Gates peddles home tech in CES speech

The Microsoft chairman's treatise on the fully digitized home, a staple of Comdex computer trade shows for many years, has been extended to CES.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
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David Becker
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Gates reveals Mira image
Bill Gates, chairman, Microsoft
LAS VEGAS--He may not yet be on the level of Siegfried and Roy or the Folies Bergere, but Bill Gates is on his way to having one of the longest-running shows in Vegas.

The Microsoft chairman's treatise on the fully digitized home, a staple of Comdex computer trade shows for many years, has been extended to the Consumer Electronics Show, where Gates made his third keynote speech in as many years Monday evening.

Gates offered variations of the familiar theme, presented in the new wrapper of eHome--the Microsoft division formed after last year's CES to focus on technology for the home. Central to his presentation were a couple of new technologies that tie in with Microsoft's new Windows XP operating system to turn the PC into a central home jukebox for content--ranging from Web connections to digital video.

"All the new things we're doing build on the success of Windows XP," Gates said.

Among the new efforts were "Mira," software for a wireless flat-panel display that connects directly with a PC but also can be carried around the house as a Web pad or a home entertainment control center while communicating wirelessly with a main PC. As originally reported by CNET News.com, Mira devices could help extend Microsoft's vision of the PC as an electronic nerve center for the home.

Manufacturing partners such as PC monitor maker ViewSonic are expected to have touch-sensitive, wireless displays based on the Mira concept on shelves by the end of this year, according to Microsoft executives.

The concept is also likely to find its way into television sets, where it could allow touch-screen control of DVD playback or Web access, and wireless computing kiosks for the home such as the short-lived Audrey appliance.

If the concept of an easily portable tablet that wirelessly connects to a PC sounds familiar, it should. Intel CEO Craig Barrett touted a similar concept at last year's CES with a quickly abandoned concept for a wireless PC companion.

Gates CES Freestyling
Another new part of Microsoft's plans for linking the PC to other home devices is Freestyle, an extension to the Windows XP operating system announced Monday and reported earlier by CNET News.com.

"This is the idea of using a PC without sitting down at a keyboard," Gates said. "Wherever you are, the idea of remote interactivity comes with Windows."

Freestyle includes applications for DVD and digital music playback and for processing and recording live television signals, allowing the PC to become an entertainment command center and a potential rival to digital video recorders such as TiVo devices.

It also sounds quite similar to products announced earlier at CES by Moxi Digital to create a Linux-powered control system for digital entertainment.

Hewlett-Packard, NEC and Samsung are working on entertainment-centric PCs built around Freestyle, Microsoft said.

Gates also showed a Panasonic DVD player that can play digital audio files in the Windows Media format and announced additions to Microsoft's Ultimate TV service that will allow subscribers to remotely schedule TV recording via any Web-enabled device.

Gates also demonstrated the company's software for Internet-ready cell phones, renamed "Smart Phone 2002" from the previous code name Stinger.

Gates, who appeared to be suffering from a cold, also made several mentions of the need for "trustworthy computing," a not-so-veiled reference to Microsoft's controversial Passport online identification service.

CE goes .Net
Gates' speech also marked the release of the new version of Windows CE, Microsoft's embedded operating system for devices ranging from robots to cell phones.

The most notable additions to Windows CE.Net, code-named Talisker, focused on delivering Internet services, as outlined in Microsoft's .Net strategy for shifting computing functions to Internet-delivered services.

see CNET Electronics: CES 2002 Coverage The new operating system includes support for Microsoft's instant messaging software and Passport, the controversial online identification program that underlies much of Microsoft's online strategy.

Final code for Windows CE.Net is now available to hardware manufacturers, with the first devices based on the software expected to arrive this summer. Those include handheld computers, cell phones and a variation on the Internet-enabled refrigerator. The Icebox, from Salton--makers of the George Foreman Grill--will be a kitchen data terminal that can show TV programs, retrieve recipes from the Web and perform other domestic chores.

Gates also touted some recent history, reporting sales of 17 million licenses for Windows XP in the two months since its launch, making it the fastest-selling version of Windows to date.

He also touted robust sales for the company's new video game console, the Xbox, with 1.5 million units sold since the machine was released in mid-November.

Microsoft is also selling three games for each Xbox unit sold, an unusually high sell-through rate for a game console.

Gates also showed a video depicting an intriguing vision of what online Xbox play will be like when the Internet service that will allow remote multiplayer gaming on the Xbox is ready this summer.

Finally, Gates & Co. showed their usual capacity for self-deprecating humor with a series of video montages. One lampooned the "Monkey Dance" that made CEO Steve Ballmer even more of an Internet celebrity last year.

Another clip showed Ballmer and Gates horsing around, with Ballmer dressed as Luke Skywalker and Gates as an alarmingly accurate Harry Potter. "This is the way I look all the time," Gates sheepishly said.