CES Brings Instant Gratification, Future Vision on Hold
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LAS VEGAS -- From tiny music players that dance as they play tunes to smarter toothbrushes and curvy computer screens, U.S. consumers can count on being wowed by another year of cool digital gadgets in the coming year.
But technology industry leaders attending the annual agenda-setting Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week say the focus of this year's event has shifted to instant consumer gratification from visions of what might be.
Gadget makers are benefiting from a decade-old digital transition from older analog technologies. Once separate, devices such as computers, phones, television and automobiles now increasingly connect to one another and share media.
As an example of this convergence, the talk of the show was when controversial electric stun gunmaker Taser unveiled a new leopard-print personal security model with a holster that plays digital music.
At the same time, many executives admit to some concerns that mounting U.S. economic woes may lead consumers to think twice before making their next major gadget purchases.
"Today was about an opportunity to say what are our priorities -- nothing that's that far out," said Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts said on the sidelines of CES. Tuesday, Comcast said a superfast broadband service capable of downloading high-definition movies would be ready this year.
Themes in 2008 included simplifying the way consumers shift their audio and video from TVs to pocket devices to cars. TVs now come as big as Panasonic's 150-inch plasma screen but Pioneer, Sharp, Sony and Samsung showed they can also be ultrathin.
"I don't see anything very revolutionary here," declared Bill Watkins, the outspoken chief executive of Seagate Technology.
Still, Watkins sees another banner year as ever more data needs to be stored. He is head of the world's largest maker of computer disk drives, used in a bewildering array of products from TiVo video recorders to iPods to home surveillance systems.
Every year for the past decade, CES has served as the agenda-setting event for the U.S. industry, providing retailers and pundits a glimpse of what trends may be in store for the following holiday season.
But it also has developed a reputation as a forum for major companies to introduce splashy new technologies that never arrive as promised -- known in the industry as vaporware.
However, this year vaporware appeared to be in shorter supply. On display were advances previously seen as prototypes, including production-ready models of 3-D screen TVs, improved high-definition video cameras at far cheaper prices and digital photo frames linked to Web picture libraries.
Marking the accelerating pace of change in the consumer electronics industry, top executives say companies are prepared to highlight potential hit devices they can deliver sooner rather than later, reversing the old marketing technique of metering out limited deals to slow-build a buzz.
Hard drive maker Seagate showed off the Digital Audio Video Experience, or DAVE., a Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless-enabled disk drive that fits in the palm of the hands of entertainment users contending with limited storage on handheld devices.
The DAVE can carry photos, movies, audio and other documents to be played back wirelessly on mobile devices.
Dell's high-end computer business Alienware is preparing to introduce later in 2008 a curved video display that surrounds a personal computer user with a screen that is equivalent in size to two 24-inch displays laid end to end.
Targeted at video gamers, the unusually shaped screen relies on rear-projection DLP technology. Besides game players, the highly engaging display may attract anyone who is passionately engaged with their computer screen, even spreadsheet users.
Eton, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company backed by Germany's Grundig, has made a name in recent years by bringing fashionable styling to disaster-ready radios.
The FR1000 is a hand crank-powered device that features a two-way radio to let users talk with other FR1000 users on the same band in a seven-mile radius. It also has a flashlight, mobile phone charger, emergency siren and flashing beacon.
Many pundits attending CES bemoan the lack of surprises in an industry that finds it tougher to keep secrets when gadget-obsessed blogs leak many of the hottest product details months ahead of formal announcements.
Attention now turns to next week's Macworld, when Apple chief executive Steve Jobs may supply the magic missing from CES.