It might be cold outside but the global economic picture is starting to thaw, especially if the advance buzz on an event that has become synonymous with conspicuous consumption — the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — is any indication.
Last year's CES, set amid the backdrop of a global recession, was understandably muted. Electronics makers and technology companies held off on debuting their splashy, new and inevitably expensive gadgets for fear that consumers were simply too broke to buy them.
While CES has typically been the launching ground for the latest and greatest technologies — the show has given us the VCR, CD and HDTV, among others in its 43-year history — last year was an otherwise gloomy affair with fewer exhibitors and attendees than typical. The most notable new product to make its debut at CES 2009 was the Palm Pre smartphone, which over the past year failed to meet expectations.
This year's show, which kicks off on Thursday and runs until Sunday, is likely to see a return to form as both technology makers and consumers are riding a cautious wave of optimism. Organizers are officially projecting 110,000 attendees, but are confident they'll surpass last year's attendance of 113,000. More than 2,500 companies including stalwarts such as Microsoft, Sony, Intel, Toshiba and Panasonic will cram the Las Vegas Convention Centre to show off their new wares.
What will be the big gadgets to come out of CES 2010? As with anything in a city built on gambling, it's a crapshoot, but here are some possibilities:
Television sets are always front and centre at CES, given that many of the show's major anchor companies — Sony, Toshiba, LG, Samsung — derive a good portion of their revenues from selling TVs. With flat-panel sales starting to level off, these companies are having to think of new and innovative ways to keep consumers buying. In recent years, that has meant thinner televisions, more energy-efficient televisions and internet-connected televisions. This year, the bet will almost certainly be on 3D televisions, or sets that — when paired with special glasses — can display games and movies in three dimensions. Some companies, including Panasonic, teased 3D last year but there were still a few hurdles to overcome. This year, the pieces are all in place. Hollywood is churning out 3D movies, and not just animated films such as Up or Coraline, but increasingly live-action fare such as Avatar. Also, the technical standardizations on cables and Blu-ray players have all recently been set. With content readily available and the technology ready to go, 3D will certainly have a big presence at this year's CES.
Cellphone makers have traditionally waited until the Mobile World Congress, held annually in Europe in February, to introduce their fancy new handsets, but with all the press attention Palm received with the Pre last year, that may be changing. A number of traditional and new cellphone makers, including Sony Ericsson and China's Lenovo, have already announced plans to show off their new devices at CES. All eyes will be on Google, which has all but announced its own Google-branded Android smartphone — allegedly called the Nexus One. The search company last week invited Silicon Valley reporters to an Android press conference, to be held Jan. 5 at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and it will be present at CES in an official capacity for the first time at a pre-show media event the following day. Google officials are keeping mum about announcements, but with Canadian media invited to the event, whatever the company has on hand will likely be available north of the border as well.
Over the holidays, Amazon made a big deal over how its Kindle e-book reader was its top-selling item. Electronics and publishing industry analysts alike expect sales of e-books to take off in 2010, partly thanks to a new standardized ePub format, which is good news for the companies that make the devices that read them. So far, the market leaders are Amazon and Sony, while a few others such as Barnes and Noble are trying to get in. With a burgeoning pie beckoning, odds are good that other broad-based electronics makers — Panasonic, Toshiba and the like — will be looking to grab a slice. This year's CES is the perfect opportunity for these companies to get on the bandwagon.
The Apple effect
Apple has a funny relationship with CES. The company has typically avoided the convention, favouring in recent years to announce products at Macworld, a competing event generally held around the same time in San Francisco. Three years ago, Apple upstaged CES by announcing its long-awaited iPhone, provoking curses from technology journalists who had chosen to cover the Las Vegas event instead. Last year, Apple announced it would no longer take part in Macworld, which kicked off speculation that it would finally join the pack and exhibit at CES, but it was not to be. The company continues to fly solo, and there are expectations that it could once again trump CES by debuting its long-rumoured tablet computer, which could be a cross between an e-book reader and a netbook, in San Francisco. On the other hand, Apple is reportedly holding its own event later in January so it may hold off on making any announcements till then. CES organizers, meanwhile, have moved to take advantage of Apple's shunning of Macworld by introducing an "iLounge," where various iPod and iPhone add-ons will be displayed, to this year's show.
The Wi-Fi Alliance, a group that directs standardization in wireless technology, in October announced something called Wi-Fi Direct. The new technology will allow electronic devices such as TVs, cameras, phones and DVD players to wirelessly connect with each other directly, eliminating the need for a middleman device. The potential uses are numerous: displaying pictures from your camera directly on your television, beaming sound from your computer in the study to speakers in the living room, all without wires or routers. Wi-Fi Direct isn't expected to be available until the second half of 2010, but some electronics manufacturers may elect to get an early jump on the technology.
The Microsoft question
The world's biggest software company and main CES supporter kicks off the event with a keynote from chief executive Steve Ballmer, his second after taking over for the retired Bill Gates. Microsoft is floundering in the mobile phone business and has lost some of its momentum in video games to Nintendo and a resurgent Sony. Rumours emerged last week that the company is looking to tie its video game and mobile phone strategies together. CES could also provide Microsoft with an opportunity to make some concrete announcements regarding Project Natal, the prototype motion-controlled video game system it showed off last summer.