If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Las Vegas is his loud, drunk cousin who's keeping him up all night. Add to Sin City's inherent rowdiness the congestion and general sexual frustration of the 100,000+ people attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show, and insomnia becomes less an inconvenience than a benefit. After all, visiting the endless floor displays, waiting in treacherous cab lines, and carousing at the nightly industry parties are all components of the machine that predicts how people will listen to music and watch video in 2004. Sleep would just throw a wrench into the works.
The CES machine is inherently chaotic, but like a massive A/V fractal, it carries hidden patterns, and those that emerged from this year's show point toward a calming era. After an exciting few years of helping usher in breakout technologies - led by the likes of DVD, HDTV, and satellite radio - CES has begun to settle down to the point where developments are evolutionary, not revolutionary. New products are following along fairly predictable trends, with fewer "Yowza!" items that knock the industry completely on its ear.
But it also means there are fewer "What the hell is this?" products, and those fly-by-night single-product companies have all but passed with the dot-coms. Most manufacturers see what kind of home-entertainment future people want (even if those same people don't know that they do) - a future with big, cheap flat-panel TVs, products with built-in wireless connectivity and hard drives, and a DVD recorder in every home.
In the race to get there, more points are awarded for practicality than theatrics. For instance, as flat-panel technologies mature, whichever manufacturer leading the pack with the biggest screen now gets only an honorable mention. The biggest prize goes to who's got the most innovative new trick - like wireless video streaming, promised by many of the major set manufacturers, which would eliminate the need for a video cable running to your TV. Since how your TV fits in with your décor is a make-it-or-break-it factor when picking out a flat-panel set, this is an idea whose time has come, thanks to new technologies like Wi-Fi.
And the future is definitely flat. The twilight of the picture-tube era was perhaps most dramatically brought home to me by the PC workstations in the pressroom - each for the first time accompanied by a sleek LCD monitor. The wide availability and reliability of wireless Internet access was another sign of the changing digital times. CES was still one step ahead of the real world, however - rooms at the Las Vegas Hilton still used klunky wires to bring broadband to guests. And our reporter Rich Warren was stuck in a hotel that had only dial-up access, at a snail-like 28 kilobits per second!
Also helping rev up the industry, technologies that looked stalled just a few years ago are finally getting some tailwind. The buzz on high-definition DVDs, led prominently by the Blu-ray format, has gone from whispers and maybes to the promise - albeit a fragile one - of real recorders toward the end of this year. And in orbit, both XM and Sirius satellite radio are growing rapidly, with Sirius promoting its impressively varied tuner line and XM sitting pretty on its huge lead in subscribers (over 1,300,000 to Sirius's 300,000).
The changing landscape of brand names was on full display, too, with LG Electronics wallpapering whole buildings just to scream, "Hello, world" - or rather, "Hello, America," since the Korea-based manufacturer, which owns Zenith, is making its big push into the U.S. market with a mind to establish a rep for quality products. And Samsung, once the leader in vaporware, continued its aggressive assault on Sony's market share with vast banners in strategic in-your-face locations.
Although this CES may have been less exciting than in recent years, the change is reason for optimism. Now that consumers have a clearer picture of what they want in their homes, and the digital fat has been trimmed in the industry, consumer electronics has gotten its bearings. With luck, this newfound stability will fuel the ongoing economic recovery, which will in turn improve the balance sheets of the show's exhibitors. That's definitely something I can get behind, if only for the better giveaways it might bring to CES 2005.
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