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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.

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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.

•  Dell comes back too. Dell's another company that didn't exactly have a stellar 2006. On the gadget front, market share figures also show that Dell has not done as well as smaller companies like Vizio or Westinghouse in digital TV. Michael Dell delivers a keynote on Tuesday, where he will launch an environmental initiative and likely trot out some Dell products. Other Dell execs will be on hand too.

•  Car tech. The automotive pavilion at CES has been growing steadily. Although a lot of car manufacturers are revving up to make their big announcements at the , which starts Sunday, expect to see a lot of gear for watching DVDs or storing MP3s in cars.

•  Set-top boxes in stores. Remember back in the '90s, when visionaries talked up intelligent set-top boxes that could retrieve information from the Internet, bring movies on demand, and provide other information? The concept fizzled, but it's now making a comeback. By the middle of 2007, cable companies will be required to let consumers buy their own set-tops rather than rent them. Digeo, which years ago bought Moxi, and others will make announcements at the show.

•  Bigger, brighter TVs. Manufacturers will come out with 1080p TVs, which offer the highest level of performance today. But expect to see Pioneer, Westinghouse and others show off TVs that provide even better performance. At Ceatec in Tokyo last October, Sharp showed off a TV that provides four times the resolution of the sharpest TVs today and the company will likely show off some novel technology at its press conference on Sunday and at its booth. Some Japanese companies have even sharper TVs.

Philips, which last year revealed a 3D TV initiative and later showed off its screen, will likely bring some of the sets along. Samsung is expected to dip a 3D toe in the water.

One TV you won't see, however, is Toshiba's SED TV. Legal issues prevent Toshiba from showing it in the states, sources say.

•  Home defense technology. There's always a great collection of night scopes, Taser guns and personal-defense items at CES. I'm not sure why, but this stuff is always great to see.

•  Hard drives vs. flash memory. Before CES formally begins, there will be Storage Visions, where hard-drive makers will tout terabyte drives and hybrid drives, while flash makers show how they plan to get into notebooks. Ideally, the conference would conclude with a pushup contest to decide a winner, but that's another decision that will be left to the marketplace.

•  WiMax. It's coming for notebooks, but expect more later in the quarter when Intel formally introduces its new line of notebook chips.