And now, the dirty little secret of the Consumer Electronics Show: nobody actually knows what's going on here.
There's simply too much of the damn thing. The tech industry's annual half-week-long showcase-slash-party now involves upwards of 130,000 people and some 2,500 companies. If you recently tried to book a hotel room in Las Vegas, you'll have noticed that prices suddenly doubled or tripled from January 6th to the 9th. Not only does the conference occupy pretty much all of the massive Las Vegas convention centre's 3.2-million square feet, but it also spills out into the nearby Venetian hotel, not to mention the many, many other events the big tech firms put on individually.
Simply put: no one analyst, reporter or industry expert is going to get around to seeing even a significant fraction of the whole showcase. Over the years, the definition of "consumer electronics" has expanded to include everything from stun guns to paper shredders. The last CES-related PR e-mail I got before I hopped the flight to Vegas was from a company that makes mattresses.
CES officially gets under way on Thursday, but Tuesday and Wednesday are arguably more important for the thousands of reporters here. On Tuesday, reporters lined up to attend "CES Unveiled," a (relatively) small showroom full of about two dozen companies that had previously been selected as a sort of "best in show" in various product categories. Tech companies fall all over themselves trying to get into this thing because it's a media-only event that ensures a whole lot of coverage, and because the showcase is so exclusive that the companies won't get lost in the crowd.
This year's CES Unveiled winning companies looked a lot like last year's: 3D displays, headphones and audio products (including many iPod and iPad docks). At least one Canadian company, Montreal's Sonomax, made the showcase. Sonomax used to design state-of-the-art earplugs, but have recently shifted to making custom headphones designed in the shape of individual customers' ears. Thanks to the CES exposure, you'll be hearing about them a lot more in the near future.
Wednesday kicks off with a series of press conferences from the likes of LG, Sony, Motorola and Intel. The evening ends with a keynote speech from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, usually a highlight of the show. It's likely Mr. Ballmer will spend much of his time talking about Microsoft's Xbox-centered multimedia strategy and whatever it is the company plans to do about the growing tablet market.
Expect tablets to be the big news out of the show. According to Forrester Research, tablet sales in the U.S. will double this year to 24 million. That's a pretty big market for just one device (currently, Apple's iPad). As such, we'll probably be hearing a whole lot from companies such as HP, HTC, Research In Motion and Samsung, which are all after a piece of that market.
Of course, keep in mind that, this time last year, CES led us to believe that the big stories of 2010 would be electronic book-readers and 3D TVs, so the companies and products that make a big splash in Vegas don't always perfectly predict what the rest of the year will be like.