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Crowds signal a CES resurgence

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

LAS VEGAS

Can you find hope for the U.S. economy in a TV with its own app store, a camcorder that records in 3-D or a shiny new tablet computer? If it's the Consumer Electronics Show, where the crowds look to be returning to levels last seen in 2007 and 2008, maybe you can.

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A year ago, CES - run by the Arlington-based Consumer Electronics Association, which calls it the largest consumer trade show in the world and the biggest trade show in North America - was picking itself up off the mat after a brutal 2009 show. Attendance plummeted that year from the all-time high of 143,695 reached in 2007 to just 113,085; some vendors had abandoned paid-for exhibit space.

CEA has yet to publish an estimate for this year's attendance, but if the lines to get a taxi, get on the monorail or a shuttle bus, or even go up some escalators are any clue, it will be considerably above last year's total of 126,641.

Just ask one overwhelmed attendee, Sprint chief executive Dan Hesse, who had a little time to try to see the show floor on Thursday afternoon. "It was such a mob scene," he said. "It has to mean that people are very excited about the electronics industry and consumer spending."

CEA also released an estimate that consumer-electronics spending climbed 6 percent in 2010 to $180 billion and will increase a bit more than 3.5 percent in 2011 to $186.4 billion.

What is there to be excited about at CES this year? Tablet computers have to lead that list. Now that Apple's iPad has shown how to turn a large, touchscreen mobile device into a covetable object, everybody else wants a piece of that business.

Motorola and LG, among others, used the show to introduce tablet devices based on an upcoming "Honeycomb" version of Google's Android operating system - a 3.0 release that, unlike the current 2.3 version, was designed with tablets in mind. And Research in Motion, a newcomer to this category, is displaying the PlayBook tablet it announced in September. Both of these include features absent from the iPad, such as cameras for videoconferencing.

(Apple is continuing its traditional practice of skipping CES. It seems safe to expect a new iPad in the next few months that could match the features on these Android and BlackBerry devices and might also beat their still-unannounced prices.)

Smartphones are also exerting a gravitational pull on CES attendees. If you like Android, this has been a terrific show for Google's operating system, with dozens of new models coming from vendors such as LG, Samsung, Motorola and HTC. Many connect to the fast, emerging 4G networks of Verizon and Sprint - or the upgraded "HSPA+" 3G networks of AT&T and T-Mobile, each of which have switched to using the 4G term for those services, too.

Samsung also introduced a mobile device that's been missing from the Android ecosystem: an iPod Touch-style media device, the Galaxy Player. It's essentially one of its Galaxy S Android phones but without the phone and only WiFi instead.

Internet TV - that is, televisions with an expanded menu of Web content - represent another big theme at CES. Where last year's high-end HDTVs featured a limited gallery of applications, all pre-loaded by the vendor, many of this year's feature app stores of their own with a wider selection of sources. Instead of the now-mandatory set of YouTube, Amazon and Netflix apps, you can add ones for Hulu Plus and the streaming services of Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL.

Most TV vendors are devoting at least as much space to last year's big new feature, 3-D television. But with slow sales, the need to wear special, expensive glasses to see 3-D effects and a limited selection of 3-D content to watch, the technology hasn't had the fastest debut.

One way to make up for that content is to give consumers tools to make their own 3-D video. Panasonic and Sony, for example, are introducing small camcorders that can record 3-D video for viewing on compatible televisions. But will viewers who don't care to watch a major-league sports event in 3-D care to record their kids' soccer games in 3-D? I'm not saying this format and those camcorders are doomed, but I wouldn't be completely shocked to see them listed at discounted prices in a SkyMall catalogue on the flight to CES next year.

The most surprising change at this year's show - and a good indication of its widening reach - may be the debut of a category of products traditionally absent from CES: cars. Ford chose to use the show, only days before the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, to announce it will ship an all-electric version of its Focus compact.

Then again, considering all the aftermarket electronics you can see packed into demo vehicles here, the electronics industry may well see the car as a living room on wheels - yet another place to pack devices that blink and beep.



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