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Microsoft backs Bluetooth with hardware

Chairman Bill Gates plans to announce Thursday at WinHEC that the software company is putting its muscle behind the wireless networking technology.

SEATTLE--Microsoft will put its muscle behind the Bluetooth wireless networking technology later this year, selling keyboards and mice that use the technology to connect to PCs, Chairman Bill Gates plans to announce Thursday.

Microsoft also will push Bluetooth software, 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.

Gates plans to announce the backing here in a keynote address at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or WinHEC, at which the software giant tries to align hardware and software engineers with its plans.

Gates also plans to demonstrate 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 will show 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 product demonstrations won't be limited to consumer devices, though. Gates will also show off high-end servers using Intel's forthcoming "McKinley" processor, the second generation of its Itanium processor line. Intel President Paul Otellini is expected to tout the new processor as well during a keynote address after Gates' speech.

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 will announce 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, though. Gates plans to demonstrate Mira technology in a set-top box that controls a television, said Aaron Woodman, lead product manager in Microsoft's consumer vision and strategy group.

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