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2006 CES

Report from the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

I just returned from the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which was an amazing spectacle with over 150,000 attendees and 30,000 exhibitors consuming several venues. Curiously, no consumers are allowed, only bona fide members of the electronics industry who are potential buyers and the press.

It would be impossible to recount all that I saw and experienced in the space allotted here, so let me offer some highlights. I would characterize the major themes as convergence and connectivity.

The concept of convergence was evident on all levels. For instance, telephones are becoming more multifunctional. The first evidence was the phone combining with a camera. Now phones are acquiring many more useful features as they become more like PDAs in the form of Pocket PC Phones and Smartphones. About the only difference is the size of the screen and whether or not it is a touch screen.

One of the biggies to be unveiled was the Palm Treo 700, which is now a true Smartphone using the Windows Mobile 5 operating system. The Motorola Q was another showstopper because of its sleek form factor making it the slimmest Smartphone on the market. More of the new Smartphones will be offering Wi-Fi as an additional money-saving means of telephone connectivity.

Nokia strutted their new wares, which were high on the WOW factor scale, but wanting in true Smartphone functionality features such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, processing power, memory, external storage, and software download ability.

Speaking of phones, Vonage and Skype were evident everywhere with booths offering free phone calls anywhere in the world over the Internet. Many companies were offering devices such as handsets and interface boxes that worked with Vonage or Skype to take voice mail and forward calls over the Internet to your cell phone. I'll be discussing this more in future articles.

It won't be long before iPods will have to step aside. I swear every other booth had some form of MP3 player, some with features like bigger screens, radio tuner, removable media, and camera. There were digital players that were smaller, more attractive, more functional, and less expensive than the iPod. Some even had Bluetooth for connecting to wireless headphones. And Bluetooth wireless headphones will soon be readily available at reasonable prices for all manner of devices.

Apple has attempted to corner the market with iPods and with iTunes as the only source of music downloads. Most MP3 players will play other formats, which makes them more versatile. Several companies are moving to capture this growing market such as Rhapsody, Sony's Connect, and Napster. One of the keynote whammies released by the co-CEO of Google, Larry Page, with the help of Robin Williams, was that Google will be entering the music and video download business.

The primary question is whether consumers will be willing to pay $1.99 for a rerun episode of CSI or Westwing to view on a tiny screen. But, if you don't like tiny screens, there were titanic sized ones everywhere. I saw huge plasma screens offered by HP, Samsung, Pioneer, and Phillips. The largest was 102 inches and cost $77,000. Every booth had to have at least three or four flat screen TVs, in which case I saw billions of dollars worth of this technology.

Even though, in his keynote address, Larry Page, co-founder of Google, urged the industry to standardize products to make it easier on the consumer; we are embarking on a round of format wars. Which of the two formats of HDTV should you purchase? What format of DVD will be the winner? Every handheld device has a different connector, and even the same brands use different ones for each model. We need some convergence here for sure. Then there's still the compatibility issue between MAC and PC machines.

Microsoft was omnipresent showcasing its products and services stressing the convergence of TV, computers, and all manner of electronics. Bill Gates extolled the virtues of Vista, the next generation of the Windows operating system. Michael Dell proudly presented a super fast new gaming computer, which he said would take computing to the next level. Isn't it interesting how gaming and entertainment seem to drive the computer industry? Tom Cruise and Helen Degeneres had to ad-lib for Yahoo when the demo developed a glitch.

Hewlett Packard unveiled some racy new laptops, the Protege and Qosmo with HD DVD and TV capabilities. HP also had a house of the future that featured all kinds of wireless integration. Every room had a video control panel that handled every electronic system in the house from ovens to dishwashers, sprinklers, garage doors, barbeque, hot tub, lighting, air conditioning, heating, and security. For instance, when you leave this house, you just push the Goodbye icon on the screen by the door, and the blinds come down, the curtains close, the garage door opens, your car starts, and the security system is turned on. If you wanted a meal cooked, the oven would be programmed; the spa would be hot when you get home, and the clothes would be washed and so would the dishes. What seemed curious to me was that you couldn't use voice commands. Heck, I can tell my Pocket PC or Smartphone to do anything I want it to do, and they faithfully do my bidding.

In the dining room, a large, flat-panel, plasma TV hung on the wall surrounded by a rococo gold frame. Naturally, you could watch TV on it, but it was another example of convergence because it also served as a computer monitor on which you could surf the Net. It would also show movies and slide shows. You could even download the works of famous artists from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1.99 each, and it looked as if you had the real thing hanging on your wall.

The bathroom had a handsome framed mirror over the sink. The bottom third of the mirror was actually a touch TV screen/computer monitor on which you could watch the news, check your stocks, view the weather, get the traffic report, and surf the Internet. You could also use it to make phone calls.

There were robots galore. Sony had one that danced the hula and went up and down stairs. There are many construct-your-own-robot kits available now. Some snap together like Legos; others reminded me of Erector Sets from when I was a boy. Of course they were all wireless and remote control.

At the Sands Convention Center, which was one of the CES venues, I noticed that I seemed to be surrounded by scantily clad, liberally tattooed females. Following the crowd, I was denied entry because I didn't have a badge for the Adult Entertainment Conference, which was being held concurrently with CES. I subsequently termed it the CEXXX conference. As you may know, porn sites and the adult entertainment industry are eager to embrace and are often the leaders in electronic technology. For instance, there will soon be porn for the iPod easily downloadable for your convenience, if you can handle small screen smut.

In addition to the pervasive themes of connectivity and convergence, perhaps the most dominant theme was Capitalize on Electronics. If anyone is looking for a fun way to make money, I would recommend attending the next CES and forging a deal with some of the exhibitors who are eager to have their products represented in the United States. Then market those products from a Website and on eBay.

Keep connected. -- Tim Hillebrand