January 6, 2005
The battle of the technology big guns this year will not be fought in the boardrooms but in the living rooms of developed countries: the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia and the newly prosperous China.
That is the message from this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the biggest expo of its kind in the world, due to open in the Las Vegas Convention Centre tonight.
And yet one of the highest-profile players, Apple Computer, with its all-conquering iPod, will not be there. Makers of iPod accessories and hopeful rivals offering "iPod killers" will be everywhere, however.
Apple is primarily a consumer-oriented company (and, mainly through iPod, Nasdaq's fastest-growing share in 2004) but it keeps its January energies for the Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
But Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Panasonic, Sharp, Sony, Canon and the other household names of consumer electronics will be there, along with busloads of the totally unknown Chinese and Taiwanese companies that build the goodies on which the marketing companies put their names.
The portable digital music wave launched across the globe by iPod three years ago is still running high and, although Apple now has more than 90 per cent of the global market for hard-drive music players, competition for the still-expanding market is getting stiffer.
Digital photography, stills more than video, is considered to be the second great consumer battleground of 2005. Hewlett-Packard and Kodak, which recently dumped most of its interest in film, is raising the Stars and Stripes against the dominant Japanese: Canon, Sony, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Casio, Fuji, Konica, Ricoh; and newer giants such as Korea's Samsung.
The swing to digital cameras is phenomenal: more than 1.6 million were sold in Australia in 2004, and demand is still rising, says Stuart Poignand, marketing director for Canon Australia. "And that does not include the 3 million camera phones that will be sold this year."
The ease, immediacy and cheapness of digital imaging means the new-style cameras go everywhere, all the time, he says. "Picture-taking used to be for holidays; now it is a universal, all-the-time activity."
The four great halls of CES will hold 2400 exhibitors, some on tiny desks and others with great halls crowded with millions of dollars worth of gear.
Samsung has the biggest stand: a showcase covering 3000 square metres, about 2 per cent of the show's total 150,000 square metres.
Samsung also wins the palm for producing the world's largest flat-panel plasma TV screen: a massive 102 inches across its diagonal; more than 50 per cent bigger than last year's champion. Its price is beyond the reach of most people; but, even in the suburbs, big screens are the trend.
"Everyone wants to get into the living room, whether it's Microsoft or the telcos," Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler told a pre-show press conference.
Broadband will be a key focus of US cable companies, their equipment suppliers and the device makers who seek to speed the delivery of things digital into whatever takes a consumer's fancy; be it a refrigerator door, an internet-enabled cooker, or the plasma screen fed by high-definition cable TV that covers most of a living room wall.
WiFi, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies will add to what is bordering on a frenzy of innovation in connectivity; and anything that can be will be on the internet.
"We've all been trained to not sit still," Samsung's US marketing director, Peter Weedfald, said. "If we're not on a (handheld computer) we're on a laptop or on a cell phone. Consumers are looking for devices with faster access, brighter screens and the capacity to gather all types of digital content, whether it's business, pleasure or personal content."