The magic word on the lips and in the Palm Pilots of the people attending the Consumer Electronics Show here is "digital."
Digital video, digital radio, digital television, digital wireless, digital music--you name it.
Analog? That's so twentieth century.
"It started with the CD, now it's DBS [direct broadcast satellite], now it's DVD," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington-based organization that puts on this annual gathering.
"Digital in many different forms, combined with Internet access--it's phenomenal."
Take digital video disc, which arrived on the marketplace in early 1997 and offered dramatically better picture and sound quality compared with videotape. Almost 4.5 million DVD players now have been sold, making it the "fastest-selling consumer electronics product in history," according to the CEA.
With that sort of reward in mind, the consumer-electronics firms gathered here--call them the Powers That Beep--offered up a host of other digital devices:
* Digital television is the most obvious contender, solely due to the immense variety of the wide screen, high-definition digital sets on display here.
But it's also the most troubled of all the technologies around. Many of the digital sets sold so far have lacked the tuner circuitry needed to receive a digital signal--meaning they can't receive any digital signal and can only make regular TV signals look better. The industry hasn't even agreed on a standard for connecting digital sets to cable set-top boxes.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard lashed out at this inaction in a speech here today.
"The commission has exercised restraint on this matter, preferring to have you resolve the problems on your own," Kennard said. "Your time--and our patience--are running out."
He said he would recommend that the commission impose cable-compatibility rules on the industry if it fails to settle this issue by April 1.
* Digital music, in the form of MP3 files distributed via the Internet and played back on computers and on Walkman-style portable devices, also is off to a sprinting start. For instance, Creative Labs showed the Nomad Jukebox, a small, saucer-shaped device with a 6-gigabyte hard drive inside it to store several days worth of music. But the Secure Digital Music Initiative, the music industry's attempt to prevent piracy and allow record labels to regulate the distribution of their music online, was largely lost in the MP3 frenzy.
* Digital radio is further off in the future, but by next year we should have a choice of two different companies beaming down digital radio broadcasts from satellites, plus digital FM broadcasts from traditional stations.
The two satellite firms--District-based XM Satellite Radio and New York-headquartered Sirius Satellite Radio--will both charge $10 a month for 100 channels of mostly commercial-free music, news, entertainment and sports.
With all of this digital content, computer companies took a larger role here than before, offering ways to fuse the computer with the rest of one's audio-video gear.
America Online introduced its long-awaited AOLTV, a set-top box that provides access to the online service on a TV set. Both Philips and DirecTV will sell these boxes sometime later this year; AOL didn't say what the hardware would cost, or how much it would cost to use AOL with these devices.
Microsoft turned a chunk of the convention center into a simulation of a home network. "All the media is just fungible bits; the network ties it all together," said Craig Mundie, Microsoft's senior vice president for consumer strategy.
Mundie outlined how a teenager could walk into the garage with a hand-held computer, then have the home network automatically transmit her music collection to the car's own jukebox for listening on the road.
But three problems stand in the way of this bright bits-and-bytes future: multiple standards, copyright worries and the complexity of computers themselves.
Nearly every promised digital technology comes in two or three incompatible flavors these days, which threatens a new round of VHS-vs.-Betamax quandaries in everything from wireless home networking (HomeRF, Bluetooth, 802.11) to recordable DVD (DVD-RAM, DVD+RW, DVD-RW).
And with digital distribution comes worries about copyright protection and privacy prevention, a can of worms that the industry seems to be eating its way through as slowly as possible.
This, as Kennard observed in his speech, has kept products off the market and delayed needed advances in technology while the entertainment industry assures itself that its content is not on the way to being pirated around the world in perfect digital copies.
And finally, when the microwave is networked with the computer, how do you keep the complexity of the latter from infecting the former?
All of the companies here swear that won't happen--but most home-theater gear is already too complex to use without a manual handy.
Earlier this afternoon, Richard Miller, chief executive of VM Labs, a Mountain View, Calif., company developing hardware to soup up DVD players with computer-like interactivity, was fussing with a remote while trying to demonstrate his product's features.
"I'm not really familiar with this thing," he muttered. "Where's the setup key?"
CAPTION: Panasonic's mobile DVD theater is displayed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. A car is equipped with a multimedia system that has an in-dash monitor and a DVD audio and video receiver.
CAPTION: How the Internet might be used in a kitchen is discussed by Jeff Steitzer in Microsoft's "home of the future."
CAPTION: Greg Bartlett, president of Digital Harmony Technologies, explains how his company's one-wire technology lets consumers interconnect multiple devices into a multi-room entertainment network.