Software could overshadow gadgets at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show, with Microsoft Corp. expected to shed light on its upcoming Windows 7 operating system.
The financial meltdown may also be lingering topic as tech vendors gather to flaunt products at the show in Las Vegas, hoping to show enough glitter and sparkle to bring them better fortunes in the new year. Attendees will pore over the latest technologies, including OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs, netbooks, smart phones, media players and other entertainment devices.
Audiences may miss the show's perennial star, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who gave his final CES speech last January. Instead, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will kick off the event with a keynote address on Jan. 7. He's expected to give a peek at Windows 7, which many hope will be zippier and less resource-hungry than Windows Vista.
Microsoft expects to make “significant” Windows 7 announcements, including a possible release of Windows 7 beta software. A “sneak peek” at future Microsoft Office software may also be offered.
A look at Microsoft's future software could add pep to what otherwise might turn out to be a subdued show. Attendance at CES 2009 is expected to drop as consumers and technology vendors cut spending amid the economic crisis. Hotels, which in previous years were often packed months before the show, have been offering discounted rates to fill rooms.
The Consumer Electronics Association insists that preregistration has been strong and says it's too early to call it a quiet show. Organizers expect 130,000 attendees, said CEA spokeswoman Tara Dunion.
However, that would still be a significant drop from 144,000 attendees at CES 2007.
The prospect of a reduced audience hasn't fazed companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell from showing products in or around the show. Overall, 2,700 companies will be present at various locations, including the Las Vegas Convention Center and surrounding resorts and hotels.
A standout at CES could be netbooks, small laptops used for basic applications such as Web surfing and e-mail. The category was defined by Intel Corp.'s Atom processor and then solidified by the success of Asustek Computer Inc.'s Eee PC. The show could see an evolution of netbooks, with features such as touch screens attracting interest. Asus will likely show a touch-screen netbook, and Intel plans to show off its Convertible Classmate, a netbook with a touch screen that swivels.
Via Technologies Inc.'s elusive Nano processor may also make an appearance. Rumor has it that Samsung Electronics Co. will show its NC20 laptop based on a Nano processor.
Meanwhile, some of Intel's competitors may try to redefine how people think of netbooks by pushing more advanced capabilities. Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Nvidia Corp. may talk more about boosting graphics on netbooks. Freescale Semiconductor Inc. and Qualcomm Inc. could demonstrate netbooks with more communication-savvy chips.
Mundane laptops will also get a makeover. Expect plenty of buzz around a new Sony Vaio laptop, which the company says is “revolutionary” and will change the way users think about the products. It remains unclear if the tiny laptop is a netbook or a full-featured ultraportable. For power users, Lenovo Group Ltd. is expected to show the ThinkPad W700DS laptop with two screens — a first in laptops — for people who want to perform multiple tasks at the same time.
Rounding out mobility computing offerings will be smart phones with new operating systems, touch screens and 3G connectivity. Many mobile phone companies are expected to adopt Google Inc.'s Android platform, including Samsung, which may show an Android phone at CES.
Struggling smart-phone maker Palm Inc. is holding a big event to announce its new Linux-based operating system code-named Nova, along with new devices. The company hopes to use CES as a springboard to regain prominence in the smart-phone market, where it has been eclipsed by Research In Motion Ltd. and Apple Inc.
Like past CES shows, televisions will grab the imagination of visitors as vendors fight for the centerpiece of home entertainment. CES 2008 saw the emergence of OLED screens with prototypes from Sony and Samsung, and CES 2009 could see further progress. In May, Sony Corp. CEO Howard Stringer said a 27-in. OLED TV would be coming, and it could be launched at the show.
Samsung showed a 40-in. OLED high-definition TV prototype in October, and larger screens may be on tap.
Given TV's ease of use, some may prefer these devices for Internet access in the future. With that in mind, some companies are working to merge the Internet and TV. Silicon Mountain Holdings Inc. will show its Allio high-def LCD TV with a built-in PC so users can simultaneously use the TV and Internet through a split screen.
Intel will show prototype products for running mini-applications to complement TV viewing with information from the Internet. For example, widgets will allow TV watchers to talk to friends in real time or buy products advertised on TV from online stores.
The Internet also continues to shape how entertainment is delivered. Streaming media will battle Blu-ray DVD as the way to deliver entertainment and movies to end users. Having conquered HD DVD, Blu-ray still has a hurdle to pass, because most players are priced above $150, so expect prices to drop at CES.
Some kinks also need to be worked out to better stream media between entertainment devices, and expect to see some improvements at the show. Tzero Technologies Inc. will demonstrate devices for wireless HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) multimedia streaming between devices using ultrawideband (UWB) wireless technology. Tzero's technology enables uninterrupted wireless delivery of high-definition video and surround sound at a rate of 480Mbit/sec. over 60 feet, the company claims.
Users may also see progress in data transfers between PCs and devices such as digital cameras with improvements in the USB 3.0 specification.
Overall, many other gadgets will be on display to enjoy over the show's four days. CES may end up being more relaxing and intimate because its floors may be less crowded.