CES: Gates expands Microsoft's digital home plan

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates kicked off the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Sunday by unveiling new products that support his company’s vision of a world full of connected devices that serve up real-time, personalized content to users.

Microsoft has been promoting the idea of a connected home, where multiple devices can access and share multimedia content stored on a PC or a central server hub, for some time, but so far, only the most savvy or wealthy technology enthusiasts have realized even a piece of that vision.

But Gates and Robbie Bach, the president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, who also appeared on stage Sunday, tried to show how Microsoft can help more people get access to the technology and even expand ubiquitous digital connectedness outside of the home.

Gates presented, through his talk and a demonstration late in his keynote, a world where people are only a touchscreen or a device away from any information that can help them in real time—from recipes that come up on a kitchen counter that is also a screen, to public transportation information that appears on a bus-stop kiosk while a person is waiting for the next bus.

“It’s an environment where people want to do things across multiple devices working with many other people,” Gates said, describing Microsoft’s idea not just for a connected world. “I want my music when I’m in the car, when I’m at home, when I’m in the living room. I want that to be simple. I want my family schedule and the ease of updating it from the phone or PC, touching something on the refrigerator. … I want to have the experience to connect up with people at work as well as at home. You can’t even say ‘consumer’ because the experiences span into that business environment.”

This concept may seem the stuff of science fiction, but Gates insisted that his vision is only several years off as Microsoft and its partners continue to deliver enabling products.

It was Gates’ ninth keynote speech at CES, and he said he would participate as a keynoter in the show again next year. But that may be his final time speaking at the show, as he plans to go part-time at Microsoft in 2008 so he can focus most of his attention on his philanthropic work through The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“After [next year] I’m not sure they’re going to want to invite me,” Gates joked. “I may talk about infectious diseases rather than great software.”

As expected, Windows Vista, which will have its widespread consumer release on Jan. 30, was a major focus of Gates’ speech. He called Vista “by far the most important release of Windows ever,” and also referred to it as “the most high-quality release we’ve ever done.” Vista, Gates said, is a “foundational” product for enabling the connected home.

Microsoft demonstrated new features of Vista during Gates’ keynote. The company unveiled a new deal with Fox Sports to serve up specialized content and allow users to watch and keep track of their favorite sporting events through Vista’s Media Center capabilities. Windows Media Center, which used to be its own OS but is now part of Vista, allows users to serve up content stored on their PC on televisions, or use their PC or another device to set content for their TVs.

Another new feature of Vista demonstrated during the keynote was the ability to plug an Xbox 360 controller into a Vista PC and navigate the machine that way. The capability impressed keynote attendee Brandon Leigh, a Vista beta tester and chief executive of Leaf Wireless in South Africa, who called it “brilliant” and said it would give Microsoft an edge over competitors.

Microsoft also showed off the integration between Xbox Live, its online gaming service and community, and Vista. Now, Windows Vista PC users can connect to Xbox Live and have much the same user experience that Xbox Live users on the game console have.

During Bach’s portion of the keynote, he announced that service providers such as AT&T that offer IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) using Microsoft’s software will begin offering this year the Xbox 360 console in lieu of a set-top box. Service providers still will give users the option of the typical set-top box for IPTV or an Xbox 360.

Still, the announcement sets up a scenario where a home user can watch television and surf the Internet through their Xbox 360 console, which also is an IP-connected device. The move shows Microsoft upping the ante to provide not just software, but also hardware for the digital home, which could eventually put it in competition with its own hardware partners.

The debut of Windows Home Server, a product Microsoft has mentioned before under the code-name “Quattro,” is also aimed at helping consumers establish a more connected home and have access to their data from multiple devices no matter where they are. Windows Home Server will not be sold directly to consumers, but will be used by OEMs such as Hewlett-Packard as the basis for new hardware that consumers can put in their homes to connect their Windows Vista computers.

Users with a broadband connection and more than one computer or device that has an Internet connection can access data stored on Windows Home Server. It also will provide data security and automatically back up data every night.

Nancy Gohring contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 9:25 a.m. PT on January 8, 2007 to include more details about the keynote.

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