Comdex is dead, long live CES, vendors say

LAS VEGAS – Bigger, brighter, bolder — but with thousands of people in the aisles, not necessarily faster — the annual Consumer Electronics Show has returned here with vendors from around the world promising better homes through technology.

And if a quick tour of just a small slice of the estimated 1.6 million square feet of exhibition space is a guide, every room in every residence will soon have a flat panel wide screen television.

“I was here two years ago, and it’s definitely bigger this year,” Darren McPhee, an ATI Technologies senior product manager, said of the show.

“Comdex has faded away and CES has become the main show for computing and consumer electronics in the U.S.,” said Hal Speed, a marketing architect for AMD.

What the estimated 130,000 retailers, resellers, suppliers and distributors who are here are hoping is that the new products and strategies being revealed will help continue the boom in consumer IT spending.

Among the themes manufacturers are stressing this year is the proximity of the long-promised convergence of broadband and high definition television, in part thanks to the U.S. Congress, which has mandated analogue broadcasters switch to digital starting in 2007. That has lead vendors to expand lines they only tentatively entered in 2005.

So, for example, Hewlett-Packard, which last year began selling plasma and LCD televisions and its Digital Entertainment Centre in Canada in a limited way (strictly through the Best Buy chain), said it is preparing to widen its channel to selected resellers.

“The best fit are consumer electronic retailers who have a heritage of selling IT,” said Jeff Cates, HP Canada’s consumer business manager.

No decision yet has been made on who those resellers will be, he said. But they will have access to new plasma and LCD TVs the company announced here.

Nor has a decision been made on which company will distribute the TVs. However, Cates added that HP Canada taking steps to broaden its distribution of PC products. Until now Ingram Micro Canada was the only distributor of its desktops, laptops and monitors. Another distributor will be added this year, Cates said, to give resellers more choice of who they buy from. One of those distributors will also handle the TVs and Digital Entertainment Centres, which are set-top boxes running Windows Media Centre.

“Ingram has the better heritage with consumer products,” said Cates, but that didn’t mean it has a lock on the CE line.

A second distributor will have the advantage also of helping HP Canada expand its notebook sales, he added.

HP products announced here include the SLC3760n 37-inch LCD television, dubbed an advanced digital media TV that can connect to a number of platforms, letting users manage not only video but JPG movies and MP3s. No pricing was announced.

New laptops include the EB8000, an 8.5-lb. Windows Media Centre unit with a 17-inch wide-screen.

BenQ, which started distributing five models of flat-panel TVs last year, is adding a Prestige line, starting with a 42-inch model with higher resolution than its value line.

Late last year Intel announced it will be bringing out a line of set-top boxes called Viiv for creating home entertainment centres. On the eve of the conference Microsoft chairman Bill Gates announced his company will partner with the chipmaker on that initiative.

AMD matched that by announcing here a program called AMD Live, a yet-to-be-determined specification for firms to create such centres around its 64-bit dual core desktop CPU and an upcoming 64-bit dual core mobile processor.

“This program is ideal for system builders,” said Speed, who can sell their expertise by creating customized PCs from components they know. Unlike Intel’s Viiv units, system builders won’t be limited to fixed chipsets or software stack, he added.

In his keynote, Gates and his staff offered a peek of the upcoming Windows Vista, including a new Media Centre Edition. Among the features will be the ability to quickly scroll through images of album covers (each representing dozens of MP3s).

But there’s life in the current version of Media Centre. One company will release this year a small set-top box using it that will sell for under US$1,000 with a TV tuner, he said. Meanwhile LG has just released a wide-screen portable Media Centre-powered device (about the size of a PlayStation 2 handheld), he said.

Gates also said Microsoft is still trying to push the slow-selling Tablet PC — powered by a special version of Windows — into broader markets, a move that will be pushed by a new version based on Windows Vista with better handwriting recognition.

“We’re driving that to the mainstream,” he promised. “It’s something we’re very committed to.”

Microsoft will also team with MTV to offer an online music buying and subscription service in the U.S. called Urge. There was no word on when or if it will be available in Canada.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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