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Viva Las CES

The annual Consumer Electronics Show has become the bellwether for high tech bets and bluffs for the year ahead. Once again this year, Bill Gates will present his traditional keynote speech on the eve of the show, Jan 7. While Microsoft isn’t disclosing the content of his “state of the industry address,” there are a few things on the radar that are pinging loudly for Microsoft as the world’s largest consumer electronics’ showcase unfolds. Clearly, Microsoft will leverage CES to generate buzz for the Jan. 30 retail launch of its Vista operating system, not to mention the 2007 Office System. Will the market embrace and extend Vista with all the enthusiasm of its ballyhooed buildup? Watch PC vendors for what types of Vista-ready machines are shipping, and how many new machines support new features like Windows SideShow.

Moving content throughout the home will also be a central theme for the show and the year ahead. Apple’s upcoming set-top media-streaming box, code-named “iTV,” threatens to overshadow the existing Windows Media Center Extender devices from Microsoft’s hardware partners. (The Xbox 360 also doubles as a Media Center Extender.) Talk about preemptive marketing, it wouldn’t be surprising see Microsoft and its hardware partners use Gates’ CES keynote (two days before Steve Jobs’ Macworld Expo keynote) to unveil some new Media Center Extenders to accompany Windows Vista.

And speaking of connectivity, the term “digital eco-system” is just now starting to get a lot of play thanks to CE and PC folks finally realizing that this concept is at the heart of Apple’s iPod success. The approach has competitors scrambling to try and understand what it means for their product to work within a digital eco system. Microsoft’s Live Anywhere strategy to connect the Xbox Live online gaming system to Windows PCs and mobile phones could be another audible call in the MS playbook. And remember Microsoft’s super portable, ultra-mobile Origami PC initiative? According to the unit’s blog, “the Origami bees are busy at work with some killer new products.” More CES buzz could be in store.

The usual CES stars will continue to shine. HDTV’s, digital cameras (especially the new digital SLR’s), handy and smart cell phones, iPod and MP3 based music players and portable media devices, PC based game systems and laptops will all be the rage as these products are rapidly becoming the “must have” products for the well equipped digital consumer. New screen technologies include SED based TV’s as well as new display technology such as Philip’s rollable displays and new OLED display technology that is being readied for use in smart phones and MM based cell phones.

In the HD format wars, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 peripheral solidified its position in the HD-DVD camp, while the release of Sony’s PlayStation 3 was a key step for Blu-ray, production problems notwithstanding. A halftime scorecard check is in order.

Now that the the holiday sales season is over, CES may also be the Monday morning Coach’s show for a chalk talk on future plans for the Zune music player. Redmond’s Xbox team will have a presence at the show, and people in the video-game industry will be watching closely to get a sense for how the company will try to fend off the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii in the coming year.

Lastly, with estimated factory-to-dealer sales of in-vehicle technologies expected to reach $9.6 billion in 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, it’s no surprise that car technology will be a significant component of the 40th CES convocation. Watch for VoiceBox software, which employs IBM’s Embedded ViaVoice technology, to free up the driver to control the radio and personal navigation devices by voice only. GPS will also become a stample in the digital car, and the digital camera. [24×7]