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Computing At Chaos Manor:
Special Report

CES 2007
Alex Pournelle, alexp@earthlink.net
Copyright 2007 Alex C. Pournelle

CES 2007: Another Year, and more Convergence

Doubtless the biggest computer news at the Consumer Electronics Show 2007 (CES) was Windows Vista, old hat to most of you and troublingly new-hat to many. New hat, still? Evidence: On the shuttle bus, I actually overheard two guys trying to remember the name of Microsoft's newfangled operating system, and when it would come out, while we passed a 150-foot long banner with the answer. Remember, nerds: Just because something is top-of-mind for you doesn't mean it's universally known.

That same banner told everyone that "Windows Vista: The 'Wow' Starts Now". You can imagine the ridicule amongst our traveling snarkfest: "How much did they pay for that slogan?", "Only halfway to Wow-Wee!", "Everyone knows WoW means World Of Warcraft!", etc. Vista wasn't quite as everywhere as Microsoft would have liked; few computer companies were showing it publicly. Yes, CES isn't a computer show, but Microsoft had over 15,000 square feet of tents, plus separate booths; Bill Gates gave (his seventh) pre-show keynote, there was the usual MS partner pavilion, and the Zune was on display. They spent millions to bring Vista to CES, and CES didn't return the favor. (More on Microsoft in a moment.)

The biggest announcement at CES of any sort wasn't at CES: it came from San Francisco, where Steve Jobs finally announced the long-rumored iPhone, plus Apple TV. Oh, and Apple is just "Apple, Inc.", dropping the "Computer" from their name, if the facts of market convergence weren't loud enough for you to hear. Since, at this writing, none of the press, including Walter Mossberg, actually have an iPhone to play with, I'll defer most comments, except: The iPhone is about as wide and tall as anything called a "phone" is likely to get, before we have to change the ISO standard for the size of pockets. Oh, and everyone will call it the iPhone, even if Apple has to change the official name because Cisco rudely insists they had the trademark first. (For more on the iPhone, see Dan Spisak's separate coverage on this site.)

Not to say Apple isn't making inroads: even the Pournelle household shells out hard coin. While I was away, my wife got her new MacBook and made it work with her iPod nano. Along with her RIM Blackberry 8703e, she's much newer technology than I. Either I'm astonishingly secure in my nerd-osity, or I need some new gadgets for review.

Into the Maelstrom

Not being sufficiently affluent to stay at a walking-distance hotel, we grabbed the Las Vegas Monorail and were on the show floor in five minutes... No. Actually, we waited in line for the Monorail, with hundreds of other attendees. CES is Las Vegas's biggest show, and many smart folk were at Bally's with the same thought as we: Traffic during CES is appalling, and wouldn't the Monorail be smart? Answer: None of the Monorail's overlords booked long trains (for which the system is designed) for this gig. Instead, the three-car trains were half-full (of MGM boarders) before they hit our stop. More than one person asked if white-suited men would apologize while pushing more bodies aboard, but, no, no Japan Bullet-Train style cramming, just a twenty minute wait before they'd let us on the platform.

Wandering through the hotel to the Monorail station (always in the hinterlands, and always through the Casino) reminded me of how spread-out CES truly is: In addition to the show itself, many of the consumer electronics companies have their annual sales meetings (or the like) simultaneously. Bally's was Sony Central, with thousands of square feet of Sony meeting rooms, internal demos, breakout spaces, breakfast. Most of the major hotels had similar commitments, whether the Korean Electronics Manufacturers, Motorola, or (in the old days) Philco. CES is so big, partly, because CES is so big-self-generated wind, or hype, blows everyone into town at the same time.

The Monorail trip made us late for our first appointment, with Microsoft, for which we apologized profusely. Fortunately, once we found the correct MS Tent, they whisked us through the husky guard-goons to the Vista Tour Experience, where we saw the Hewlett-Packard TouchSmart IQ 770 PC (link here, about $1,800), an all-in-one PC in cool blues and blacks with a nice touchscreen and Vista preloaded. This machine looks like an outgrowth of the next-gen "upright" PC-in-a-screen H-P has been previewing at WinHECs for the last few years, though the prototypes didn't have touchscreens. It would look good in upscale homes, particularly in the kitchen or living room where PCs haven't previously been welcome.

