Santa's come and gone for another year, but if you're a tech junky, the presents are just beginning to roll out. That's because the electronics industry's biggest event – the annual International Consumer Electronics Show, more commonly known as CES – is less than two weeks away.
The show, which has traditionally been a monument to the excesses of giant consumer tech firms like Sony, kicks off January 8 in Las Vegas, and as soon as the new year is launched, a barrage of preliminary product announcements will no doubt be on their way.
As we eagerly await this annual ritual, it's hard not to speculate about what manufacturers (in our case, camera manufacturers) have in store. CES is usually full of surprises, but doom and gloom economic forecasts for the coming year make it easier than usual to predict the shape of things to come in Vegas next month. Here are some broad product announcement prognostications for this year's show.
A smaller show
With the worldwide economy what it is, we're already seeing the direct effects of presumed weak 2009 consumer spending in the show floor layout. Per the last booth layout map we checked out, it looks like some manufacturers who used to buy up entire corners of a hall at CES will be running more modest operations this year. And some smaller manufacturers have abandoned the show floor altogether, taking up residence at one of the nearby hotels. While no one doubts that the event will still have enough of the lavish show-floor antics to earn it network news coverage, things are already feeling a little subdued compared to years past.
This somber mood will likely also translate into fewer and less aggressive product announcements. Uncertainties about available capital for future R&D will likely mean fewer forward-looking concept technologies this year, and we're betting that the overall number of product releases at both CES and at PMA in a few months will dip compared to last year's numbers.
SLRs not at the forefront in '09
With lower-than-expected profit numbers in the second half of 2008, expensive new product development on the consumer side, at least, will likely take a hit in 2009. Specifically, with a host of new products announced just a few months ago for Photokina, I'd wager that most manufacturers will be promoting their current SLR lines rather than offering substantive replacements: while SLRs have been the big growth segment of the last few years, their cost relative to point-and-shoots may well make this the year of the compact camera.
Looking at past years, it's not hard to guess who will be making announcements: CES has always been the domain of the "electronics" segment of the camera industry (as opposed to the traditional imaging/optics giants), meaning that Panasonic, Samsung, Sony will likely be out in force this time around. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Fuji, meanwhile, will probably hold the bulk of their substantive announcements until PMA in March. The wild cards are usually Olympus and Kodak, who seem to prefer to beat their competitors to the punch with January product launches, if the last few years are any indication. In any event, it seems unlikely that we'll see DSLR announcements from any of these firms in a few weeks.
Point-and-shoot camera announcements tend to be progressive and evolutionary anyway, and they'll likely be especially so this year. Expect there to be fewer new models, and styling to carry over more from last year's products. In terms of technological development, we've probably hit another resolution plateau on compacts at around the 15 megapixel mark, and it's unlikely that anyone will push far beyond that in early 2009. Multi-functionality continues to be a big selling point, though: one bright spot this year will probably be noticeable improvements in video quality from still cameras.
Something big from Samsung?
This is a tough one to put out there with any certainty: Samsung has been notorious in the past few years for promising something big and then leaving us waiting (Wi-Fi battery grip anyone?). There's been talk of a full-frame Samsung sensor for nearly a year now, but conversely, recent comments from Samsung execs appear to have put this project on the back burner. Hence, what Samsung may actually be up to is anyone's guess.
What we're hoping for, though, is the long-rumored micro system camera from Samsung. Interviews with top Samsung brass in the build-up to Photokina suggested that the company was working on a compact interchangeable-lens camera system – not unlike the Panasonic/Olympus Micro Four Thirds system – but using APS-C sized sensors instead.
From a technological perspective, the idea of another compact, full-time live view SLR-like camera to rival the Panasonic G1 would be a fascinating development, and we're all hopeful that rumors of a 2009 launch pan out. Given that the G1 is currently priced about 25 percent higher than a comparable entry-level DSLR, however, we're also wondering if the market would support another camera in this space. Even before things started looking quite so scary in the job market, the G1 seemed a bit expensive. If Samsung can't drop in with a lower-priced competitor (which would probably be difficult, given the technological development required), they may decide that it's best not to play altogether.
If nothing else, maybe Samsung will have a functional HZ1 for us to look at this time around. Here's hoping.
Until next time...
We'll be kicking off our CES coverage in earnest during the first full week of January, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you: what would you like to see come out of this year's CES? What rumors seem most reasonable, or most outlandish? Talk back in our discussion forum!