Microsoft won't have its signature mega-booth at International CES 2013 starting next week in Las Vegas, but that's not expected to lessen the trade show's impact, or largesse.
Show organizers said there will be 3,200 exhibitors and they expect 156,000 visitors -- matching the record number that attended in 2012. Last year, there were about 3,000 booths, but Microsoft said afterwards it would withdraw from the event after years of attending.
"We're looking at record exhibit space and more exhibitors," CES spokeswoman Tara Dunion told Computerworld.
Like Google and Apple, Microsoft has decided it will rely primarily on its own events to promote its products, which doesn't deter CES with its array of small and large companies -- many that will come to meet with partners and suppliers in private rooms both inside the exhibit hall and in remote hotels.
Even without a booth, Microsoft is holding meetings with reporters, partners and suppliers in private spaces, Microsoft and CES officials confirmed.
"A handful of large companies like Microsoft will do what they want and they'll surely get attention," Dunion said. A special area for exhibitors new to CES called Eureka Park will have 140 vendors, up from 100 last year, she said.
Microsoft's booth absence means there probably won't be official word of the exact date that the Windows 8 Surface Pro tablet ships, although it has been promised for late January, say several analysts.
In general, smartphones and tablets will again be big news at CES this year, although to a lesser extent than two years ago or last year, according to four analysts. In 2011, Verizon Wireless announced half a dozen smartphones and tablets it would sell, but this time is not expected to be making similar hardware news even though Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is delivering a keynote on Tuesday.
CES said in December that about 1,500 of the exhibitors will be showing off wireless-related products, which go far beyond smartphone and tablet hardware to include ways to integrate handheld wireless devices -- often simply through embedded chips -- with cars and homes. Connecting data on wireless devices to the cloud will be another theme of wireless vendors.
Whether the tablet and smartphone hardware news at CES is considered as hot as it was in recent years, the economic potential for both product categories remains huge. Research by the Consumer Electronics Association shows that smartphones alone will remain the "primary" revenue driver for the entire consumer electronics industry in 2013 (including TVs and many other areas), with a 16% increase over 2012 of smartphones shipping to retailers (reaching 125 million devices) and driving $37 billion in global revenues.
The association also believes tablet shipments will soar by 54% in 2013 over last year to 105 million devices, creating $35 billion in revenue.
The emergence of the WiGig standard will mean that some exhibitors show off ways at CES to transfer video and music at speeds of 7Gbps within the space of a living room, for example. (In a related development, the WiMax Alliance announced a merger with the Wireless Gigabit Alliance on Thursday.)
Also at CES, Intel is promising to announce updates for chips for both smartphones and tablets at a Monday press event, a spokeswoman said on Thursday.
There are persistent rumors as well that Lenovo will announce a smartphone running on an Intel Atom processor later in the week at CES, although a spokeswoman said Lenovo would not comment on those rumors. Intel showed off a prototype of an Atom-based smartphone at last year's CES, without disclosing potential vendors.
The emergence of Intel-based processors for smartphones has been slow in coming, while Android and iOS have dominated the market with ARM-based devices.
"Intel chips are in fact quite good, but Lenovo as a brand here in the U.S. is not the biggest brand for smartphones," said IDC analyst Ramon Llamas.
Meanwhile, more Android tablets and smartphones from Samsung, LG and others should be unveiled when the show kicks officially for four days on Wednesday. (Several vendors will offer press events even earlier, starting Sunday.)
As for smartphone particulars, four analysts said they expect larger screens, with at least one new smartphone expected to top 6-in. "That's a huge smartphone," said Ramon Llamas. By comparison, the iPhone 5 sports a 4-in. screen, up from the 3.5-in. of earlier versions.