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Gates shows off Vista in CES keynote

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates highlights features designed to convince the average consumer that they need the next version of Windows.

LAS VEGAS--After months of touting Vista's geekier side, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on Wednesday highlighted features of the new version of Windows designed to appeal to the average consumer.

During his keynote speech at the

Gates began his speech by noting his recent appearance, along with his wife, Melinda, and U2's Bono, as Time magazine's "Persons of the Year." He said there were other strong contenders. "Probably if there had been one more hurricane, Mother Nature would have been on the cover," he said. "For a lot of reasons I'm glad that didn't happen."

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As he usually does at CES, Gates offered his vision of the digital future. His demonstration illustrated a typical day from the future, which began at home with an on-demand video clip and included a look at a map that showed the location of his family members. After heading into the office, he used three large flat-screen monitors to take part in a videoconference.

Finally he headed to the airport with just his cell phone. At the airport lounge, his cell phone connected to a screen and he instantly had a full desktop to work on. The phone could even connect to a nearby camera. "The phone is very different. The idea of a meeting is very different," Gates said.

Gates touched on many of the same points as last year's speech, talking about the increasing role that digital gadgets are playing in everyday life. Since the demise of the fall Comdex trade show, Gates' CES speech has become a virtual state-of-the-electronics-industry address.

A look at Vista
Among the new graphics abilities in Vista that Microsoft showed off was Flip 3D, a tool for easily shifting among multiple open windows and the Windows Vista Sidebar, which runs in the corner of the screen and includes RSS feeds, sports scores and other small applications. Microsoft showed Sidebar in the first preview of Longhorn (Vista's code name), but the feature had disappeared from Microsoft's feature list before reappearing more recently.

Microsoft's photo-editing program--Photo Gallery--allows users to do basic editing, as well as sort photos by date, keyword and other information. The program, which will be built into Vista, appears to be similar to Apple Computer's iPhoto.

Like iPhoto, the Photo Gallery software keeps a separate copy of the photo so users can make changes to their images without losing their original. A new slideshow feature allows users to mix video images and still photos.

Microsoft also showed off a forthcoming update to the classic Microsoft program Flight Simulator to highlight the graphics and gaming power of Vista. The demo included helicopters and flying birds, among other realistic details.

Xbox marks the spot
Along with Vista, Gates is also made his case for HD DVD--one of two competing formats for next-generation DVDs. Gates said Microsoft would offer an external HD DVD drive that can connect to the recently released Xbox 360 game console.

By offering the drive as an Xbox add-on, Microsoft is hoping to win over consumers with a cheaper option than buying an all-new device to play next-generation Blu-ray or HD DVD discs.

Microsoft also said it expects to have 50 high-definition games on the market by June. Microsoft demonstrated the HD games via Electronics Arts' "Fight Night Round 3," which matched up Gates as Muhammed Ali with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as Joe Frazier.

Gates landed some early punches while Frazier started slowly. Meanwhile, the two executives traded barbs, with Ballmer taking the first jab.

"Thirty years I've been training for this opportunity," Ballmer said.

Showing off some fancy footwork, Gates got in his own shot.

"You've got the weight on me, I'll give you that," said Gates, who won the bout after knocking down Ballmer. An instant replay showed blood spurting from Frazier's mouth.

Gates also demonstrated how the format's guaranteed ability to allow secure copies will allow DVD purchases to be used throughout the digital home.

In an effort to meet demand, Microsoft announced that it is adding a third contract manufacturer, Celestica, to make the Xbox 360. "We are working to deliver consoles as fast as we can manufacture them," said Xbox executive Peter Moore. Moore said the company is on track to meet its goal of shipping 4.5 million to 5.5 million consoles by the end of June.

New partners
During his talk, Gates announced a new partnership with DirecTV that will allow subscribers of the satellite television service to move shows from their set-top boxes onto Windows PCs, the Xbox 360 and mobile devices that are part of Microsoft's "Plays For Sure" program.

Gates is also showed off the new Treo 700w, which uses Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system. Palm announced earlier Wednesday that the phone will be available from Verizon Wireless starting this week.

Microsoft and Palm announced the long-rumored partnership in September, saying that the device should arrive early this year.

The speech, which is known as a showplace for new devices and technologies, was also the launching pad for two new cordless telephones that can download contacts from Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's planned successor to its MSN Messenger instant messaging software. The phones--from Uniden and Philips--can be used to make either traditional or Internet-based phone calls. The phones are not planned to arrive until at least this spring.

In December, Microsoft started limited testing of the new Messenger, which, among other things, is designed to store contacts and make Internet-based phone calls.

As for Vista, Microsoft has been publicly showing off the operating system for some time and has released several test versions. However, the company has held off talking about most of the consumer features of the operating system or offering a look at its final user interface.

The company has shown a few things, such as the improved search abilities, better graphics and the ability to more easily shift among open windows in both the operating system as well as the built-in Internet Explorer 7 Web browser. Most of the effort, though, has centered on wooing developers and corporate IT staffs who need more advance notice of where Microsoft is going.

However, the company is moving more broadly with its Vista sell as it hopes to launch the OS later this year and aims to have PCs loaded with the new Windows on the market in time for the holiday season.

A new tune
Beyond the PC, Microsoft is also attempting to catch up in the portable music and video markets, which have been dominated by Apple Computer. Gates was joined on stage by pop superstar Justin Timberlake and MTV Music Group President Van Toffler to talk up the MTV-created Urge music service, which will use Microsoft's technology as well as show off a new crop of portable video devices, known as portable media centers.

"This is not my usual stage," Timberlake told the crowd of tech enthusiasts.

But, he said, the Urge service will allow him to connect in new ways with his fans. Timberlake also joked that he was going to add a duet with Gates on his new album.

The latest devices, including a $299 Gigabeat player from Toshiba, add to the basic music and video experience with other features, such as the ability to directly record audio and video or import photos directly from a digital camera. Gates also touted improved battery life and widescreen displays as being among the improved capabilities.

Microsoft also demonstrated better music playing on the PC side with the Windows Media Player 11 software, which will debut with Vista. The new player is designed to make it easier to handle common tasks such as sorting through large music libraries. It also allows users to view their music in "stacks," or groups of albums sorted by, say genre. The stack is shown as a pile of all the album art for the albums in the stack.

One of the big change's to Vista's Media Center will be the ability to view high-definition digital cable. The current Media Center edition of Windows XP supports HD content, but only that accessible via an over-the-air antenna. Microsoft announced a deal with the cable industry in November that it said would pave the way for Media Center PCs this year that can receive digital cable--both high-definition and standard--without need for a set-top box.

Among the big-name PC makers expected to have such machines are Alienware, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Toshiba.

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