‘Gates Way’ to the Future

Las Vegas transformed into a Techie Mecca last week, as the Consumer Electronics Show lured gadget hounds one and all. While I sat at home nursing my Wii arm after the endless holiday pursuit of retaining pro bowler status, so my Mii wouldn’t lose those sparkly stars on her turquoise ball, nearly-retired Bill Gates launched a “new digital decade.”

The first time he headed up this trade show, Gates was trying to ease word-processing and e-mail use (and battling Apple Computer while doing it). This time around, even while more than a billion personal computers are in use globally and 40% of the world’s population has cellphones, making devices user-friendly remains elusive. The new decade will be more influenced by a “user-centric” trend, says Gates, in which users will no longer “have to bridge between devices” and will be “marked by ‘natural user interfaces’ such as touch screens and gesture controls.”

PC World touts some of these gesture-controlled products Gates referred to: “JVC’s ‘snap and gesture’ system for controlling a television, in which your hand is literally the remote control” and Sony Ericsson’s Z555 cellphone with a “motion sensor that will mute the handset when you make a gesture.” (Sounds a lot like Wii.)

Other best-in-shows, according to CNET.com, were the Philips Eco TV, a 42″ flat-panel LCD with 1080p resolution and power-saving features; Motorola’s Rokr E8, with ModeShift technology, featuring “a smooth ‘glasslike’ surface with touch-pad controls that digitally ‘morph’ depending on how the handset is used.”

Lenovo launched IdeaPad laptops, which include textured lids and “sleek ‘frameless’ screens,” CNET.com also reports. And the answer to the small iPod docks currently on the market is Logitech’s Squeezebox Duet, a network digital audio streamer with a handheld remote with the power to navigate your music collection while listening to large home stereo speakers.

CNET.com also says the best in home video came in the form of the EchoStar TR-50, which takes features of DVRs for satellite and cable users and makes them possible for those still using rabbit ears.

Rabbit ears? Amazingly, there are still holdouts, and I call them my grandparents. Last week on Los Angeles radio station KROQ, Consumer Electronics Association spokesman Jim Barry asserted about 70% of the country has cable, while 20% has satellite. That leaves the rest to the trusty antennae (or nothing at all). However, Feb. 17, 2009, will be the last day for analog broadcasts. Anyone still watching TV via rabbit ears will need a converter box, priced at around $50 to $60.

About TVs, Barry said the space between 42″ and 50″ LCD plasma/flat panels is where “the sweet spot” lies, and last year, for the first time, flat panels outsold other TVs. The next-generation is the OLED, he added, with the “thickness of two credit cards.” Eventually, we will be able to “roll up or fold up” our TVs.

The paper-thin trend also applies to computers. PC World reports Fujitsu rolled out a concept Fabric PC, which uses “e-paper” as its display, making the design light and pliable.

The biggest news at the show, however, was the battle between Sony’s Blu-ray and Toshiba’s HD DVD. Leading HD DVD movie studio Warner Bros. became the latest to opt for Blu-ray, cutting to two – Paramount and Universal – the number of large studios supporting HD DVD.

Sony’s announcement that Blu-ray movies will include portable PSP versions falls at a good time. Wired.com says, “By inserting the disc into a PlayStation 3 and connecting the PSP, disc owners will be able to copy the special lower-resolution version … onto the memory stick in the PSP.”

While Sony cheered Warner Bros.’ decision, others said it’s a Pyrrhic victory. “No side won this week,” said Krishna Chander, senior analyst, storage devices, at iSuppli. “Every day the Blu-ray HD-DVD camps spend prosecuting this standards war represents a day lost in their race to remain relevant. Amid the rise of exciting new digital media offerings like YouTube, iTunes and On-Demand services, the window of lucrative opportunity is closing for both standards,” she said.

However, no one argued over who brought the largest TV to CES. Panasonic won that war easily, with its 150″ plasma, 46% larger than the previous record.

Here are a few other gems that showed up on the exhibit floor, as reported by Wired.com: Sandisk’s tiny Sansa Clip MP3 player; Sony Ericsson’s W350 cellphone; Gateway’s P-171XL FX; Samsung’s SGH-i450 music phone and SGH-G800 5-megapixel camera phone. And LG’s LG60 LCD 60″ flat panel that is a mere 45-mm thick, says PC World.

While flat panels get larger and slimmer, MP3 players get smaller and handier, and cellphones get sleeker and smarter, High-def video “will be everywhere” and 3-D virtual worlds will abound. “The second digital decade will be more focused on connecting people,” Gates said in his final CES keynote. Maybe this time, we’ll get there.