CES preview: what to expect at the big, not-so-gloomy tech trade show

THE BIGGEST U.S. TECH TRADE SHOW WILL FEATURE EMERGING MARKET TECHNOLOGY, 3-D GLASSES, AND DIGITAL CONTENT, ACCORDING TO SHOW CHIEF GARY SHAPIRO

The International Consumer Electronics Show coming up next week promises to be a sober extravaganza. It will have all the splashy booths and big parties as in past years, but it won’t be the best-attended show in history because of the economic slowdown.

Even with the economy in a funk, the show should be a guidepost for the changes in store for the electronics industry during the year ahead. Costs are lower for convention goers, as Las Vegas hotels have dropped their rates a couple of times to fill rooms. That should keep the place from being a ghost town.

The show will be smaller than last year, but not dramatically so, according to Gary Shapiro, executive director of the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs the show. There will be an estimated 130,000 attendees, down about 8 percent from 141,000 a year ago. The number of exhibitors will be the same at about 2,700, though the square footage of the show will be down 5 percent from 1.8 million square feet a year ago to 1.7 million square feet this year. The show is being held Tuesday, Jan. 6 to Sunday, Jan. 11 and is not open to the general public. I’ll be one of thousands of journalists attending.

Exhibitors tend to book their space a year ahead of time, so exhibit space is a lagging indicator of a tough economy. But Shapiro notes that the average trade show will be down 22 percent in attendees in 2008. In that context, the expected drop in attendance is not so bad.

“Everybody is being hit by the economy, but we are stronger than almost every industry,” Shapiro said. “The good thing for us is that the leisure business has dried up in Las Vegas and freed hotel rooms.”

This show will be different this year because Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will give the opening keynote instead of Bill Gates, who previously gave the opening speech for 11 years in a row. Ballmer may disappoint the crowds if he doesn’t make some mention of the Zune phone that the company has been secretly working on in an effort to take on Apple’s iPhone. Ballmer will be speaking just a day after the Apple keynote by Phil Schiller at Macworld in San Francisco.

Still, there will be keynote speeches from Sony’s CEO, Howard Stringer, and Ford’s chief, Alan Mullaly. John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, and Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel, will give speeches about emerging markets for new technologies. Barrett will likely show off a new version of Intel’s low-cost Classmate PC for children in developing countries. This one will feature a touch screen. What’s interesting is that emerging markets and green technology — once small parts of the show — are now a big part of the affair. Shapiro notes that there are 10 million new cell phones being sold in India each month. In the U.S., the average home has about 25 consumer electronics devices, down one from a year ago, according to CEA surveys.

The CEA is having success recruiting new companies, with about 300 new companies showing this year. One of those is Verizon. NBC Universal (booth pictured left) and Sony Pictures have bigger booths this year, a sign that the content companies feel welcome at what used to be an electronics hardware show.

There are some drop outs. Sanyo has pulled out, since it is being acquired by Panasonic. Cisco withdrew from a big presence on the show floor and is presenting in hotel suites instead. Philips Electronics, which pulled out of the TV business in the past year, is also not exhibiting for the first time in many years.

This is the last show before the transition to digital TV signals happens in the U.S. on Feb. 17, 2009. The transition has been a part of the discussion at every CES for the past decade. But Shapiro said he is relieved that some of the bitter fights, such as the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD media format war and the XM-Sirius merger, are over.

There will be focus on 3-D displays and glasses. 3-D movies are catching on like never before (as shown with the popularity of Disney’s Bolt film) and Hollywood is launching a bunch of 3-D films in theaters next year. Companies such as Nvidia, Samsung (picture from last year), Viewsonic and IZ3D plan to bring that into homes so that it looks like movies or game characters are springing out of your TV sets or monitors. I have yet to see glasses-based 3-D that looks stunning, so I remain skeptical about these products.

Wireless video — or transferring high-definition video from one device to another inside a home — will be moving past the experimentation stage as a variety of competing networking products are introduced, Shapiro said.

Just as it seemed like liquid-crystal displays (LCD) were becoming dominant, TV makers will also introduce new versions of the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays that deliver crisp HD video images. Last year, Sony introduced an 11-inch screen for sale at a high price, but presumably the costs are going down.

CES is also going to show it’s more than a geek event, thanks to areas dedicated to older consumers as well as kids. Mattel will be showing digital toys on the show floor for the first time, a sign that electronics is increasingly important to hooking kids on the latest toys.

Shapiro said that politics will enter into the picture as the tech industry tries to shape the policies of the new Obama administration. Companies are also trying to position themselves as the greenest company, putting new importance on low-power and efficient battery technologies.

As for celebrity sightings at CES, there should be plenty, perhaps as companies try harder to get the attention of the recession-minded press and the public. Monster Cable, for instance, is throwing a concert headlined by singer Diana Ross. From Akon to Stevie Wonder, the celebrities show that companies want to target all sorts of demographics with their products. Maybe inside the echo chamber of the huge trade show, it won’t seem like we’re in the midst of an economic catastrophe.

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