Also in the Microsoft preview tour was Vista's digital picture importer and manager. There were some bugs, but this software looks like a huge improvement over the XP tools. Expect more on these pages about the color management and manipulation tools inside Vista.

Just before CES, TeleNav (link) announced their smartphone and PDA navigation software was going to include traffic alerts and auto re-routing, all for their standard $10/month charge. During the ShowStoppers press event, I confirmed it was coming for the Blackberry, though only after the smartphone version was completed. TeleNav also has TeleNav Track, their business-oriented application - far cheaper than previous hardware-heavy service-force tracking apps. They promise decent APIs to hook their software to your own applications, so even small businesses or governments don't have an excuse not to track their people.

Architecture: Palette of the Rich

Save for Shanghai, no skyline on the planet seems to change as fast as Las Vegas. Even being away from the Strip for a few months brought momentary disorientation. Consider the Venetian, which is nearly doubling its room count - evidently 6,000 wasn't enough. Rumor says Sheldon Adelson (CEO of the Sands/Venetian, creator of the now-vanished Comdex) wanted to own the world's largest hotel, and thus another 4,000 rooms are springing skyward in another sun-blocking tower, a pedestrian flyover away from the main one. I suspect some hotel in Macau will grow to 10,050 rooms in this oddly Freudian architectural contest. Not that Shelly was alone: The Wynn is also doubling, and cranes frame the night sky everywhere, ignoring the (apparently false) belief among normal folk that Clark County, Nevada was built out years ago.

While we were at the Bellagio for an OQO press party (OQO Model O2: New design, same form factor, new pitch to the vertical markets, www.oqo.com), Ernest, Peter Glaskowsky and I stopped by the exhibit for City Center. This new MGM-Mirage project is bounded by the Mirage and the Monte Carlo on the north and south, by Las Vegas Boule and Interstate 15 on the east and west. It went from a $4 Billion project at announcement to $6 Billion last year and $9 Billion today.

"And City Center will have the first casino lit by natural light," said the perky minder, as nosy Midwesterners ignored the "don't touch" sign and proved the model did rotate. Getting flustered, our guide mentioned the 4,000-room hotel, the mixed-use corporate space, the condos, the eco-friendly features. "First casino to have its windows painted over black," I muttered under my breath, as we made our disjointed way to the car and on to the next appointment. At least there're always new attractions to visit on these trips.

City Center isn't to be confused with "Town Center", a mostly shopping-oriented $2 Billion project south of The Strip, butted up against the gambling-themed Fry's on the South and South Point Casino on the North. Then there are the off-Strip developments: Green Valley Ranch, Red Rocks, a dozen others, all proof that suckers are chronologically regular.

This also marked the first year I figured out the backstreet ways around the Strip: the sort-of frontage roads with Rat Pack names that parallel Interstate 15, the main north-and-south freeway, and The Strip (Technically, Las Vegas Boulevard). The one time I forgot, we spent 15 minutes going a mile on The Strip, gave up, and used the monorail anyway. If you have the chance, stay in one of the (few) walking-distance hotels and pay the extra freight. We were literally across the street from Graybar Supply, comforting if we needed 10,000 feet of Cat5 cable - in turn catty-corner from a huge strip-club. I'll spare you the "rack" jokes.

Compensate Much?

Of course, buildings aren't the only objects to suffer Size Envy: gigantic LCD and Plasma screens are now about as large as they can get without requiring your house to be built around them. Sharp, Pioneer and LG all had 102" or 108" (diagonal measure) displays on, um, display, in addition to the mere 62" or 80" screens. (I'm certain the other major brands had 8'-plus displays, too.)

There's a psychological experiment to be performed here, under some erudite version of "Perceptive Phenomena of Viewing Distances for Very Large Plasma/LCD Displays". I watched for ten minutes, and was the only person who voluntarily got closer than six feet to these monsters. There was a constant semicircle of people standing away from them, but no one would approach. True, the subtended view angle for a 102"+ display is so large that you must stand considerably farther back to see the whole thing, but was I the only one who wanted to actually look for display artifacts? Evidently so, and this was unusual enough that some AOL photo-stringer interviewed me as a "member of the press" for my impressions. The Plasma screens, as has been reported in the mainstream, are major heat sources. The heat and light (that's a lot of emitted photons) was enough to drive you back, too.

