CES: Like Woodstock for marketing execs

At next week's Vegas spectacle, the gadgets will be fascinating and the hype will deafening. Then it's all about who can deliver.

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is more than a nearly week-long peek into the future of home electronics. It's also a panicky mob of people from all over the world trying to figure out who will be the winners and losers in a multibillion-dollar global business.

Here are some expected highlights of the massive event, which kicks off at 6:30 p.m. PST Sunday with a preshow keynote address by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and then runs through Thursday.

•  IPTV. Cellular carriers, TV networks and Microsoft are expected to announce initiatives (or flesh out previously announced plans) to deliver television programming over the Internet. An IPTV dream world will take time to create: program guides will need to be tweaked and it will need to be determined how consumers will pay for content. (Subscriptions? Pay per show?) Still, the concept has become inevitable, and it's moving forward fast. Two years ago at CES, high-ranking Microsoft execs talked about IPTV, and the idea seemed more like a distant vision.

This week, CBS Research released the results of a poll that said 56 percent of Americans knew they could watch programs by streaming them.

Samsung will even show off an RV rigged up with broadband to show the benefits of IPTV (South Koreans already get TV over the Net). So not so many years from now, you'll be able to say, "I've scoured the Internet and nothing's on."

Likely to discuss IPTV in their respective keynotes are Gates, not only chairman at Microsoft but also the company's CVS (chief V-neck sweater wearer); Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger, speaking Monday; and CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, speaking Tuesday. Expect cable companies to chime in on the debate too.

•  Home networks. Companies such as Cisco Systems, Intel and Gateway for years have tried to get consumers to link their TVs, PCs and stereos into home networks. So far, consumers haven't bitten to any large extent. But the sudden rise of Internet video, technologies like powerline networking and breakthroughs in wireless technology are giving the concept momentum.

Many companies at CES will announce wireless speakers and hubs. Cisco CEO John Chambers will likely tout the idea in his speech on Tuesday. Also that day, but on the other side of the Sierra Nevadas, Apple Computer will likely do the same at Macworld in San Francisco.

•  Next-generation DVDs. Blu-ray and HD DVD kiss and make up. Earlier this week, I predicted that the two factions would settle their differences in a parking lot. LG Electronics beat the rush. On Wednesday, the South Korean manufacturer said it will offer a combo player in the first quarter. Many component manufacturers are producing parts for this as well. Questions remain. A combo player will likely be expensive, and it's unclear how many other manufacturers will follow LG's lead.

See what CNET staffers are taking along to capture the trade show of all trade shows.

Still, the slow sales of these devices could prompt other companies to roll out plans for combo players. Pioneer was going to do it earlier, but scrapped its plans.

LG will provide details on its player on Sunday morning at 8 a.m. PST.

•  The return of Sony. Sony historically has been synonymous with cutting-edge electronics and sterling design. Lately, though, it's also been linked with recalls, product shortages and delays. The Japanese giant will aim to use the show to rebound from the past two years. Although not on the keynote roster, executives such as CEO Howard Stringer will likely use the show as a stage to talk about what the future holds for Sony. Look for a number of products at the Sony booth.

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