Alliance — a group that will use the company's open-source Android software on mobile devices. Conference attendees will be clamouring to see prototype cellphones running Android, which aren't expected to be on the market until the second half of this year.
Also big this year will be in-car electronics, a trend that was beginning to emerge at last year's show. Aside from the usual suspects such as Pioneer and Alpine showing off the latest car stereos, last year's show saw newcomers such as Motorola throw their hats into the after-market auto electronics ring. Car stereos that can wirelessly connect to digital music players and cellphones through Bluetooth connections, global positioning system (GPS) devices and newer, fancier satellite radios were all on display last year.
This year the market will really get attention, Szabo says, with a keynote coming from an unusual speaker, General Motors Corp. chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner. The car gadgets that were at one time just for tinkerers and hobbyists are about to go mainstream, she says.
CBCNews.ca will be reporting from the show and will be answering questions on the latest news from readers. Post your questions on the Tech Bytes blog.
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