Do they look good? All three do, though without an honest display comparison (which would be very expensive to stage), I wouldn't buy any of them. If I had $20K to blow on a monster video system, it'd be on a projector, anyway, such as the Sharp XV-Z20000 DLP Projector (link), capable of displaying up to 1080P resolution. If you simply must have a display larger than a sheet of wallboard, wait a year, and the prices will fall sharply.

And what about sound for this putative home-theatre extravaganza? High-end audio CES exhibits used to live in their own Siberia at the Alexis Park, and now occupy suites at the Venetian. If you fancy yourself having "golden ears", stay the heck away from this area unless your wallet can take it.

Witness: Bryston's new SP2 preamp/processor (link), on display with their 9B amplifier (and alongside a multimegavolt Tesla coil, for no adequately explained reason) in one Venetian meeting room. Of course, to prevent power-related ugliness from entering your amplifiers, you'll want something like the Bryston Torus Power Isolation Units, 220 lbs each, one per two amplifiers - you'll want a very stout rack to support all of this gear. And still you haven't bought any speakers, input devices or media to go with. True esoteric audio is more a vow of poverty than a mere hobby; even I could spend $50,000 on such a system, without trying hard. Does it truly sound better? To me, yes, but it's a dream deferred.

Still, expensive audio is a big enough market (and the resurgent home-theatre movement has goosed it) to support dozens of boutique manufacturers. The more esoteric the company, the more likely they were shut up in a suite at the Venetian, with the upper and midlevel companies displaying on the upper level of the LVCC South Hall, mixed in with the "louder means better" amplifier crowd. Dolby was demonstrating the "Dolby Headphone" technology, which promised the 5.1 surround-sound experience through normal headphones. (The line was too long, so I can't tell you if it worked.) The true high volume audio companies mostly sat on the main show floor, where there was no possible way to tell what anything sounded like (hardly the point, for them).

And, appealing to a far different demographic than I, car sound continued its multi-year attempt to drill to the center of the Earth using only ever boomier mobile audio systems. Fortunately, car audio lives in the North Hall, which we purists and snobs (read: those with hearing left) can simply skip. Everyone wins. About the only reason for civilians to enter this area would be to gaze upon the XM and Sirius deathmatch, but their major suppliers exhibit in the (marginally) less noisy Central Hall, so skip it.

Format Wars: Part XL

The press loves a good fight, as long as they're not in it, and CES always has one, even if they have to invent it. CES turned 40 this year, and I suspect you could find a "one of these will win" in any year. This year's most reported battle of CES was Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD, and the ammunition was everywhere: Blu-Ray had sold far more (mostly in Sony PlayStation 3s); HD-DVD was better; Blu-Ray has more studio support; the Blu-Ray content-protection method has already been broken; you're a bigger poo-poo head than we are. The only clear winner is Microsoft, whose codec (VC-1) appears in both formats.

Everyone but me seemed surprised by LG's dual format player (both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray), but Broadcom's dual format chipset announcement from December 2006 convinced me we'd see at least one such marsupial. Be careful: As announced, the PC internal mount LG drive won't burn both formats, and you should watch for reports from enraged early adopters before shelling out hard coin.

I guested on CES Tuesday's Cranky Geeks (link), and host John Dvorak asked if one of these two would win out. My reply: We had CD-R, CD+R (I actually meant DVD+R/W versus DVD-R/W), and today's optical disk players read (and, mostly, write) every format on the market. Of course, I could be wrong, and it could be the Elcaset or Digital Compact Cassette all over again-at least one of the formats being essentially abandoned. A lot of the interested public (myself included) is going to sit on the fence until there's a clear winner.

