CES 2013 preview: Tech in Transition, or As I Lay Buying

Steve Ballmer's out, TVs are smoking hot and phone manufacturers and automakers are trading places. That and more, in my preview to this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

First things first: ZDNet will be in attendance at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. We'll be covering any major company news along with any enterprise announcements; we'll leave most of the super-consumer stuff to our sister site CNET. (This is their Super Bowl, after all.) Rachel King and I will be on the floor and filing for both ZDNet and CNET, so follow us on Twitter (her; me) and Google+ (her; me) and Instagram (her; me) and whatever else if you'd like to walk in our shoes during the show.

Secondly: If you're wondering about that strange headline, the latter piece is a pun on the Faulkner novel and the entire thing is a reference to the 1960s American animated TV series The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Who says you can't have a little fun in 2013?

It's T-minus 100 hours, give or take, before the Consumer Electronics Show rolls around yet again. My colleague Rachel King and I are already packing our bags (OK, that's a lie; we haven't even started yet) for the trip to Las Vegas, during which we'll be running up and down the Las Vegas Strip to cover news, offer reviews and meet folks like you. Somewhere in there, we'll find the time to breathe.

For the unfamiliar, this is the technology industry's biggest event. (It's also the largest trade show in the U.S.) Each year, we get to wager (it's Vegas, after all) on what tech's biggest tale will be. In 2009, it was Palm's entry into the smartphone market. In 2011, it was 3D TV from Sony, Samsung and Panasonic. Last year, there were a number of bids by various companies to dethrone the iPad as tablet king. (They're still working on it.)

So what of 2013? This year, the biggest story at CES might be CES itself. But you tell me.

Your 2013 storylines:

Connected TVs finally come out of the closet. And no, I don't mean that in a sexual way. For years, TV manufacturers have been talking a big game about Internet connectivity but putting only a toe in those warm waters; this year, they finally dive in. Let's see how they'll swim.

Electronics manufacturers have long spoke of their holy trinity -- desk, pocket, living room -- but the third was not addressed as quickly as the first two. We're finally seeing this change. Connectivity is no longer relegated to the high-end sets and we're far enough away from the 2008 economic crash that people find TVs worth buying again.

And it's not just about those big displays, either -- video game manufacturers and non-TV electronics makers are looking at the living room as a logical extension. For some (Sony, Samsung), it's a hardware play. For others (Google, Apple, Microsoft), it's a platform play. And for others still (Disney, Time Warner, and yes, even this site's parent company, CBS Corp.), it's a business model disruption.

TVs will be thinner and lighter and their pictures more crisper and more vibrant, no doubt. (OLED, anyone?) But the real development will be how the business pieces come together.

The automotive guys elbow their way into the spotlight. For the last two years, there has been a surprising presence at CES, ground zero for gadget geekery: cars. I'm not talking about DeLoreans here; I'm talking about smooth-as-a-baby's-bottom Audi sedans and rakish Mercedes coupes and Fords that talk back to you.

One word, people: telematics.

Years ago, gearheads (and the people who cover them, e.g. my CNET colleagues Antuan and Wayne) could be found in Detroit at this time of year, for the North American International Auto Show. Now, the car guys are sending their designers to Detroit and their engineers to Las Vegas, with executives accompanying each. "Car tech" no longer means a bumpin' sound system in the dash. It now means nearly everything, from navigation to maintenance to ads. The same tech that applies to your smartphone -- speech recognition, cloud syncing and enough sensors to star in Mission: Impossible -- now applies to your ride. Which means the car guys and the tech guys are getting friendly, fast.

This year, we'll see automakers refine the in-car platforms they hastily announced in years prior. Ford got out in front early with its Microsoft-powered Sync; every other automaker soon announced its own, but they were proprietary, indistinct and balky -- just like PCs used to be. We know what happens next, right? Standardization, consolidation and consumerization.

The mobile guys run for the hills. If there's one thing we know at ZDNet, it's that you guys freaking love your phones. Sometimes you love-love them. Sometimes you just love-hate them. It's only natural -- you carry them around with you all day. (Shockingly, some of you even get work done on them.) A large amount of attention in the consumer electronics space has been rightly placed on the phone, but there's a curious detail about CES with regard to this category: phone announcements are few and far between.

That's because most of tech's biggest companies reserve their announcements for the Mobile World Congress trade show, which takes place in Barcelona in late February, even though all of the same companies are in attendance at CES, for other products. "Are there going to be new phones?!?!?!" people ask when I mention I'm going to CES. Truth is, not really -- mum's the word for most companies. This year, we're expecting a few headlines for sure: my CNET colleague Jess Dolcourt notes that quad-core processors will be ubiquitous, and there will certainly be new models announced. But the blockbuster flagship models -- Nokia's Lumia 900 debut last year notwithstanding -- are increasingly held back for MWC.

China. We're starting to see more action from Chinese companies like Huawei (whose press conference I'll be liveblogging for CNET) and Hisense, one of the two companies that replaced Microsoft on the show floor. There's not a single theme here, and Chinese companies have always been present at CES. But we're starting to see a few more companies emerge that aren't named "Lenovo," which says a lot about this country's place in the global pecking order.

CES tries to redefine its identity. You can't be everything to everyone, but the Consumer Electronics Association is doing its best to convince attendees of that with regard to the technology industry. But in an age where technology is in literally everything, from bus stops to toasters, one show is just not enough -- which is why MWC and IFA, the latter held in Berlin, are beginning to erode CES' dominance of traditional categories even as the bigger show expands into automotive, retail and other industries. (There are a few nuances -- CES is the Q1 blowout; IFA is the Q4 preview -- but competition is competition.)

To boot, this is the first year of CES without Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer delivering a keynote. That's not to say Ballmer's too a big a name for CES to lose, only to illustrate that CES is in a period of transition right now in an age when the biggest companies -- Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon -- see fit to announce products on their own terms, at their own press conferences, at other times during the year. What are the recurring elements that bring industry people back to CES? Is it a guy like Ballmer? Is it Vegas? Is it The Venetian hotel, where most of the press events are held? Is it sheer size? What makes CES different? (It can't be Will.i.am, that's for certain.) Computers are no longer computers, and everything is a consumer electronic. But CES can't -- and won't -- cover everything best.

The show is nearly upon us, of course, so please stay with us -- we look forward to bringing you all the news from the show and analyzing it on the fly. (Plus, Rachel and I will need all the empathizing we can get when we're running from announcement to announcement with batteries expiring and Wi-Fi disconnecting.)


A few CNET previews for this year's upcoming show:

ZDNet discussion from last year's show:

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