The giant Consumer Electronics Show, kicking off in Las Vegas with tonight's keynote from Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, is at a crossroads. While the economy might be improving ever so slowly, and the holiday shopping season seemed kind to gizmos and gadgets, tech companies learned a powerful—and for CES troubling—lesson last year.
Attendance here isn't mandatory.
With the economy in shambles a year ago, many top tech companies either backed out of CES all together, or dramatically cut back their presence. And despite that, 2009 turned into an exceptional year for many tech companies anyway.
The buzz here last night is that the show itself is fighting for relevance, attendance continues to decline, and three and four day visits by attendees are more like overnights now.
But here's the rub: None of this means there won't be any news, nor does it mean there aren't cool new products to uncover here. In fact, you may see headlines than ever simply because the overwhelming noise factor is greatly diminished and real, valuable stories might actually get the attention they deserve.
Here are the nuggets I'll be chasing: 3D TV is at a tipping point. We'll get first looks from Sony, Panasonic and, most intriguingly, Samsung, which will unveil an offering that doesn't need glasses.
There will be 3D programming announcements too. Some 3D channels on DirecTV, from Disney's ESPN, to go with all that new hardware, which should juice sales.
Lots of discussion about a possible tablet/slate PC from Microsoft, manufactured by Hewlett-Packard, as these guys try to steal a little thunder from Apple's big product announcement coming in a few weeks. (Apple never comes to CES and yet its presence is always felt as competitors do their best to play catch up.)
Cisco Systems will be discussing a significant push into consumer electronics.
I'll be sitting down with tech inventor Ray Kurzweil on "Power Lunch" today where he'll unveil his new eReader. It's a software solution that works nicely with netbooks and iPhones/iPods, so no additional hardware to lug around.
I'm hoping to spend some time with some top level execs at Qualcomm, which is kind of turning into tech's version of the Hollywood "it" girl with so much attention on smarter smart phones and Google's new "Super Phone," which all seem to be running on the Snapdragon microprocessor.
With Google out of the way, and Apple on the way, and earnings season in between, CES is an event hoping for an OMG moment. We see the trends: 3D, mobile, tablets, netbooks. It'll be interesting Saturday to look back on the week not only to see who made news, but more importantly, which company was able to make a lasting impression.