Excitement is high in Sin City as the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show opens in Las Vegas, ending months of anticipation and speculation.
U.S. households spend $1,250 each year on electronic goodies, making consumer electronics a $113 billion industry, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The association produces the world's largest consumer technology trade show and is charged with further growing the market. Manufacturers display prototypes alongside polished goods in the cavernous show halls.
The goal for these 2,500 exhibitors is not only to grab the attention of industry professionals and the 4,500 members of the media who attend, but ultimately to persuade buyers -- like Best Buy, Comp USA and Amazon.com -- to make large orders early in the year. The show is not open to the public.
The sheer number of attendees -- estimated at close to 150,000 people -- can bring Las Vegas to a grinding halt. This is a town known for hosting large events, but hotels are sold out, restaurants are crowded, and taxi lines go to infinity and beyond.
In those crowds, you may find industry heavyweights such as Bill Gates, who delivered the annual keynote address Wednesday evening. The two-hour presentation was one part state of the union, one part visionary predictions, and also a description of what Microsoft had in the pipeline right now.
Gates introduced key features for the first time of the next generation of Windows software called Vista. The new operating system will be the first major update in five years and includes a very aesthetic interface, integrated search, photo manipulation software, and an easy way to view several tabbed Web browser windows at once.
One visionary who is strikingly absent is Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs. Apple has its own convention every January in San Francisco, but the iPod seemed to have a major impact on other vendors. Many smaller and international companies are at CES selling accessories for iPods.
One of the early themes being discussed among attendees is high definition television. Companies promise to roll out slimmer sets with higher resolution and sizes up to 82 inches wide.
A battle is brewing among two competing technologies for high definition DVDs. Sony, Apple and Panasonic support a format called Blue-Ray while Toshiba, NEC and Microsoft support the incompatible format called HD DVD. It's reminiscent to many of the Betamax versus VHS days.
HD Radio is coming on strong. Unlike satellite, it's free to receive, but you need a new receiver and as of now it's voluntary for stations to change over. There are now more than 600 stations available, and many vendors are ready to sell the receiver.
Veterans of CES point out that very little really is accomplished amid the plush carpet, branded freebies and paid models in the convention hall. The real work is done in hotel suites and during negotiations at some of the best parties of the year. In fact, invitation-only affairs occur at all the best spots in town and feature concerts by musicians like Stevie Wonder, Yellowcard, Maroon 5 and the Foo Fighters. Gates welcomed pop star Justin Timberlake onstage to help introduce an integrated music store and content site that will only be available on Urge along with partner MTV in a service called Rogue.
Gates ended his presentation with a message to "get out there" and "have fun and be productive." And off the masses went for their four-day-long journey through the future of consumer electronics.