Tech showcase looks to regain "wow" factor

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week promises to showcase new battlegrounds in technology, and with an economic recovery slowly taking root, attendees are looking for more dazzle than last year, when CES was perhaps most notable for a lack of major news.

Portable computing devices of many flavors will be front and center as the continued blurring of the line between the smartphone and PC causes new rivals to duke it out on unfamiliar ground.

Shipments of netbooks, which skyrocketed last year, are expected to approach 40 million units in 2010 as more consumers take to the mini-laptops designed for Web-surfing and email on the go, according to DisplaySearch.

And a new wave of even smaller laptops - which some are calling smartbooks - running on low-power, ARM-based mobile phone chips from companies like Qualcomm Inc and Nvidia Corp are expected to emerge at CES. Such chips are based on technology licensed by ARM Holdings Plc.

If consumers warm to these devices, they would represent a threat to the Intel-Microsoft dominance of the PC ecosystem, as these devices cannot run Windows PC operating systems.

"This is the first year we can really take the ARM-based processors seriously," said Wedbush Morgan analyst Patrick Wang. But he added that these devices may take a year or more to catch on, and noted that Intel's new Pineview Atom chip is getting good traction in the newest crop of netbooks.

ARM chips also power e-readers like Inc's Kindle. Forrester expects 6 million e-readers to be sold in the United States in 2010, and a slew of competing devices will be on display at CES.

But analysts say e-reader prices need to fall considerably in order to gain widespread adoption from consumers. New models by startup companies, such as the Alex from Spring Design and the Que proReader from Plastic Logic, should ramp up competition in the category.

2009 saw the explosion of the smartphone market, led by Apple Inc's iPhone, Research in Motion Ltd's BlackBerry and multiple devices based on Google's Android software. Long-time cellphone leader Nokia has found itself scrambling to adapt.

Research house Gartner expects the smartphone market to nearly triple by 2012 to 525 million units.

The highlight of last year's CES came from Palm Inc, which unveiled its Pre smartphone in Vegas. Palm, whose sales momentum is a big question mark, will be hosting an event this year, where many expect it to announce new carrier partners beyond Sprint Nextel Corp.

This week's CES could find itself upstaged by Google, which is widely expected to unveil its first own-branded phone at a separate event at its headquarters later today.

But Jean-Laurent Poitou, managing director of Accenture's electronics and high-tech business group, said CES will not be missing the cool factor, as companies have continued to spend during the downturn to advance their technology.

"This year's CES is probably going to see more innovation impact than most in the past couple of years," he said.

Top TV makers including Sony, Panasonic, LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics are expected to show off their 3D TVs, although consumer interest is still uncertain given the cost of accessories like glasses and the lack of sports programing.

"3D is a big deal .... Every major TV manufacturer is putting on a 3D push," said Jason Oxman, a spokesman for CEA. He compared the pace of adoption of 3D TV to that of high-definition TV, which can now be found in half of all homes in the United States, according to Forrester Research.

Industry tracker DisplaySearch estimates that 1 million 3D TVs were shipped in 2009 - less than 1 per cent of overall TV purchases, with the number rising to 9 million in 2012.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which runs CES, is expecting around 110,000 attendees, down slightly from last year. Roughly 2,500 exhibitors are expected, versus 2,700 a year ago.