At the end of the Christmas holidays every year, the great and the good of the consumer technology world descend on Las Vegas to glimpse what their peers have in store in the coming months.
The International Consumer Electronics Show, commonly known as CES, kicks off for the 44th time tomorrow in the Las Vegas Convention Centre, showcasing a staggering array of new kit from phones and computers to televisions, cameras and remote-control toys. Duncan Bell, operations editor of T3 The Gadget Magazine, said: "CES sets the tone for the year in terms of consumer devices." A total of 126,600 attendees turned up to Las Vegas last year to see the wares of 2,500 exhibitors, with even more expected in Sin City this week. Mr Bell said this year there would be "internet-connected and 3D TVs, tablets and new smartphones. It is similar to last year's themes. "
It is the year's most important industry event, underlined by Microsoft founder Bill Gates using the keynote speech to announce his retirement from day-to-day duties at the group. Technology launched at CES included the VCR in 1970, followed by compact discs and camcorders a decade later. More recently, high-definition televisions, DVDs, Microsoft's Xbox console and Blu-ray have debuted at the show.
One technology giant, Apple, famously ignores CES every year but its spectre looms large. One expert said the Californian group tends to time significant announcements for early January to spike its rivals' guns at the trade show. The success of Apple's tablet device, the iPad, last year means it has spawned many rivals that will be showcased at CES. Ben Wood, an analyst with CCS Insight, predicted there could be up to 50 new tablet devices at the show. "This year is all about tablets."
Among the companies expected to release such devices this week is Microsoft, which first talked of tablet PCs a decade ago. Its chief executive Steve Ballmer is to give the traditional keynote speech tonight and is expected to announce a Samsung-designed tablet running the Windows 7 operating system. Others suggest he may unveil Windows 8.
Mr Wood expects tablets from other big names in electronics, including a tablet from HP running the WebOS from Palm. Others could include LG, possibly a closer look at the BlackBerry Playbook, as well as releases from Motorola, Asus, Lenovo and Acer. "There could also be an endless number of no-name brands out of Asia," Mr Wood said.
He added that CCS remained sceptical on the consumer market for tablets: "We think there will be millions sold, but not the hundreds of millions that some in the industry are predicting."
All eyes will be on these devices running the latest version of the Google-developed software Android, dubbed Honeycomb. "There is a huge focus on Google, as this is the year when the Android tablets go beyond being just super-sized Android phones," Mr Wood said. "The company is likely to be supporting its licensees at the event, and the devices could be launch pads for Google TV, Google Books and Google Music."
Toshiba is expected to release a new device after failing to gain traction with an Android tablet last year, while there have also been whispers around Taiwanese smart phone maker HTC unveiling a tablet of their own.
Mr Bell said: "All of the tablets shown at last year's CES died a death somewhat; either they disappointed or they were not released. So far only the iPad, and Samsung's Galaxy Tab have sold significant numbers. But now people are getting used to the idea of tablet computers."
As well as tablets, smartphones will be heavily on display. "This is the first year that mobile is well and truly on the agenda," Mr Wood said. "This is because the smartphone is the most prolific computing platform on the planet." The event has traditionally not been a showcase for mobile phones, as companies wait for their own industry showpiece, the Mobile World Congress, the following month. However, Palm did choose the Las Vegas event to launch its Palm Pre.
This year is expected to see a series of Long Term Evolution (LTE), or 4G, handsets on display. LTE provides mobile broadband of speeds up to 20 times those offered currently although the technology is not available in the UK at the moment. The internet is another area where innovation is expected, especially around smart TVs. While Google's television system has met with a somewhat muted reception, experts believe that smart TVs will be on the agenda this year. Speculation yesterday even suggested Microsoft may launch Windows TV.
Mr Bell expects more 3D televisions from the hardware manufacturers. "The sets will be thinner, with more bells and whistles, and remote controls with screens," he said. "Many consumers won't care too much, although this year might see 3D sets that are more affordable. It's odd; people seem to be excited about 3D but not enough to actually shell out for it." There is also expected to be glasses-free 3D television from companies including Sony, as well as the rumoured PSPhone, combining a mobile and its handheld console.
The industry buzz will continue to grow on the eve of the event, and experts will be picking the bones out of the CES new releases well into 2011.