Sunday, January 6, 2013

CES expects to be evolutionary - San Francisco Chronicle

More than 150,000 people are expected to descend on Las Vegas this week, all hoping to find which of the 20,000 new products at the world's biggest consumer electronics trade show is the next latest, greatest revolution in technology.

Yet the 2013 International CES figures to be more of a showcase for incremental evolutions of TVs, phones, tablets and other gadgets rather than the start of any revolution.

"We'll see no breakthrough product," said Silicon Valley analyst Tim Bajarin, a veteran of many a CES.

Organizers of the four-day show, which opens Tuesday, expect attendance to be at least the same as last year, when a record 156,000 people crowded into Las Vegas, even though the Consumer Electronics Show is also undergoing an evolutionary transition.

Last year, Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer delivered the last of the company's 15 consecutive CES kickoff speeches. Whether it was from Ballmer or Chairman Bill Gates, the Microsoft presentation was always the glamour event, meant to set the stage for the rest of the show.

This year, that honor belongs to Paul Jacobs, CEO of wireless technology giant Qualcomm, a brand average consumers probably know only because the San Diego company bought the naming rights to the football stadium in its hometown.

Mobile focus

Jacobs' theme is "Born Mobile," which fits with the trend of consumers rapidly shifting away from Microsoft's desktop PC domain to technology they can hold in their hands and take anywhere.

Like tablet computers. Each of the past three or four years, tech pundits have predicted that tablets would be everywhere at CES (and yes, even we called the 2011 show "the year of the tablet").

Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies of Campbell, said this year's CES could even be "the pinnacle tablet show" because of an influx of about 70 tablets, many from China, costing $79 to $99.

"These are no-name tablets, but what that suggests is there is a massive move toward low-cost tablets this year," he said.

And that, in turn, could wipe out interest in some of the 7-inch e-book readers that were darlings of CES past, because tablets are "pretty much affordable for everybody," he said.

Sometimes technology evolves so quickly, one blinks and it's over. It was only a few years ago, at the 2010 CES, that 23 companies were generating buzz in a new exhibit dedicated to e-readers. Those included companies like Mountain View's Plastic Logic, which never even got a product into the hands of consumers.

Auto tech

It's not all about gadgets. The organizer of the show, the industry trade group Consumer Electronics Association, expects about 20,000 products, including cloud-based services, to be introduced at the show. And there are more automakers at the show than ever to present technology that connects the data cloud to those cars.

One area featuring health and fitness technologies has expanded by 25 percent and will include more than 220 companies offering health-monitoring devices and apps. Also larger than last year is an area called Eureka Park, which showcases startups and entrepreneurs.

As always, it wouldn't be CES without TV manufacturers promising products that are bigger, smaller, brighter, faster, sharper, thinner and smarter, although probably not cheaper.

The big push this year is Ultra HD, supposedly the next generation of HDTV technology. Also known as 4K, Ultra HD displays use about 4,000 pixels, compared with the 1,080 pixels on the now-common 1080p monitors. Westinghouse has already said it plans to unveil a 110-inch Ultra HD monitor at CES.

One major drawback is that there's not enough content available to watch in Ultra HD.

But "once you get to that high level of resolution, you can do interesting things with the glass itself," said Bajarin. Picture, he said, an ultra-thin glass monitor with all the electrical circuits hidden in the base.

Vertical TV

South Korea's Samsung has teased tech pundits by posting a hint of what it will present: a photo of a translucent TV monitor in portrait mode, that is, positioned vertically instead of the standard horizontal mode of an HDTV screen.

The Verge website translated the blog post to read, "A true innovation of TV design is coming up with an unprecedented new TV shape and timeless design."

What that means is anyone's guess, but Samsung is already benefiting from the hype. And hype is part and parcel of CES.

The show is not open to consumers. In fact, the CEA has renamed the 45-year-old event "International CES" to emphasize the fact that it is meant for tech industry analysts, retail electronics buyers and executives and investors. There are more than 5,000 journalists registered to cover it. To put that in context, the NFL says there were 5,200 media credentials issued for last February's Super Bowl.

That forces the 3,000 CES exhibitors spread out across 1.87 million square feet of the show's floor - which is itself spread across the Las Vegas Convention Center and several hotels - to vie for attention to land those lucrative sales contracts, financial investments or free publicity.

New products

So for the past few weeks, public relations representatives have been sending a deluge of press releases on behalf of their clients, whether they make iPhone cases or Ultra HD monitors.

One press release, for example, breathlessly alerted us that a client would be showing "the biggest product of 2013 at CES and this would be a great opportunity for you to get special sneak peak before it goes public!"

That is, of course, if it ever does go public.

Follow The Chronicle's coverage of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show on the Tech Chronicles blog:

Benny Evangelista is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:

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