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January 08, 2006

THE EXHIBIT FLOOR AT THE consumer electronics industry's annual gadgetfest in Las Vegas last week showed off the new face of television, with more vibrant pictures, more portability and more brains.

Beneath the gleaming flat panels, though, lay several disturbing fissures. Once again, infighting among technology companies is threatening to frustrate and confuse consumers. The points of contention include incompatible formats for high-definition DVDs and portable video, and rival methods for connecting digital devices within the home.

Such incompatibilities are par for the course in consumer electronics, which is an evolving and highly competitive industry. Nevertheless, they mean that consumers will have to step carefully as they try to navigate the shifting digital landscape.

One of the fissures has been well publicized: the impending format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD, two competing forms of high-definition video disc. The opposing camps announced their first slate of U.S. products in Las Vegas, with the HD-DVD side promising lower prices and earlier availability than their Blu-ray rivals. HD-DVD even had an answer to Blu-ray's ace in the hole, the forthcoming Blu-ray-equipped Sony PlayStation 3 game console. Microsoft said it would offer an HD-DVD player that could be attached to its own next-generation game console, the fast-selling XBox 360.

These developments indicate that the two sides are digging in, not drawing closer. As a consequence, consumers will either have to wait until the dust settles or take a chance on a player that could quickly become obsolete.

Meanwhile, Google co-founder Larry Page announced a new online store for downloadable TV programs, movies and other video entertainment. But the company is using its own anti-piracy software, meaning that much of the content Google sells can't be shown on any of the plethora of palm- and pocket-sized video players on display in Las Vegas.

In fairness, the show also offered a glimpse of how digital technology could overcome these conflicts. Manufacturers showed off several different efforts, such as Intel's Viiv product line and the Digital Living Network Alliance, to let consumers move music and movies easily around their homes and to unite all their electronics under the command of a single remote control.

Of course, the industry is split into different camps on those efforts too. But it's early yet.

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