Gadgets have always taken center stage at the Consumer Electronics Show, but this year more than ever, even the coolest devices seem to be mere means to an end -- access to content and services whenever and wherever you want them.
For years the underlying trend at CES, held in Las Vegas from Monday through Thursday, has been convergence, the increasing connection among communications, consumer electronics and computer industries. This year the stakes have been raised, with new mobile services, devices that connect to wireless broadband networks, and deals between content and entertainment companies and computer vendors.
With the addition of Web 2.0 services and content into the traditional convergence mix, expect the term Convergence 2.0, which pops up occasionally, to be used more frequently in the future.
The diverse array of gadgets and standards at the show can be a barrier to convergence, however. Industry executives acknowledge that despite -- or because of -- the various connectivity technologies on the market, making products work together is still a complicated and daunting task for consumers.
As usual, Bill Gates set the tone with the initial CES keynote Sunday, although this year was the Microsoft co-founder's final appearance at the show. Gates and Microsoft Entertainment and Devices Division President Robbie Bach unveiled new partnerships for Microsoft's MSN, Xbox Live and Mediaroom IPTV services.
They also announced that NBC will use Silverlight technology for video playback and on-demand access to events. In addition, Microsoft is working with TNT, Showtime and CNN to provide IPTV-based services, and announced deals with MGM and ABC to bring content to Xbox Live.
"XBox Live is attracting virtually all the content people because of the volume we've got there and they see this group of very engaged users spending a lot of hours and finding new media in that environment," said Gates, in an exclusive interview with the IDG News Service. "Our announcement with NBC on the Olympics is about our innovations in this Silverlight, where you can view interactive content, multiple video streams."
Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang underscored the importance of mobile services in his Monday keynote, introducing a new look for the company's Go mobile Web interface, and new technology to let third-party developers build mobile widgets for the mobile platform.
One sign that the concept of convergence has been juiced up: the head of the largest chip maker in the world spent most of his keynote time talking about future "personalized" Web experiences. "Increasingly, computing and communications are coming together, bringing a new level of capability and intelligence to the Internet experience," said Intel CEO Paul Otellini in a Tuesday keynote. "The personal Internet of tomorrow will serve you, delivering the information you want, when you want it, how you want, wherever you are."
Otellini demonstrated the Canmore system-on-a-chip platform, due out in the second half of the year, which enables high-resolution imaging and broadcast TV for consumer electronics devices. The chip includes the Intel Architecture processor, and an audio-visual unit that supports 1080p high-resolution imaging and surround sound.
Qualcomm, meanwhile showed off a prototype of what it called a Windows-mobile based "pocketable" computer running on its recently released 7201 chip. The screen, at 800 pixels wide, is designed to view Web sites designed for regular PCs, rather than versions altered for ultramobile PCs. Connectivity features include HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access), GPS (Global Positioning Service), Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Small computing devices are often ultramobile PCs (UMPCs), a term marketed by Microsoft, but vendors use a variety of terms.
Intel was showing off prototypes of UMPCs based on its upcoming Menlow chips. A Lenovo device was running Red Flag Linux OS, and sported a 4.8-inch touch screen as well as a camera. Other devices at the booth included small handheld PCs with touchscreens, from Toshiba and Clarion.
For all the UMPC prototypes being showed here, though, industry insiders were quick to acknowledge that the market has not taken off as quickly as had been expected. One reason UMPC sales have not increased dramatically, at least in the U.S., is that wireless bandwidth for mobile devices up to now has been slow, they say.
"A true ultramobile experience is being able to put a device in a handbag, go have a picnic in the park, pull out your mobile device and easily surf the Web, said Alp Sezen, a sales director for Via Technologies based in Fremont, California. "Right now, you can't get that experience."
"It will take a year or two for the mobile wireless experience to get better," he said. "Wi-Max, and the opening up of Verizon's EV-DO network in the third quarter this year will help give a better experience for ultramobile users."
Sprint Nextel and its hardware partners, meanwhile, said they are on track with WiMax plans for the second quarter. Nokia and Samsung officials said they will have devices that will operate with WiMax in the second quarter, and Motorola said it is working on a device that will operate over Sprint's EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) cellular network, Wi-Fi and WiMax.
For short-range wireless connectivity, devices incorporating the new 11n Wi-Fi standard were also on display. Netgear, for example, unveiled a two-radio 5GHz 802.11n for less than US$130. The company also released an 11n router with five Gigabit Ethernet ports.
One development that might end up making things easier for consumers puzzled by all vast array of gadgets and standards -- not all of which are interoperable -- was the decision by Warner Bros. to go with Blu-ray Disc, rather than HD DVD, for high-definition movies. The announcement, on the eve of the show, sparked thoughts that the high-definition format war may be over.
Of course, Akio Ozaka, head of Toshiba America Consumer Products, put up a brave front at a news conference. But Philips Consumer Electronics also threw its full support behind Blu-ray, adding a Blu-ray DVD player, the BDP7200 DVD to its product lineup.