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CES 2021

First online CES tech event lures fewer Chinese participants

5G and EV stay at forefront with Samsung and Panasonic leading the way

Around 1,800 exhibitors are scheduled to appear at the first online-only CES, compared to 4,419 at last year's event.   © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S.-- The world's biggest consumer electronics and technology expo will be unlike that of any other year. The first online-only CES will kick off on Monday, with tech executives and industry experts participating remotely from around the world, instead of shaking hands in Las Vegas.

The annual four-day conference -- formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show -- will enter its 54th year with no physical presence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While fewer companies are scheduled to appear this year, the event will still be closely watched and is expected to set the tone for tech trends in 2021 and beyond.

Asian tech heavyweights, including Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony and more, are expected to showcase their latest innovations in 5G, artificial intelligence, electric vehicles and other areas at this year's event, which runs from Jan. 11 to Jan. 14.

Here are five things to know about CES 2021:

Who is expected to attend?

Around 1,800 companies will be exhibiting, according to the organizer Consumer Technology Association. Last year, the show attracted 4,419 companies.

While an all-digital CES allows audiences around the world access to the show, CTA did not reveal how many people have registered for this year's event. More than 170,000 attendees gathered at CES 2020, according to CTA.

Many Silicon Valley giants, including Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook, are not on the exhibitor list. However, executives from Google, Twitter and Amazon will discuss privacy and trust issues at a panel as U.S. tech companies face increased government scrutiny. People in the tech industry -- as well as policymakers in Asia -- should pay attention to the discussions because thoughts expressed in the U.S. typically resonate worldwide.

While last year's show attracted nearly 60,000 international attendees and featured a keynote speech by Samsung Electronics President Kim Hyun-suk, CES 2021 seems to be focused on the domestic market, as it stars an all-American keynote lineup, including chipmaker AMD CEO Lisa Su and General Motor CEO Mary Barra.

What are the key trends?

Industry watchers thought 2020 would finally see 5G commercialized at scale, and the technology dominated conversations at CES last year.

But the year turned out to be much different, as the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns slowed deployment of 5G networks. However, with the rollout of iPhone 12 and more 5G-capable smartphones from Samsung and other companies, 5G will continue to be a key trend this year and one of the biggest buzzwords at the event.

Hans Vestberg, CEO at Verizon -- the official 5G partner of Apple -- is the first keynote speaker at CES 2021. He is expected to give a talk centered around next-generation wireless technology. At least 29 sessions devoted to 5G are scheduled during the event, with topics ranging from how the telecom industry will change to 5G's impact on transportation, agriculture and other sectors.

Meanwhile, digital health and technologies designed to tackle the challenges caused by the pandemic are also in the spotlight. Health and wellness tech had a 25% increase in exhibitors last year, and the sector is expected to attract even more attention due to rising demand. Sanitizing robotics, public health monitoring, AI-powered diagnostics and telemedicine are among the more notable technologies at the show.

"We've seen rapid advancements in a variety of areas [in the past year] but health care, in particular, has really seen a surge. And we will no doubt see some of these innovations during CES 2021," said Lesley Rohrbaugh, director of market research at CTA.

CES was live in Las Vegas in 2020 but will be held virtually this year.   © Reuters

How will U.S. politics impact the event?

CES 2021 will take place a week before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20. Many in the global tech sector are hoping Biden will reverse the U.S.-Sino "tech decoupling" and bring some long-missed stability to business.

How the new U.S. administration affects the tech industry will be a key question discussed by executives. The director of the U.S. National Economic Council, Brian Deese, who advises Biden on domestic and international economic policy, will talk about the administration's approach to technology and trade.

In the past four years, Trump has brought a lot of uncertainty to the tech sector, especially in the semiconductor industry after Washington banned American companies from supplying Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Since many U.S. chip heavyweights -- including Intel, AMD and Qualcomm -- are scheduled to appear at CES 2021, participants will be closely watching if the companies include Huawei and China in their outlooks.

Meanwhile, Biden administration policies on privacy, antitrust and government tech investment are also expected to be discussed.

What should we expect from Asia?

Asian tech heavyweights have scaled back their presence at this year's event due to fewer product rollouts and the digital format of CES 2021.

Samsung will be hosting virtual media conferences and showcase new displays and home appliances. But it will hold a separate product launch to unveil its latest Galaxy smartphone on Jan. 14, which overlaps with CES and is highly anticipated by consumers and analysts.

LG Electronics will also be presenting a series of new appliances, including its latest smart TV.

Japan's Panasonic will outline progress in its electric vehicle battery technology. The Tesla partner is set to begin producing prototypes of a more cost-effective battery for the EV maker this year.

Meanwhile, Toyota Motor, which unveiled its smart city plan at the show last year, will not be exhibiting. However, its director of technology and innovation policy will discuss the future of autonomous vehicles with U.S. self-driving startup Waymo and government officials.

Will there be a Chinese presence?

China's presence has been shrinking in recent years. At last year's show, the country was represented by 11,067 attendees, down from 12,839 in 2019 and 15,383 in 2018. Even fewer participants from China are expected as tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to mount.

Several Chinese CES regulars -- including drone maker DJI, which was recently added to the U.S. trade blacklist -- will be no-shows. Huawei, which had a sizable exhibit last year, will also stay away, Nikkei Asia has learned.

But there will still be some notable Chinese players, including TCL, which unveiled the world's cheapest 5G smartphone at the 2020 show. The electronics company plans to introduce its latest smart home devices and new smartphone this year.

TikTok, the popular video-sharing app owned by ByteDance, will participate in a panel discussing how technology is transforming entertainment. The company has been battling a ban by the Trump administration since August last year. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba will also speak at a session about online retail.

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