IT Giants Return Home For the Money

For years, IT manufacturers ignored the consumer electronics market — the profit margin was too thin, demand was too unpredictable. But the advent of broadband, wireless home networking, digital content and PCs that serve as home entertainment hubs has sparked new interest.

For proof, look no further than this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The trade show kicks off Wednesday night with a keynote by Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates.

The Redmond, Wash., software maker plans a number of consumer-focused releases this year including “Smart Watches,” speech technologies and a upgrade of its MSN broadband service (new features include video and bolstered storage capacity).

Microsoft and chip maker Intel are expected to announce a new partnership at CES that emphasizes the use of PC as the center of the home entertainment network, according to a report in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Likewise, Michael Dell, Carly Fiorina and Paul Otellini, executives with Dell , Hewlett-Packard and Intel, respectively, will update attendees on their companies’ efforts to meld IT and CE.

One topic sure to be hot at this year’s show will be Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) , which uses broadband connections to bypass traditional phone networks. FCC Chairman Michael Powell is scheduled to discuss issues — including digital rights management — that IT companies are watching closely as they earmark more research and development dollars for consumer products. Powell is likely be asked about regulating the technology following his presentation.

Several IT firms have announcements on tap for CES. Following Michael Dell’s speech on Thursday, executives from the Round Rock, Texas company will discuss “new developments” in its imaging and printing business line. A Dell spokeswoman declined to elaborate.

Dell is a recent entrant in consumer electronics. In September, the PC company said it would put its name and super-efficient ordering and supply chain to the test with digital TVs, media players and a music download service, and a new handheld computer. In addition, the company is packaging software on its desktops to help users store and manage digital photos, video and music.

Other companies that were once played only in the PC space, such as Apple Computer and Gateway have also pushed into other consumer electronics. Now, these companies sell devices such as MP3 players and the Plasma TV market to compete head-to-head with Sony and other Asia-based manufacturers.

Motorola is also planning a slew of new products for CES. The Chicago-area company has experience in the consumer market with the sale of its mobile handsets, but it is pushing into new areas.

Offerings include: digital cable-ready high-definition receivers and home theater products; home telephony products; and wireless networking products that extend the broadband Internet experience throughout the home.

Jeanne Russo, a Motorola spokeswoman told that the company is confident it will succeed with new products because of its wireless and broadband experience and brand name.

Other companies have released advanced news as well. Delphi is expected to unveil new wireless 802.11g technology to allow users to transfer audio files and other data to and from their vehicles and home entertainment systems.

And Warrantech , a provider of service contracts and after-market warranties, is unveiling new time- and cost-saving features for its Web-based tool, WCPS Online.

New modules for WCPS Online application reduce paperwork and cut the time and costs of administering warranties for dealers and service providers, while providing a better experience and faster service for customers. Given the push by IT heavyweights and advances in home networking technology, Warrantech’s service could come in handy.

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