One other thing I learned from being a Guest Crank: the old actor's adage about "Never work with children or animals" should be extended to "or consumer flying toys". The Webcast shows a few moments of the toy helicopter buzzing the interview table, but the camera missed the multiple times the stupid thing sat there buzzing, for all the world like an angry 8" mosquito, or dive bombing us. Fortunately, John is in constant touch with his inner curmudgeon, so he just ignored the distraction and plowed on.

Know Your Market

It used to be that the entire consumer electronics industry would leave home about the second of January, nursing hangovers on the plane to Las Vegas. The CEA (Consumer Electronics Association, link here) decided to slip CES to the following week of January, so our trek began January Fifth instead. This puts CES to all weekdays (Monday through Thursday), which I suspect makes the hotels happier - compu-dweebs and electro-dorks don't gamble much, and we mostly vacate before the weekend throngs. CES is still solidly the largest technology convention in North America - not in the world, as is so often wrongly reported; that honor goes to CeBIT in Hannover, Germany (link), so large it has permanent exhibits in Building 1.

For CES, our crew mostly arrived the preceding Friday and stayed through Wednesday, the day before the show ended. Hint: If you attend, avoid late in the week. My car broke down last year, fortunately before I began my return trip, and so for the first time ever I attended the last CES exhibit day. It was just as much the Tradeshow Of The Living Dead as you might imagine: The booth babes had thousand-yard stares, the marketroids glassy-eyed, and even the high-energy in-booth demonstrations were looking a little peaked.

It is the time for bargains and trash-diving. If I'd cared, I could have picked up several thousand pounds of abandoned tchochkes and chozzerai at the bitter end; there are crap collectors so avid they tow a luggage cart overflowing with slavishly grabbed useless widgets, but I'm no longer accepting USB thumb drives smaller than 2 GBytes, let alone a plastic doohickey with a company's name imprinted on it. This makes me either cynical or jaded, I haven't decided which.

Wednesday, our last day at CES, we parked at the Riviera ($20! The first time, ever, I've paid for parking in Nevada) and walked to the Convention Center. As we made the turn past the Gold Lot, we were ambushed by a desperate group of engineers, trying to pull anyone, anyone, into the parking lot for their demo. We'd noticed the signs for the "VII Demonstration", but weren't buzzword compliant or interested enough to figure out what they were demo'ing. "Intelligent Cars and Roads", "Smart vehicle concepts", they said. After Ernest Lilley short-circuited my lecture on Marketing to Geeks ("He's nearly as important as he thinks he is," said Ern, which reminded me to be polite) we found out VII stands for Vehicle Infrastructure Integration, part of the US Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems initiative (see this link for the straight dope). There's also the trade group, ITS America, at this link.

Also supported by the car and traffic signal industries, VII appears partly an outgrowth of Mercedes' "InfoFueling" of a few years ago. The underlying technology includes a radio system (5.9GHz, in a new 75MHz FCC allocation) designed for car-to-car, road-to-car, and emergency-vehicle-to-signal communications. If they can pull off half the stuff they talked about (cars that won't rear end the suddenly stopped car in front; smart signals that let ambulances through) it'll be revolutionary. With luck, next year they'll figure out how to market to the Consumer Electronics crowd.

Out of Town

There was plenty else to see - CES is so big, and diffuse, that no group of nine can possibly find or see everything interesting, even with planning. Random observations: The Ultra-Wide Band communications trade group was promising that Wireless USB was going to work at decent speeds, not the 6 MBits/sec most current reviews mention. Meade's enormous, beautiful MaxMount 20" telescope (link) dominated their booth. There were dozens of big screen TVs, LCDs, Plasmas and rear projection DLPs. SED (Surface-Conduction Electron-Emitter) displays had peep shows from partners Canon and Toshiba, though they're (once again) Real Soon Now products. With 1.8 million square feet of displays at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo Center, we missed lots.

On the way South, we decided to skip the former Bun Boy for the other, so far more permanent tourist trap in Baker, CA: The Mad Greek, purveyor of gyros and fresh strawberry shakes. Home, home again. For a wonder, none of our crew got sick in Las Vegas, and there's a long enough interval for me to forget the pain and exhaustion, to look forward with that bottled anticipation to next year's CES.

Alex Pournelle, January 16, 2007