A Charged-Up Consumer Electronics Show


By Stephen H. Wildstrom I knew it was going to be true trade-show craziness at the end of the first day of the Jan. 8-11 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I planned to stop by my room at the Las Vegas Hilton, which adjoins the Convention Center, before picking up my car to head for a reception and dinner. Alas, I found what looked like about a 15-minute line just to get onto an elevator. So, I wearily headed for the evening's activities, still in my rumpled clothes and show floor Rockports.

Not since the pre-crash heyday of Comdex has the technology industry had a trade show quite like this year's CES. Auto traffic was immobilized, and cab lines seemed to stretch into Arizona. Over 129,000 attendees filled more than 1.38 million square feet of display space, creating the general ambiance of a shopping mall two days before Christmas, only a lot noisier. Every exhibitor I talked to was convinced that the crowds and the optimism of buyers who swarmed the "booths"(which can take up thousands of square feet) portend a boffo 2004.

As recently as 2001, CES seemed to be in danger of becoming yet another computer-industry show, as traditional consumer-electronics companies such as Sony (SNE) and Panasonic (MC) sought to establish their PC bona fides. This year, the most prominent PCs were those provided for visitors to check their e-mail.

HP AND APPLE. Even the exhibits of companies far more closely associated with information technology than consumer electronics now have a very strong CE focus. Intel (INTC) made a big move into entertainment with the announcement that it was entering the display business with a new chip designed to lower the cost of high-definition projection TVs. Microsoft (MSFT) focused on a new portable video player and a technology that will let content from Windows Media Center PCs be watched on TV around the house.

The biggest news of CES was the surprise announcement by Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) that it would sell an HP-brand version of Apple Computer's (AAPL) iPod music player and would pre-install Apple's iTunes as the default music-management software on HP consumer PCs.

Each of the past several years has been heralded as "the year of HDTV" at CES. The big difference in 2004 is that it finally feels real. With prices down sharply and the availability of HD content rising, HDTV seems poised to become a mainstream product.

OUTSIZE DISPLAYS. Accordingly, big screens were everywhere at CES. South Korea's LG Electronics proudly declared that it was showing the world's largest plasma display, a 76-inch monster. But another Korean display maker wasn't about to let LG claim the bragging rights and came up with an 80-inch plasma display for its nearby booth. Samsung, which claimed honors for the largest liquid-crystal TV last year, with a 42-inch model, this year showed a 57-inch LCD panel, nearly twice the area of last year's champ.

Another indication of HDTV's popularity is the number of companies jumping into the display business. Motorola (MOT) started out as a consumer-electronic company but exited the TV business decades ago. Now it's back. Seeing displays as a natural adjunct to its cable set-top boxes, Motorola has introduced a new line of flat-panel displays.

Info-tech companies with little or no historic connection to the CE business are also coming aboard. Gateway (GTW) led the charge by introducing plasma TVs more than a year ago, and nearly every product it showed was entertainment-oriented, including a Media Center PC cleverly disguised to look like a piece of audio equipment. Dell (DELL) and HP are also offering flat-panel TVs, and Epson introduced its Living Stations, a pair of projection TVs with built-in photo printers and CD recorders.

OLDIES BUT GOODIES. This flood of new products is leading to the revival of some dormant brand names, now generally licensed to give Chinese or Taiwanese companies a way to break out of the no-name pack. Polaroid never made TVs when it was a photographic powerhouse, but you can now buy a Polaroid-brand display.

And Westinghouse, a name absent from consumer-electronics ranks for years and now owned by Germany's Siemens (SI) for industrial and power products, is back with a line of LCD TVs. A Taiwanese group has acquired not only Westinghouse's famous "W" logo but it's promoting its products with a slogan familiar to consumers of a certain age: "You can be sure...if it's Westinghouse." Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek


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