Software could overshadow gadgets at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show, with Microsoft expected to shed light on its upcoming Windows 7 OS.
The financial meltdown may also be lingering topic as tech vendors gather to flaunt products at the show in Las Vegas, hoping to show enough glitter and sparkle to bring them better fortunes in the new year. Attendees will pour over the latest technologies, including OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs, netbooks, smartphones, media players, and other entertainment devices.
Audiences may miss the show's perennial star, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who gave his final CES speech earlier this year. Instead, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will kick off the event with a keynote address on Jan. 7. He's expected to give a peek at Microsoft's Windows 7 OS, which many hope will be zippier and less resource hungry than Windows Vista.
Microsoft expects to make "significant" Windows 7 announcements, including a possible release of Windows 7 beta software. A "sneak peek" at future Microsoft Office software may also be offered.
A look at Microsoft's future software could add pep to what otherwise might turn out to be a subdued show. Attendance at CES 2009 is expected to drop as consumers and technology vendors cut spending amid the economic crisis. Hotels, which in previous years were often packed months before the show, have been offering discounted rates to fill rooms.
The Consumer Electronics Association insists that pre-registration has been strong and says it's too early to call it a quiet show. Organizers expect 130,000 attendees, said CEA spokeswoman Tara Dunion.
However, that would still be a significant drop from 144,000 attendees at CES 2007.
The prospect of a reduced audience hasn't fazed companies like Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell from showing products in or around the show. Overall, 2,700 companies will be present at various locations, including the Las Vegas Convention Center and surrounding resorts and hotels.
A standout at CES could be netbooks, small laptops used for basic applications such as Web surfing and e-mail. Intel defined the category with its Atom processor, which was then solidified by the success of Asus' Eee PC. The show could see an evolution of netbooks, with features like touch screens attracting interest. Asus will likely show a touch-screen netbook, and Intel is showing off its Convertible Classmate, a netbook with a touch screen that swivels.
Via's elusive Nano processor may also make an appearance. Rumor has it that Samsung will show its NC20 laptop based on a Nano processor.
Some of Intel's competitors, meanwhile, may try to redefine how people think of netbooks by pushing more advanced capabilities. Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia may talk more about boosting graphics on netbooks. Freescale and Qualcomm could demonstrate netbooks with more communication-savvy chips.
Mundane laptops will also get a makeover. Expect plenty of buzz around a new Sony Vaio laptop, which the company says is "revolutionary" and will change the way users think about the products. It remains unclear if the tiny laptop is a netbook or a full-featured ultraportable. For power users, Lenovo is expected to show the ThinkPad W700DS laptop with two screens -- a first in laptops -- for people who want to perform multiple tasks at the same time.
Rounding off mobility will be smartphones with new operating systems, touchscreens and 3G connectivity. Many mobile phone companies are expected to adopt Google's Android platform, including Samsung, which may show an Android phone at CES.
Struggling smartphone maker Palm is holding a big event to announce its new Linux-based OS code-named Nova, along with new devices. The company hopes to use CES as a springboard to regain prominence in the smart phone market, where it has been eclipsed by Research In Motion and Apple.
Like past CES shows, televisions will grab the imagination of visitors as vendors fight to remain the centerpiece for home entertainment. CES 2008 saw the emergence of OLED screens with prototypes from Sony and Samsung, and CES 2009 could see further progress. In May, Sony CEO Howard Stringer said a 27-inch OLED TV would be coming, which could launch at the show.
Samsung showed a 40-inch OLED high-definition TV prototype in October, and larger screens may be on tap.
Given TV's ease of use, some may prefer these devices for Internet access in the future. With that in mind, some companies are working to merge the Internet and TV. Silicon Image will show its Allio high-definition LCD TV with a built-in PC so users can simultaneously use the TV and Internet through a split screen.
Intel will show prototype products for running mini-applications to complement TV viewing with information from the Internet. For example, widgets will allow TV watchers to talk to friends in real time or buy products advertised on TV from online stores.
The Internet also continues to shape how entertainment is delivered. Streaming media will battle Blu-ray DVD as the way to deliver entertainment and movies to end users. Having conquered HD DVD, Blu-ray still has a hurdle to pass with most players priced above US$150, so expect prices to drop at CES.
Some kinks also need to be worked out to better stream media between entertainment devices, and expect to see some improvements at the show. Tzero will demonstrate devices for wireless HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) multimedia streaming between devices using ultrawideband (UWB) wireless technology. Tzero's technology enables uninterrupted wireless delivery of high-definition video and surround sound at a rate of 480Mbps over 20 meters, the company claims.
Users may also see progress in data transfers between PCs and devices like digital cameras with improvements in the USB 3.0 specification.
Overall, many other gadgets will be on display to enjoy over the show's four days. CES may end up being more relaxing and intimate with the floors less crowded.