Tech Show Has Eye on High-Def TVs, IPod

Times Staff Writers

You can take it with you -- in high-def, no less.

As technology companies big and small gather here today for the International Consumer Electronics Show, they're betting 2006 is the year average Americans tuck portable media players into their pockets and ensconce high-definition televisions in their living rooms.

Then again, they hoped for pretty much the same thing last year. And the year before that.

This time, though, the 130,000 collected geeks at the Las Vegas Convention Center might be right. Portable devices such as Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod are chic totems made possible by the rise of high-speed Internet connections. Sharp pictures, falling prices and more programming have made high-definition TVs seem less extravagant.

"There are lots of devices that are neat and sweet," said Mike McGuire, an analyst at technology market researcher Gartner Inc. "They're great to look at at the show, but in this day and age of digital media, they aren't liable to sell themselves without linkups to digital content."

Enabling people to tote their favorite TV shows, songs and pictures around on portable devices has been talked about for years. Apple, which is not among the show's 2,500 exhibitors, has done more to make that vision a reality than virtually any other company with successive generations of its iPod music player.

Despite iPod's popularity, dozens of other companies think there's still plenty of room in the portable media market. Microsoft Corp., for instance, plans to incorporate portability features into the next version of its ubiquitous Windows operating system, called Vista.

"Five years ago, when people thought of TV, of photos, of movies, they didn't think of software," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said in an interview with The Times. "Now, when you think photos, you think software, to use, share, edit them. When you think music, you think software." Soon, he said, the same will be true with movies.

He pointed to this week's announcement that Starz Entertainment Group was launching a service that allows downloading of movies and TV shows from the Internet to devices called Portable Media Centers. The subscription service, called Vongo, will run on a new version of Windows Mobile operating system.

One such device is Toshiba Corp.'s Gigabeat, which Gates called "a $299 video music device, super-small, very simple." Likewise, Sling Media Inc. introduced software that uses cellular phone networks to transfer TV shows to a phone powered by Windows Mobile. Thomson sought to capitalize on the video-to-go mania with a new version of its Lyra portable player designed to work with the latest DirecTV digital video recorders.

"For Microsoft and hardware manufacturers, this is the show where they've got to put a stake in the ground and have a competitive presence against the iPod," said Gartner's McGuire.

Intel Corp. Chief Executive Paul Otellini is expected to announce today a slew of multimedia partners for desktop computers that will carry the company's new Viiv brand. The PCs will come from the major computer manufacturers and be loaded with programs that connect to a variety of online content providers.

"This year it's all about content," said Intel spokesman Bill Calder. "Content is ultimately becoming king. We have all this wonderful hardware; now the key is, what do we do with it?"

While information technology companies battle over the brains of a home network, consumer electronics makers such as Sony Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. fight over the eyes.

The number of digital televisions sold jumped 49% in 2005. And the industry's trade group, the Consumer Electronics Assn., predicts that 2006 will be the year high-definition televisions outsell analog sets.

No matter how harmonious their vision is for the living room of the future, gadget makers are locked in bitter fights behind the scenes. Backers of rival formats for the next generation of DVD players, for instance, have all but guaranteed a repeat of the battle between VHS and Betamax as the incompatible Blu-ray and HD-DVD go on sale.

Both offer more vivid pictures and sound, but neither will be cheap. HD-DVD players that will debut this spring start at $500. A Blu-ray machine from Pioneer Corp. will cost $1,800.

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