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A Smaller CES, But Big Tech News Still Expected

Wednesday, 7 Jan 2009 | 11:30 AM ET

Here's the thing about technology and the technology industry: pioneers and visionaries like Microsoft , Intel , Sony and so many others didn't make their fortunes focused on today and tomorrow.

They're all about the future, which is particularly important in today's current economic climate.

And that's the backdrop of the shrinking, but still massive Consumer Electronics Show which kicks off in Las Vegas tonight with the highly anticipated keynote address by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. It's an address that Bill Gates has delivered forever, but with his decidedly diminished day-to-day role at the company nowadays, the task now falls to Ballmer for the first time. More a businessman and strategist than tech guru, his comments tonight might be particularly salient as the tech industry grapples with global recession and the worst holiday shopping season since 1970.

I'm told Ballmer's keynote will focus largely on the company's upcoming release of its next operating system, the one that will succeed Vista, dubbed Windows 7. Ballmer has already tipped Microsoft's hand a little bit, giving us a sneak peak at last year's D: All Things Digital conference of the touchscreen capabilities Windows 7 will feature. Think iPhone touchscreen but for your desktop and laptop. Gesture recognition too. PC companies like Dell

and Hewlett-Packard are already out with screens that will support the new software, and tonight we'll get our best look yet at what other capabilities Windows 7 will offer.

The pressure is on Microsoft to deliver, and deliver big. The Vista release wasn't a debacle, but ongoing glitches and customer complaints colored the operating system with controversy with many corporate clients choosing instead to try to hold on to its older cousin XP as long as they could. I'm told Microsoft is determined not to make the same marketing and development mistakes again.

Special Report: CES '09 Your Digital Life | See Complete Coverage
Special Report: CES '09 Your Digital Life | See Complete Coverage

I thought for sure that Apple would offer a peak into its upcoming "Snow Leopard" operating system at Macworld yesterday to try to mute the headlines Microsoft will surely generate with Windows 7. But no go. That was a surprise.

As a side-note, I'll be sitting down with Ballmer for an exclusive interview Thursday morning. It's his first TV interview like this in a long time, and there is lots to discuss. We'll load the complete interview here on the blog as well.

The other big story I'll be following Thursday is the widely expected announcement from Palm about a new mobile operating system, dubbed Nova. This long-delayed software release is the first major OS update since 2002. The wildcard is that Palm may also surprise us with a new handset as well. A long-shot, but there's lots of buzz about that.

Still, the Nova news might be big enough on its own. These are make-or-break times for Palm. Sales have been slumping, red ink is rising, and the company continues to lose ground against Research in Motion , which is having a phenomenal few days for its stock lately, and Apple Inc. and the iPhone. The problem for Palm and Nova, however, is that I'm hearing while Palm will unveil the software Thursday, handsets running it might still be several quarters away.

CEO Ed Colligan has been on the hot seat lately, and he will sit down with me for a live, First-On CNBC interview after his announcement during "Street Signs" on Thursday. Ed's a good guy, a straight-shooter and a great interview so I'm looking forward to that one too.

Other things I'm watching: Samsung's new 7mm thin flat TV, billed as the world's thinnest; a new, flexible OLED display you can wear on your wrist from Universal Display; a new consumer-oriented personal safety device from Taser; the upcoming social-networking and product website from toymaker Mattel ; a host of new technologies designed specifically for seniors, a kind of "silver" initiative at CES this year; Seagate's Free-Agent Theater, a high-def media player that'll stream all your content from your PC to your TV (think AppleTV, but not from Apple); and just about anything in the Sonybooth.

Should be a good show. Keep checking back for updates!

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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