The 2007 edition of the annual January gadget madness show known as CES opened Monday in Las Vegas, crammed with booths displaying huge digital TVs, video and music players and networking gear.
However, despite the thousands of registered vendors, most of the industry will be looking north-west Tuesday towards San Francisco, where Apple CEO Steve Jobs is expected to make a big announcement at Macworld.
There is intense speculation he’ll raise the curtain on everything from a smartphone to a TV setbox.
It’s interesting, said Michael Gartenberg, vice-president and research director of Jupiter Research, that a company that isn’t at CES is generating so much curiosity.
But perhaps that’s because Apple has been on such a roll lately following the introduction of its standard iPod, followed by the video versions, that anticipation just naturally follows.
Kicking off the Vegas show, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates revealed another version of the company’s bread-and-butter operating system, Windows Home Server, aimed at helping consumers with more than one Windows Vista or XP PC store and back up data. It will be available later this year.
Among the vendors building appliances around the OS will be Hewlett-Packard, whose multiple-hard drive version will be called the HP MediaSmart Server.
AMD will offer a reference design called AMD Live! Home Media Server for those who want to build an AMD-powered system around Windows Home Server.
Microsoft is also using the show to generate hype for the Jan. 30 release of the consumer version of Vista by touting new features of that OS not discussed until now, such DreamScene, which gives those with Vista Ultimate edition the ability to have movies instead of still pictures on their desktops.
“We’re going to see a more evolutionary than revolutionary CES” this year, predicted Gartnerberg in a pre-show interview. Technologies rolled out in recent years such as high definition widescreen LCD and plasma TVs and surround sound have reached a maturation point, he said. Now manufacturers are trying to refine them while at the same time differentiate themselves from competitors.
Watch for products that try to deliver on the promise of the so-called digital consumer, he said. “As more consumers take their lives online in the form of pictures, music, video and blogs, the key is how to manage the technology,” he said, “allowing the consumer to take advantage of their digital life.”
One thing that will not shift, however, is movement behind one of the two opposing high- definition DVD formats, Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Trumpeted at last year’s show to great fanfare by Sony and Toshiba respectively on the eve of their debuts, the formats have been a flop at cash registers largely due to their incompatibility and the high price of players. While more players will be shown this year, and more titles will be available for rent or purchase, high-definition DVD is moving slower than the Canadian government on global warming.
“Certainly the lack of a unified standard is not helping any party,” said Gartenberg. “We think most consumers are going to sit this one out until prices come way down and there’s a belief that there’s going to be one clear standard – or both standards are going to be viable.”
LG Electronics announced at the show a player coming to Canada shortly that can use discs with both formats. The SMB-007, which is also dubbed the Super Multi-Blue player, will retail at $1,499. However, some in the industry believe multi-players will be too expensive for most buyers.
Meanwhile, consumer dollars are going into digial TVs and surround sound, he said.
Meanwhile, home networking remains “the biggest Achilles’ heel” of a large number of products introduced at CES in recent years, he said. Many of them were predicated on the promise of a vast, secure and speedy home network easily constructed around wireless hubs and routers which has failed to materialize.
Gartenberg said he wonders if more vendors will stand up and face this challenge.
While giant corporations are throwing tens of millions in products and marketing at resellers, retailers and distributors this week, Gartenberg cautions that good intentions, hype and cash don’t always generate income.
Last year, for example, Microsoft was boasting about its Plays For Sure technology in tandem with partners talking up subscription video and music in a bid to develop an integrated answer to the iPod. By last summer such talk had evaporated, and in the fall Microsoft brought out its own Zune devices.
Among the early product announcements, Panasonic showed new versions of its Toughbook laptops, including the semi-rugged $2,2995 Y5, which has a spill-resistant keyboard. Tip the notebook on its side and spilled liquid flows out of a hole on the keyboard.
“You almost think it’s a magician’s trick when you see it for the first time,” said Thom Leiper, director of communications and computer systems at Panasonic Canada.
Other new semi-rugged models in the are the T5 and the W5, both priced at $2,695, which have 12.1-in. LCD screens.
The fully-rugged CF line adds the $4,449 CF30, with a 1,000-Nit brightness, 13.3-inch screen and a dual-core Intel 1.66 ULV processor, and the CF 19, a convertible Tablet PC with a 110.4-in. screen and an Intel dual-core 1.06 Ghz CPU. Both models come with Bluetooth wireless.
Seagate introduced what it calls FreeAgent data movers, a family of storage solutions in various sizes that give users storage in multple formats. FreeAgent Pro desktop untis come in 320GB, 500GB, 750GB sizes. FreeAgent Go USB devices, in 80GB, 120GB, 160GB and sizes, include software allowing users to carry Web favorites, passwords and settings, IM, email, contacts as well as digital files. FreeAgent Go Small’s 12 Gb USB units are said to be slightly bigger than a matchbox.
Samsung announced the CLX-3160FN, the company’s first compact colour laser multifunction printer. Weighing only 45.19 pounds, the unit is aimed at the consumer and SOHO markets. It features newly designed compact toner bottles instead of unwieldy traditional cartridges, allowing for a diminutive footprint of only 18.3 x 16.9 x 19.1 inches.
In addition to the MediaSmart Server, HP highlighted nine new HDTVs, the HP TouchSmart PC, a space-saving, touch-screen PC that enable consumers to quickly and easily access digital content, and the Pavilion tx1000 Entertainment Notebook PC, a consumer tablet PC optimized for Vista and designed for on-the-go entertainment.