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For little devices, it’s a big, big show

Everything about the annual International Consumer Electronics Show is big, but at this year’s cattle call, much of the hype is about all that is small.
Image: The Sony booth is shown at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas for CES 2008
The Sony booth is shown Thursday at the Las Vegas Convention Center as exhibitors get ready for the opening of the International Consumer Electronics Show. CES, the world’s largest consumer technology trade show, runs this week in Las Vegas.Jae C. Hong / AP
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Everything about the annual International Consumer Electronics Show is big, but at this year’s cattle call, much of the hype is about all that is small.

Mobile devices and applications take up a major chunk of the bandwidth at CES 2008, with the most significant developments coming in the mobile phone sector.

Major movements toward open systems last year indicate that 2008 will bring a less bumpy relationship between mobile developers and the major U.S. carriers, which traditionally have walled off their devices, limiting users’ software options. As a result, announcements of unlocked phones and software designed to run on them will have a much higher profile this year than ever before.

Of course, Apple Inc., whose iPhone jump-started the open-system rush, isn’t at CES, preferring to make its splash next week at Macworld.

But all sorts of iPhone software are, thanks to third-party developers who have feverishly worked to unlock the device and allow users to install non-Apple-approved applications. CEO Steve Jobs’ announcement in October that Apple would eventually ship unlocked iPhones itself has only fueled developers’ eagerness to jump into the market.

Verizon, Google: Bring us your software
Once the iPhone hit, change came quickly.

Within three weeks in November, Google Inc. announced Android, an open-source platform for mobile phones, and Verizon Wireless, the most closed of the major U.S. carriers, promised that it would allow almost any device to run on its circuits as early as late 2008, along with most kinds of software, including Android.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Intel Corp., which joined the Android alliance, will focus at CES not on the desktop, but on the palmtop. Intel will showcase a new integrated microprocessor and flash memory chip for high-end cell phones based on its time-tested x86 architecture. It plans to shop the system, dubbed Menlow, to any interested handset maker.

“Virtually every computer and handset manufacturer is struggling to figure out how they’re going to compete with Apple’s iPhone,” Chief Executive Paul Otellini told technology analysts in previewing the system over the summer. “If we get the power and performance right, it’s going to be a killer combination.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates vowed to increase the penetration of Windows Mobile software by 80 percent, saying it would power 20 million mobile phones by the end of the year. Then he displayed a prototype of what he said was the future of mobile communications, a handheld device that would use voice recognition to do everything from placing calls to transcribing text and playing video.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

For Microsoft, CES will be a bittersweet affair. Gates, whose early enthusiasm helped make CES the premier technology trade show, is retiring, and his pre-show keynote address Sunday night was his last big CES production as head of the world’s largest software maker.

Gates gave a wide-ranging overview of the near-ubiquity of Microsoft’s products, touting in particular the company’s new Surface touchscreen computing table. And Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices division, announced that Sync, a Bluetooth system developed with Ford Motor Co. to allow wireless use of mobile devices like phones and mp3 players in the car, would be upgraded to automatically call 911 whenever an airbag deployed.

Tech takes to the road
That emphasis on automotive systems is not an aberration. As communication devices become ever smaller, the impulse for users to take them on the road is driving a boom in personal technology for the car. The Consumer Electronics Association projects that sales of electronic gear for automobiles will exceed $12 billion this year, having doubled over the last five years.

An indicator of the importance of computer technology for the car is that even though the auto industry is gearing up for the annual North American International Auto Show just a week later, General Motors Chief Executive Rick Wagoner will detour to Las Vegas to present the first keynote address by an automaker at CES, part of his campaign to persuade drivers to view the car as an ultra-high-tech device.

CES is dedicating a quarter-million square feet to autos — making it almost half the size of the Detroit auto show itself. More than 200 companies will be on hand to show off their car systems.

Music and entertainment technology has made up the bulk of in-car products, but the fastest growth is in GPS and video navigation; 2007 sales are projected to be up 41 percent to seize nearly a quarter of all car technology sales, the CEA said. Numerous exhibitors are previewing products that ditch the stand-alone, pre-loaded GPS module in favor of always-connected satellite and cell-network navigation systems.

“A lot of the home electronics are moving into the car,” Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, told automotive reporters at a Detroit trade show. “Consumers use to compare horsepower. Now they are comparing the electronics they want to see.”

What’s on TV?
Of course, CES’s buffet is still brimming with the meat and potatoes of the consumer electronics world.

Advancements in desktop and laptop computer systems are incremental. The emphasis is on tweaking current systems to make them faster and more capacious. Asus, for example, is releasing the M70S, a laptop with 1 terabyte of storage.

High-definition television makers, meanwhile, will continue to slug it out to produce the widest, thinnest, sharpest sets:

  • Pioneer Electronics Inc. plans to introduce what it calls the world’s slimmest plasma set — just 9 millimeters thick.
  • At least three companies will announce wireless HD systems, eliminating the ugly cords snaking down from a wall-mounted screen.
  • Panasonic Corp. will unveil a 150-inch plasma set, dwarfing the current giant, Sharp’s 108-inch LCD.
  • And Mitsubishi Electric Corp. will finally introduce the long-delayed laser TV, promising brighter, deeper images on larger, thinner screens that are cheaper to make than plasmas.

Don’t, however, expect a knockout in the DVD fight. Makers of both HD-DVD and Blu-ray players are crawling all over Las Vegas. But so are manufacturers intent on detouring the battlefield. More than one company is likely to offer an inexpensive dual-format machine, able to play both types of disk, for less than $500.