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Resounding Apple presence evident at this year's CES conference

Despite its absence from the conference, Apple's impact on this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is evident from a quick stroll around the showroom floor, say analysts for investment bank Piper Jaffray who are on hand as observers.

"At the show, we observed three key themes in the CE space: hardware design, touchscreen devices, and ecosystem connectivity," analyst Gene Munster wrote in report to clients on Wednesday. "These are three areas of strength for Apple, and it is evident that other industry players are pushing to catch up."

For example, the analyst said, device makers are largely following Apple's lead in industrial design that began with the iPod and has since made its way to the company's Macs and the iPhone.

"iMac-like all-in-one desktop computers from Dell and Gateway, for example, are two instances of other device makers following Apple's lead," he wrote. "At CES it is clear that eye-catching design is a priority."

Secondly, the analyst said, the iPhone represents a consumer-ready level of maturity for touchscreen devices, which has spurred hype and expectations among consumers who are beginning to expect other device makers to devise high-technology that is accessible, simple, and fun.

"Touchscreen device makers like Samsung are following Apple's lead, but we believe Apple is significantly ahead of other device makers (except perhaps Microsoft)," Munster said. "Apple has largely focused its R&D on its multitouch technology, which is used in the iPhone, but we anticipate more multitouch devices from Apple throughout 2008."

Another area where Apple has seemingly set the bar is in hardware and software integration. The Piper Jaffray analyst noted that as the Cupertino-based company has expanded its device ecosystem with the Apple TV and iPhone, other consumer electronics device makers have struggled to match Apple in ease of connectivity between PCs and other devices.

"This year at CES several companies are pushing to catch Apple in terms of connectivity," he wrote. "Such products included the Sandisk Take TV, wireless streamers, and other connected entertainment devices that offer a non-iTunes competitor to Apple's entertainment ecosystem."

Munster, who maintains a Buy rating and $250 price target on shares of Apple, said he expects the company's announcements at next week's Macworld Expo in San Francisco to again set the bar for the year ahead in the consumer electronics industry.