Here's the first thing you need to know about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES): despite the name, you won't find any consumers there. In fact, they're explicitly barred from entry. The 120,000 or so attendees descending on Las Vegas this week for the nation's premier gadget confab are employees of manufacturers, retailers and other outfits in the electronics trade, along with professional industry watchers like, ahem, tech journalists.
I suspect that the show would provide a far more accurate vision of personal technology's future if it let in the people who are supposed to buy the 20,000 products that will be announced, encouraging them to poke, prod and provide their unvarnished opinions. The companies that strut their stuff at CES may be inventive, but they're also highly susceptible to irrational exuberance over products, trends and technologies that never amount to anything.
At last year's conference, for instance, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used his opening keynote to unveil Slate PCs, a new type of tablet running Windows 7. They instantly fizzled. So did another of CES 2010's allegedly hot new product categories, the supercheap netbook-type laptops known as smartbooks. Also deadwood: Plastic Logic's much anticipated Que e-reader, which debuted at a lavish display on the show floor ... and then got canceled before it ever shipped.
Slate PCs, smartbooks and the Que were rendered largely irrelevant by the iPad, which Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced in San Francisco two weeks after last year's CES. The fact that the most influential company in the business chooses to hold its launch events on its own schedule further erodes CES's usefulness as a predictor of next big things, but it doesn't mean that Apple won't be on everyone's mind. It'll be the elephant in the Las Vegas Convention Center: the endlessly discussed outsider whose absence helps define the show.
For all these reasons, I'm not headed to CES under the misapprehension that it will provide a crystal-clear glimpse at the future of personal tech. Even so, the 1.5 million sq. ft. (140,000 sq m) of exhibition space (plus private hotel-suite showcases) will contain plenty of products that will matter in 2011 and beyond. Here are some of the things I'll be on the lookout for as I roam about.
TVs, 3-D and Otherwise
For all the infinite variety of gizmos on display at CES, TVs remain the product category at its heart, as they've been since its 1967 founding. A high percentage of the sets crowding the show floor this year will be 3-D models; I'm most intrigued by ones using passive 3-D, the same technology used by most 3-D movies in theaters. (One major benefit: the glasses don't involve any embedded electronics, so they'll cost much less than the $150 goggles required for most current 3-D TVs.) There will also be tech demos of 3-D sets that don't require special spectacles at all, although versions that are good enough that you'd willingly stare at them for the duration of a two-hour movie are probably years off.
What I really crave, however, are major developments concerning content to watch on all those TVs that'll be at the show like emissaries from Hollywood appearing at the show and committing to releasing 3-D films on Blu-ray in a timely fashion. (Can anyone explain why 2009's Avatar is still available only bundled with Panasonic TVs and glasses, or why recent blockbusters such as Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me aren't available in 3-D?) Similarly, it would be a breakthrough if the conference brought news that the major TV networks are ending the blockade that has crippled Internet-streaming boxes based on Google TV.
Tablets. And More Tablets
Everyone expects Ballmer to show off new Windows 7 tablets at his keynote on Wednesday evening the big question is whether they'll be more alluring than last year's Windows 7 tablets. Motorola and Vizio are introducing models powered by Google's Android operating system, RIM will presumably demo its BlackBerry PlayBook, and it's possible, as least, that HP will reveal more details about its webOS tablet. Beyond the announcements from big-name players, I expect the far-flung corners of the convention center to be dense with suspiciously iPad-esque devices from obscure, off-brand manufacturers.
Future Versions of Windows
2010's Slate PCs were destined for oblivion in part because Windows is designed for conventional PCs, not thin touchscreen gizmos that might compete effectively with the iPad. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Ballmer will use his 2011 keynote to show a version of Microsoft's operating system that will run on chips from ARM, the company whose power-efficient processors are in a high percentage of smart phones, tablets and other new-wave computing devices. A separate bit of scuttlebutt says that Ballmer will provide the earliest sneak peek of Windows 8, an upgrade unlikely to arrive in final form until at least 2012.
This isn't the biggest week of the year for new smart phones that'll come next month at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress. But there should be enough announcements to whet our appetite for the deluge to come. Rumor has it that Verizon Wireless will preview a half-dozen 4G handsets to go with the LTE service the superspeedy next step after 3G which it rolled out in 38 metropolitan areas last November. Some have even dared wonder if the company might confirm that a Verizon iPhone is imminent; it seems far more likely that such news will break at an Apple event, possibly as soon as later this month.
I've been consistently underwhelmed by the vast CES hall devoted to automotive electronics. The car business is so far behind the digital curve that the room is still dominated by loudspeakers, security systems and other products that haven't changed all that much in the past decade or three. Still, I remain Pollyannaish enough to hope that this will be the year when I'll be greeted with a profusion of slick, Web-connected automotive accoutrements. If nothing else, there should be news from Ford, the one car company that seems at home at the gadget lovefest that is CES. It has already announced that it will be demoing AppLink, its new setup that will let you use your car's voice-command system to control apps like music players that reside on an iPhone, BlackBerry or Android handset.
CES technically wraps up on Jan. 9, but it's really a show that never ends. Most of the products on display won't hit store shelves immediately; some won't show up until the holiday season. By the time real people get to render verdicts on (almost) all of 2011's newcomers by buying them or ignoring them, the industry will be girding itself for the 2012 conference and the whole nutty, inefficient, ultimately essential process will start all over.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for TIME.com, also called Technologizer, appears every Tuesday.