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Get Your Geek On

At CES, the next wave of gadgets meets the media that power them (Apple and Microsoft be damned)
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Hip tech-centric events like SXSW and TED have muscled into its territory, Microsoft is bailing and Apple has always stayed home. And yet, the Consumer Electronics Show has still got juice for some 140,000 gadget hounds, journalists and other citizens of the world of tech set to descend on Las Vegas this week for the annual expo.

The launch pad for seminal devices like the VCR and Nintendo Entertainment System—and more recently, innovations including the Blu-ray disc, Microsoft’s Xbox and 3-D television—this is being billed as the second-largest CES ever, hosting more than 2,700 exhibitors and a roster of speakers from organizations ranging from NBCUniversal and NPR to NASA.

But once again, the gathering is making news for who’s not there—most notably Apple, which opts to stage its own high-drama launch events. Microsoft, after a 14-year run, said this year would mark its last CES appearance (CEO Steve Ballmer is set to give the opening keynote). And following reported troubles lately with its 4G service and the disastrous (and since reversed) decision to charge customers a $2 “convenience fee” to pay their bills online or over the phone, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam abruptly dropped out of a panel discussion featuring chief executives at this year’s CES. (John Stratton, head of Verizon’s enterprise services division, will fill in.)

Meanwhile, as the development of technology and content in silos is history and partnerships among content producers, service providers and gadget makers proliferate, media companies are flocking to the event.

Consequently, the CES program has evolved. Media and entertainment players have always had a presence there but no longer are simply another group gawking at all the new toys—they make news themselves.

When 3-D TV technology is trotted out at the CES show, DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg is up there on stage with the TV manufacturers to promote his latest production.

And no wonder, since for those looking to launch compelling devices, a key question is: Will the content be any good?

“As cool as we think hardware is, what really makes the world move are the media and the content behind it,” says Stephen Baker, vp of industry analysis at market research firm NPD. “More and more of the challenge for the electronics industry in general is, how do we profitably sell hardware when an increasing amount of the value lies after the purchase? How people own, rent, buy and view content, that’s at the core of so many products today.”

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