Annual gadget show biggest ever, draws widening contingent

Wednesday, January 4th 2006, 9:45 am
By: News On 6

LAS VEGAS (AP) _ Do you want to watch last night's television show today? Would you like to watch the football match in a doctor's waiting room or thousands of miles (kilometers) from home? Or, what if you're suddenly in the mood for last year's hit films?

Technology makes all this ``time-shifting'' possible now, usually with a few button clicks. There's just a question of who will prevail in delivering the products and services that will win over consumers and their changing couch-potato propensities with new standards of convenience and mobility.

That battle for consumer dollars and eyeballs will hit a feverish pitch at the International Consumer Electronics Show, which kicks off Wednesday.

The five-day annual event in Las Vegas, the mother of all tech trade shows, is bigger than ever before. It will consume 28 football fields of space as 2,500 exhibitors ranging from Internet powerhouses like Yahoo Inc. to little-known gizmo makers cast their bets on what they hope will be the next big trends in electronics.

Judging from the latest jockeying, video is one of them.

Yahoo and rival Google Inc. will make their CES debuts with keynote speeches, muscling their way into the high-stakes battle already begun by computing stalwarts, consumer electronics giants and telecommunications companies to push digital media deeper into homes.

With the Web poised to become an increasingly dominant distribution method for movies and television, the Internet giants, along with Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, could very well be the ABC, NBC and CBS networks of the digital age, said Tim Bajarin, an industry analyst with Creative Strategies.

``If they get it right,'' Bajarin said, ``Google, Yahoo and MSN will be the digital portals for video content.''

Hollywood, which is now experimenting with more online delivery services, is taking notice.

In fact, nearly 40 percent of TV network executives surveyed recently by IBM Corp.'s business consulting service said they feared major competition from Internet portals in the next five to seven years.

``The power of the Internet players, and the investments they're making in video, is a threat in and of itself,'' said Saul Berman, author of an upcoming report based on that survey and a partner in IBM's media and entertainment consultancy.

Yahoo officials refused to disclose details about the company's announcements at CES, but it's no secret the company has been aiming to strengthen its position as a provider of all kinds of Internet-related services.

The newest challenge is, ``how do we now expand Yahoo's reach beyond the browser into other devices?'' said Marco Boerries, senior vice president of the company's ``Connected Life'' division.

TVs, a longtime anchor of the consumer electronics industry, will undoubtedly be part of the equation. The sets themselves and related video products such as VCRs and DVD players accounted for almost a fifth of the record-high $126 billion (euro107 billion) in electronics sales estimated in 2005 in the United States by the Consumer Electronics Association.

What's more important, TVs are a ubiquitous household item: the cherished conduit for broadcast, cable or satellite programming, movies and video games. And if all goes as many tech companies want, they will also one day become popular vehicles for accessing photos, videos and music stored on a home computer network, or other online content.

Tech titans like Microsoft and Intel Corp. are banking on it.

At CES, Intel will showcase its newest dual-core chip technologies designed to make playing digital media _ whether from a computer laptop or a newfangled set-top-box _ as easy as possible for users.

Microsoft is expected to provide further details on how it is making its Windows software a convenient platform for digital media on not only computers, but also media servers, mobile phones, portable players and its new Xbox 360 game console.

TV isn't confined to the latest and greatest big screens, either _ even though flashy flat-panels will be heavily showcased at the electronics extravaganza. Nowadays, cell phones, laptops and portable media players could all serve as television screens as well.

Plenty of new portable products designed to capitalize on the video trend will be highlighted at CES. Startup Sling Media Inc., which makes a machine that lets users watch their own TV _ cable, satellite, or even recorded TiVo shows _ on Internet-connected gadgets, will show how its service will soon be able to stream live TV to cell phones, handheld organizers or portable players powered by Microsoft's mobile software.

Meanwhile, telecom giant AT&T Inc. will highlight a new set-top-box that will deliver video-on-demand programming from a satellite source, caller ID, as well as Yahoo-based Internet content _ all via a television and a remote control.

``We'll see a lot of new ways to get content to the consumer at CES,'' Berman said. ``Everyone is trying to find ways of reaching that huge, segmented audience.''