Where the world’s top electronics show is turning its attention in 2011
Internet-connected televisions, tablet computers to rival the iPad and a huge line of 4G phones are taking front and center at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer put it at Wednesday night's kick-off: "We will make entertainment more interactive, more social and more fun."
One bit of fun that's mostly MIA? Last year's big buzz topic, 3D TV — which stole the show, with its flat panels, glasses and all-3D cable channels.
The bottom fell out of that trend in December, when Best Buy blamed its disappointing quarterly performance on sluggish sales of the new technology, and a recent report from Wedbush Morgan Securities was "pessimistic" about its wide adoption.
So with CES unfurreling Thursday at the Las Vegas Convention Center, here are this year's hot technology trends:
>> Cord-Cutting: Large cable distributors will find no solace on the Vegas show floor this year, with virtually every major TV manufacturer — Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, you name it — showing off new flat panels that connect directly to the internet, with no need for external set-top boxes. This will enable consumers to connect directly to content providers such as Netflix, Hulu and YouTube — and perhaps eventually ditch their pricey cable or satellite programming service in the process.
In fact, manufacturers including Sony, Sharp and Toshiba will begin packaging their sets with remote controls that have red "Netflix" buttons on them that, when pushed, connect the viewer directly to the Netflix home screen.
Meanwhile, manufacturers of devices that connect the living room to the the internet, such as Boxee and Roku, also will show off their latest wares.
"There will be a bunch of content-related announcements — content that has not before been on TV," Boxee CEO and co-founder Avner Ronen told the L.A. Times. "This is a huge market that's getting disrupted: the living room. The giants of the tech world — Apple, Google, Microsoft — are trying to claw their way in. We're one of the little guys trying to establish ourselves."
>> Tablets: While technology companies big and small try to encroach on institutional cable's living room turf, cable giant Comcast has gone on a counter-offensive.
The nation's largest cable distributor will unveil a new offering that lets its subscribers view programming on Apple's iPad, as well as on newer tablets based on the Honeycomb version of Google's Android operating software.
"Comcast has a series of upcoming online enhancements and app releases that are part of a much larger effort to reinvent how customers interact with their entertainment on TV, online and on mobile devices," said Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, in a statement released Wednesday.
As for tablets themselves, nearly 80 Honeycomb-based products will make their debut at the conference, in direct competition to Apple's iPad.
Among them will be a new offering from Toshiba (above right), which has a bigger (10.1 inches) LCD display screen than the iPad.
Others entering the tablet game: Hewlett Packard, Lenovo and Sony.
>> Cloud Clarity: Distribution and storage of entertainment content through cloud computing will finally begin to take some shape.
On Thursday afternoon at the Convention Center's South Hall, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem — a consortium of top-level technology and content companies looking to build such a cloud — will announce a launch date for their joint effort, UltraViolet.
UltraViolet will allow consumers to enjoy digital itterations of movies, TV shows, music and videogames from any location on any device, without having to own a disc or other form of physical media.
And a number of companies will show off products developed to exploit UltraViolet. Japan's Funai Electronics, for example, will present new TV's and Blu-ray players with the built-in hardware and software components needed to connect to such a cloud.
>> 4G Phones: Will the long-delayed mobile content market finally emerge in the U.S.? Phone-makers are set to unveil a flurry of fourth-generation "4G" devices — and networks — that operate close to 10 times faster than current 3G phones and are capable of delivering a video experience consumers could finally buy into.
Verizon, for example, will have a full line of six 4G phones to show off at CES.
>> Also look out for: 3D won't be totally banished from the Convention Center floor, with manufacturers including LG showing off glasses-free technologies that could turn up the heat on this moribund product line.
Meanwhile, Intel promises the splashy new announcement of its new Core processor, which it calls Sandy Bridge. The chipmaker promises video like no other consumer-grade chip has before.
And if you're an active Twitter and Facebook user attending the show, keep your smartphone charged — companies including Verizon and Sony plan to utilized their newly ramped-up social-media marketing teams to full power, live-tweeting every executive speech and product presenation.