A Tale of Two Trade Shows

If you love consumer electronics, 2005 is going to be the best of times. The new year began with an embarrassment of riches between the utter insanity of the 2005 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Apple Computer's curiously influential MacWorld Expo, both of which set the stage for an exciting year of home technology advancements. Here's what you need to know about these two amazing shows.

CES
CES has gotten so large that it's starting to get out of control. The show now swamps the entire show-floor space of the expansive Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and pours out in the parking lot, requiring makeshift tents to hold the overflow displays. Next year, I'm told, CES will expand into the nearby Sands convention center as well, just as COMDEX did in its heyday. But it's hard to imagine how even that change could help: Between all the people, the full hotels, the jam-packed traffic, and the crowded monorail, Vegas was nigh non-navigable during the show. Maybe it's time to split CES into a slew of sister shows that cover specific topics such as automobile/car audio, home theater, and so on.

Again and again, people asked contributing news editor Keith Furman and me to name the Big New Thing at CES. Again and again, we demurred. Now, a week after the show, we've come to the conclusion that there was no single big revolution at CES. Instead, we're seeing a quickly moving evolution of the trends that were started some time ago. Home theater, as you might expect, was huge: Plasma and LCD TVs dominated the LVCC, and prices are coming down as picture quality, feature sets, and sizes are going up. Portable audio—though, curiously, not the market leader Apple iPod—was also huge, with hundreds of companies offering devices based on Microsoft's Windows Media platform. And digital photography and video were bigger than ever. As Microsoft noted during its many presentations, people want all of their digital content to be available wherever they are, on whatever device they have at the time.

The key is connectivity—another major theme at CES. Formerly islands of isolated functionality, device types of all kinds are picking up the technical smarts they need to connect to other devices and are therefore becoming more useful. The TV is a perfect example. Many of this year's models will offer a simple form of connectivity by providing slots for Secure Digital (SD), CompactFlash (CF), and other popular flash memory cards. You can use these slots to display slideshows of the pictures you just took without having to boot up a computer and download the shots. More advanced TVs are adding Ethernet and wireless-networking capabilities so that they can connect to content on PCs and show slide shows and videos, as well as play music, that you've already collected elsewhere. Good stuff.

Keith and I spent a lot of time at CES, and you can find out more by checking out our CES Show Report and Photo Gallery on the SuperSite for Windows.

MacWorld Expo
Although it's only a fraction of the size and popularity of CES, MacWorld Expo always draws a disproportionate amount of attention because of Apple's enigmatic and charismatic CEO Steve Jobs and the company's palpably desirable products. And this year, Jobs and company didn't disappoint. Apple announced a slew of new products, including a new version of its award-winning iLife suite of applications, a new productivity suite called iWorks that includes the new Pages word processor, and an HDTV version of Final Cut Express called, logically enough, Final Cut HD.

But those weren't the two biggest announcements Jobs made at the show. No, the two big announcements concerned Apple's two core products, the iPod and the Macintosh. On the iPod front, Jobs revealed that Apple was going after the 29 percent of the MP3 player market that is based on flash RAM, rather than hard disks. To tackle this market, the company is releasing a new low-end iPod unit, the iPod shuffle, which features 512MB or 1GB of RAM, no screen, and a form factor that's about as big as a pack of gum. The iPod shuffle, like the iPod before it, will likely be a huge success: It combines the beautiful aesthetics of Apple's products with the company's unique needs of the market. Unlike competing flash RAM devices, the iPod shuffle doesn't feature a screen, so it does away with the "tortured" UI those devices employ. Instead, the iPod shuffle uses a toggle switch on its back to move between shuffle mode and straight play, perfect for the 100 to 250 songs the devices hold.

On the Mac front, Apple is aggressively targeting the low-end PC market for the first time with the $500 Mac mini, which features an amazingly small chassis, iBook-like internals (including a smaller, laptop-style hard disk), and no mouse or keyboard. Based on the PowerMac G4 platform, the Mac mini is Apple's cheapest-ever computer, and although it falls short of today's $500 PCs—which typically feature 17" screens, printers, more RAM, and bigger hard disks, not to mention keyboards and mice—I expect it to be a big hit. Indeed, don't be surprised to see the Mac mini reverse Apple's PC market share slide. Here's why: Like the iPod, the Mac mini is an affordable luxury, and a relatively inexpensive way for customers to experience the wonders of Mac OS X. Definitely worth a look.

Changes to Connected Home Express
Starting February 16, we're moving Connected Home Express to a weekly schedule. I'm also changing the format of my commentaries so that I can cover more trends per week. Instead of a single long-form editorial about a particular topic, I'll be dividing the editorial into two or more topics each week. The connected home is an exciting place, and there's just so much to write about. Starting in February, I won't have any more excuses about not having sufficient space to cover all the amazing developments that are happening all the time in our industry. We've got some other great changes coming soon to the Web site, but I'll share that with you as the time approaches. In the meantime, thanks for reading!

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