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Benjamin Spillman

Fewer hands at Vegas' CES

9 January 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- New is the new new.

That's what International Consumer Electronics Show organizers in Las Vegas are betting when it comes to the economy -- and the future of their event.

The biggest technology-fetish event of its kind opened Thursday, and it appears crowds are down from previous incarnations.

The recession that sucked the air out of consumer confidence apparently has deflated the amount retailers and other customer-service companies are willing to spend to travel to Las Vegas for the renowned gadget show.

Show organizers from the Consumer Electronics Association did their best to rev up the folks who did attend an elaborate kickoff at The Venetian.

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the association; Sir Howard Stringer, chairman and CEO of Sony Corp., and actor Tom Hanks all spoke about the role innovative technology will play in the eventual economic recovery.

Shapiro slammed the federal government for sinking billions of dollars into banks that took "unseemly risks" in the name of economic stimulus.

He implored the government to instead boost innovation by making it easier for the world's "best and brightest" technology workers to move to America and take down barriers that slow the export of American products.

"We do not seek a government handout or bailout money," Shapiro said.

He harkened back to the beginning of CES in 1967 and said the consumer technology business has weathered economic storms that included 9 percent unemployment and 20 percent interest rates.

The barrage of economic news hitting consumers second by second, thanks largely to technology showcased at CES, threatens to divert attention from research and development to fear and backtracking, Shapiro said.

Later, Stringer chimed in with an array of new Sony products, ranging from a flexible flat-screen TV to glasses people can use to watch movies while moving around their homes -- both products that are still in development.

"Everyone is still striving to come up with the next killer product, or at least refine the current ones," Stringer said. "Imagine a screen you can fold as easily as a magazine."

He also showed off consumer-ready products, such as a Wi-Fi-enabled camera that lets people shoot pictures and instantly post them online.

Despite the defiantly optimistic tone of the event, which included a projection that the consumer electronics industry's revenue would remain nearly flat in 2009, signs of recession were all around. They suggested attendance, projected to reach 130,000, will fall short of the 140,000 in recent years.

The opening speeches, for example, nearly filled The Venetian ballrooms where they were held. But it didn't appear to have as much overflow in the wings.

Also, traffic at Spring Mountain Road and Las Vegas Boulevard was light compared with the first day of previous CES events.

"I noticed the traffic wasn't nearly as bad as what I saw last year," said Rick Silcock of Vail, Ariz., who runs a travel Web site. "It is just weird."

He was attending the show to scout for wireless technology he thinks could help his business.

David Tobison, a Phoenix homebuilder, has attended CES for 25 years.

A tech enthusiast, Tobison said he started using a hand-held electronic organizer in the late 1980s. He attends CES to scout technology that could be useful in the homes he builds.

"There are three or four things you have to have in the homes," Tobison said, citing wine cellars, home theater setups and guest quarters. "You have to have technology."

Tobison said he drove to Las Vegas to attend just one day of the show, so it wasn't very costly. But he wondered how long the show would remain viable even after the recession ends. He recalled the fall of Comdex, a technology show that drew 200,000 people to Las Vegas but folded in 2003.

Product debuts, a staple of CES and the former Comdex, don't generate as much buzz as they used to because details are likely to have already leaked to enthusiasts.

"Now with the Internet, it is instant," Tobison said of product premieres. "You can see what they are doing on their Web site. You don't have to come here."

CES still is likely to attract more than 100,000 people and nearly 5,000 members of the media and is worth about $200 million in nongambling spending to the local economy.

Shapiro said the show will generate about 10,000 news stories worldwide in the next four days, lots of free publicity for Las Vegas.

One of the hottest categories this year is netbooks. They are basically smaller, cheaper laptop computers designed for people who want portability and online access without bulk or high prices.

"I think the netbook will be taking a bigger share of the market, because it is affordable," said Erika Jean of MSI.

The Taiwan-based company is exhibiting a line of netbooks and full-size laptops at CES.

The netbooks range in price from about $400 to $530, have 10-inch screens and keyboards that are 90 percent the size of a typical keyboard.

The company also was promoting a netbook as a low-cost alternative to the Mac Air, an ultrathin machine from Apple that costs as much as $2,500. The MSI version is slightly thicker and slower, but costs from $799 to $999.