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LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - The world's biggest technology trade show will feature razor-thin laptops, powerful new smartphones and fancy flat-screen TVs, but talk in the cavernous halls of the Consumer Electronics Show, which kicks off on Monday night, may focus on whether the show itself has a long-term future.
Apple Inc, which has set the agenda in consumer electronics for the past decade, does not even attend the show. Microsoft Corp, desperately trying to catch up, is making this show its last. It has been a few years since Las Vegas-based CES had the "wow" factor.
"There's a lot of hype. The promise exceeds the deliverable a lot," said Todd Lowenstein, portfolio manager at HighMark Capital Management, which owns several technology stocks. "I take an interest in it only to the extent that there's market-moving information that comes out of there, which I find is rare."
Steve Jobs' stylish and dramatic product launches came to dominate the popular tech world, and rivals are looking to copy that outside of the hubbub and razzmatazz of CES in Las Vegas.
"A lot of companies are trying to imitate Apple's success in a lot of areas, and one area where Apple has been extremely successful is in controlling its message by controlling the event and the timetable of its announcements," said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis, a business intelligence firm.
Microsoft, which is trying to win back its technology crown from Apple and newcomer Google Inc, has long said that CES in early January does not fit its product release timetable, meaning it has little new to share in the opening keynote, which has for years been given by Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, and before him by co-founder Bill Gates.
"Microsoft can do this on their own, they don't need CES," said Hanson Hosein, a specialist in technology and media at the University of Washington in Seattle. "It's a lot of money. These shows are generally declining in popularity anyway."
This year, the buzzwords look similar to last year, including "connected," "always on" and "voice recognition," whether in new, more powerful phones and tablets or in cars or even watches.
"This year there's going to be a focus on connectivity and mobility that continues the momentum we've seen for the past few years, even though we may not see quite so many big announcements by (mobile) carriers as we did last year," said Ross Rubin, executive director, Connected Intelligence, at retail research firm NPD Group.
The latest crop of light and thin laptops, which Intel Corp has dubbed "Ultrabooks," is set to dominate the hardware displays, from the likes of Toshiba Corp, Asustek Computer Inc and Lenovo Group Ltd.
On the other side of the floor, the latest high-definition, Internet-enabled TVs from Sony Corp, Panasonic Corp, Sharp Corp and LG Corp will also draw crowds.
Wireless carriers AT&T Inc and Verizon Wireless are expected to unveil devices to take advantage of their new high-speed networks, and phone-maker Nokia is preparing to reintroduce itself to a U.S. audience with new handsets running Microsoft's latest Windows software.
Tablets may take a backseat after dominating the show last year, as hardware makers lick their wounds after failure to match Apple's all-conquering iPad.
Some suspect tablet makers are not fully committing to Google's Android as a tablet platform, knowing that Microsoft's tablet-friendly Windows 8 system is likely set to hit the market in the next 12 months. Microsoft showed off a flashy Samsung Electronics tablet running a prototype of Windows 8 in September, and more up-to-date demo versions are expected to be circulating at CES.
Somewhere in between the phone and tablet is the "phablet," the tag applied to Samsung's new 5.3 inch- (13.5 cm-) screen Galaxy Note.
So far available only in Europe and Asia, there is talk that AT&T will announce plans to launch the Android-based device in the United States at CES.
Sensor-laden, low-power devices with a constant connection to the Internet -- whether a phone, or smaller device hidden in your car or on your wrist -- will be the theme of the show, tech-watchers seem to agree. That allows users to move digital content around or get real-time feedback on where they are and what they are doing.
"The CPU is in your pocket, the data is all in the cloud," said John Elliott, senior executive at consulting firm Accenture's Mobility practice.
CES, which started in 1967 in New York, was the launchpad for the VCR, camcorder, DVD, HDTV and many other pivotal home tech developments. It grew rapidly in importance after the COMDEX tech show folded a decade ago.
It has been a while since CES showcased such game-changing inventions, but it is still popular with technology exhibitors and buyers, although it may suffer a dip in overall attendance this year.
The 2012 International CES -- to state its full title -- is set to be the second-biggest on record, with more than 2,700 exhibitors taking up over 1.8 million square feet of show floor. The largest-ever CES was in 2008, with 1.85 million square feet of paid-for exhibition space.
The organizers said they are expecting 140,000 to 150,000 attendees this year, but acknowledge it will be tough to beat last year's 149,000.
Exhibitors tend to make reservations on next year's space while at the show, or shortly afterward, so CES will soon find out if its waning influence, or hard economic times, will take a bite out of next year's show.
CES is "a good opportunity to discuss the Intel products and technologies that consumers want to hear about," said Robert Manetta, a spokesman for the world's biggest chip maker.
The show is also still popular with smaller companies looking for a big stage to show off their wares.
"CES is hands-down the best venue to debut cutting-edge hardware and software to the world," said Michel Tombroff, CEO of Softkinetic, a Belgian firm which designs motion-sensing technology for controlling TVs and computers with your hands.
Technology buyers also like it.
"We are always looking for new, new, new," said a buyer at an upscale retailer focusing on teens. "For electronics, we wouldn't even bother with anywhere else."
Ultimately, CES still sets the pace in technology for retailers, said Rubin at NPD.
"CES has become the place where the expectations for the year are set in terms of the state of the art."
Reporting By Bill Rigby, editing by Matthew Lewis