Consumer Electronics Show: Year in Flux?

The big extravaganza kicks off this week in Las Vegas.
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It's that time of year again, when the electronics world and all of the related industries head to Las Vegas for their annual gathering: the CES.

The confab's official name is the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show. Officially, the 41-year-old trade show begins on Thursday and runs through Sunday. Unofficially, the meetings, parties, press conferences, demonstrations and the like already have started.

2009 CES Surprises

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The show is truly immense, and although I'm hearing from a number of companies that they're cutting back the size and location of their booths, CES is still enormous. Officially, the exhibits span the entire Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands Expo and Convention Center, and a large portion of the Venetian Hotel. Exhibitors include "manufacturers, developers and suppliers of consumer technology hardware, content, technology delivery systems and related products and services."

Unofficially, you can find many companies exhibiting off the show floor -- in hotel suites and private spaces throughout the city.

As for attendees, CES officials say: "Verified registrants representing the United States, Canada, Mexico and more than 140 other countries include manufacturers, retailers, content providers and creators, broadband developers, wireless carriers, cable and satellite TV providers, installers, engineers, corporate buyers, government leaders, financial analysts and the media from around the world."

In the 1970s and 1980s, CES focused on the most popular home electronics of the day: high-fidelity stereo systems, televisions, VCRs. As consumers shifted their disposable income to personal computing and most recently cell phones/smartphones, CES has been shifting its focus as well.

Now, the show specializes in a truly awesome assortment of products and services, some of which are included in the table below.

At CES, there is always a slew of announcements touting the biggest/best/newest electronic designs. I expect this year's show will provide us with a lot more of the same. You can expect to hear about some company producing the world's largest flat-screen TV (

Sony

(SNR) - Get Report

?

Panasonic

(PC)

?,

Samsung

?

LG

?), higher-powered and/or smaller computers, plus 200 to 300 new accessories for

Apple's

(AAPL) - Get Report

iPod.

But there will be other big stories coming from Las Vegas as well. How will the current economic downturn affect the industry? Even with an expected boost in sales from next month's switch-over to digital television broadcasting in the U.S., the industry is bracing itself for extended hard times. Industry experts and pundits will be crawling around every Sin City nook and cranny to try to detect a downward trend.

And then there are dramas that might unfold at the show. In one instance,

Palm

(PALM)

is expected to announce its next-generation operating system (called Nova) and a smartphone to match at CES.

Word is the handset is a touch-screen device, with slide-out QWERTY keyboard. The new products are big news for Palm, but the bigger story is whether these new items will be enough to help Palm return to its former industry-leading stature. The investors at Elevation Partners hope so. They just invested an additional $100 million in cash to see Palm through these tough times.

Some things about CES never seem to change, like

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

opening the show. In recent years, Bill Gates always gave a keynote speech the night before the show floors officially opened. Gates has retired, so Microsoft's new boss, Steve Ballmer, is now the lead keynoter.

On the other hand, Ballmer is also giving the opening keynote speech at the GSMA Mobile World Congress Show in Barcelona, Spain, next month. Is this a case of Microsoft hedging all its bets, or a realization that the home-electronics industry -- and the Consumers Electronics Show itself -- is morphing into something else completely?

Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.