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Gates touts vision of PC as hub

Microsoft's chairman takes the stage at WinHEC, announcing support for wireless networking technology Bluetooth and demonstrating devices for the networked home.

SEATTLE--Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates took the stage at WinHEC on Thursday, announcing support for Bluetooth wireless networking technology and demonstrating technologies that he sees becoming pervasive in home networks.

As earlier reported, Microsoft later this year plans to sell keyboards and mice that use Bluetooth technology to connect to PCs, Gates told the audience at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference.

The company will push Bluetooth software as well, releasing a development kit in May to help programmers support the technology and posting a download that will give Windows XP built-in Bluetooth abilities this fall. Microsoft also will sell a Bluetooth transceiver--the radio antenna that communicates with Bluetooth devices--that plugs into a PC's USB port.

Gates demonstrated use of a PC to make and receive phone calls, with the PC taking actions based on caller ID that ordinary phones can't manage. In addition, he showed music playback, with 22 hours of music stored on a single CD that can be played in a car stereo, PC, home stereo or portable CD player.

The backing of Bluetooth is a boon to a technology that has gradually gained support but is overall late in coming. Some prominent executives have even said that the technology has already lost out to a different wireless networking standard, 802.11b, or "Wi-Fi."

Bluetooth advocates say that the radio-frequency communication standard will eliminate cable clutter, make it easier to synchronize handheld computers and PCs, connect microphones and headsets to computers, let a person use a next-generation cell phone as a modem, and lead to the arrival of "personal area networks" of interconnected gadgets.

Research firm In-Stat/MDR projects that 100 million personal area networks will be installed this year, rising to more than 900 million in 2005. However, the firm has had to lower its estimates before.

Bluetooth dovetails with the consumer-oriented emphasis of WinHEC. Microsoft has detailed several aspects of its plans to spread its software from its stronghold in desktops and laptops to several other devices.

One of those devices is Mira, a portable touch screen that relies on a wireless connection to a PC "base station" that stores files and connects to the Internet.

Microsoft announced four new Mira partners Thursday: NEC, Toshiba, Fujitsu and Wistron all make the devices. Companies buy Wistron's hardware and then sell it under their own brand names.

LG Electronics, Philips Electronics, ViewSonic and Wyse Technology previously announced they would sell Mira devices, and Tatung and Trigem have said they will build the devices for others to sell. Meanwhile, Fujitsu, NEC, Panasonic and Sotec will make their PCs act as Mira base stations, Microsoft said.

Mira involves more than just touch screens. Gates demonstrated Mira technology in a set-top box that controls a television, for example.

In an effort to make its consumer gadget dreams more tangible to executives, business partners and other visitors to the Microsoft campus, Microsoft on Thursday announced the creation of a Consumer Experience Center. The center will be stuffed with interacting widgets that can help people understand where Microsoft and its partners are headed.

The PC is the hub for scanners, printers, handheld computers and digital cameras today, but that role will expand as people attach stereo equipment, televisions, phones, gaming consoles and surveillance systems, Gates said.

Microsoft hopes the PC will take over phone capabilities, a step that's closer with the ability of Windows XP to initiate phone calls. The company envisions PCs placing calls by name, not number, and the ability to log and record calls through Microsoft's Outlook software.

But the PC will have to work better if people routinely rely on it for phone use. "If you use your PC as an end point for voice, we need to improve the reliability and availability of the PC," said Mark Van Flandern, a lead program manager for Windows hardware platforms. And Gates said it's important that good microphones become a standard part of PCs.

One step for improving computers will be a "continuous improvement loop" between Microsoft, customers and business partners so that crashes can be diagnosed and fixes distributed more quickly, Microsoft says. To speed repairs, the company has begun sharing the crash data Windows can report with software and hardware companies. Microsoft doesn't share user identities with those business partners, a representative said.

Microsoft is working on a system that lets a computer user submit crash data to a Web site. Microsoft can run an analysis of the crash on the spot and be notified when a repair for the problem is available.

Another hurdle for computing is the sluggish arrival of high-speed broadband networks, Gates said. The major trunk lines that transfer data on the Internet are tripling in capacity every 18 months, but "connecting to the home is a little tougher," Gates said.

"If there's a breakthrough in hardware that we're not getting fast enough, it's broadband capability," Gates said. "Even that over the next five years I expect to be tackled."

While Gates focused chiefly on consumer technology, he also said the company is slowly making progress in heavy-duty server computers. Microsoft demonstrated its database software running on a four-processor system with the Itanium version of the forthcoming Windows Server software.

Gates acknowledged that progress in servers has been slower than in desktop machines, but reiterated the company's position that PC market economics will win out eventually.

"The idea is that the price performance and absolute performance to use the architecture of the PC for those server computers will become common sense over the next two or three years," Gates said.