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Computing giants to debut new gear at CES

The annual Consumer Electronics Show will feature new gadgets from Microsoft, HP and others.

The computing industry will up the ante on its consumer bet this week, as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and other tech stalwarts head to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show.

CES, the main trade show for producers of high-tech gadgets and once primarily a showcase for hi-fi components and clock radios, has become increasingly dominated in recent years by companies more typically associated with business technology.

The 2004 edition of the show, which runs Thursday through Saturday, will be no exception, as companies ranging from Linux distributors to chip designers compete for a chunk of the growing consumer gadget business.

Microsoft kicks off the festivities with a pre-show speech Wednesday by Chairman Bill Gates, who is expected to push an up-close-and-personal version of the "seamless computing" message he delivered earlier at the Comdex trade show.

Key consumer elements of the strategy include several technologies Gates unveiled at last year's Comdex but Microsoft has yet to deliver into the marketplace. Watches based on Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) will display weather forecasts, sports scores, e-mail and other data transmitted over a wireless service run as part of Microsoft's MSN family.

The network is ready, said Aaron Woodman, group product manager for consumer strategy at Microsoft. Watches that can access the service are set to go on sale in January, with manufacturers such as Fossil likely to schedule product launches around CES.

Woodman said SPOT is a great example of the seamless computing promise of having digital data available wherever it might be useful. "You have an opportunity all of the sudden to deliver services people can really benefit from," he said.

Also likely to make an encore appearance at this year's CES is the Portable Media Center (formerly known as Media2Go), Microsoft's design for a portable audio and video player. Devices based on the design are expected to go on sale in late 2004.

Gates is also expected to provide details on Microsoft's latest effort to popularize an automotive version of its Windows operating system. The software giant has developed a specialized version of Windows CE to power automotive devices such as navigation systems and music players.

Finally, Gates will roll out MSN Premium, a broadband adjunct for the company's online service emphasizing multimedia content and services such as remote e-mail and calendar access.

HP CEO Carly Fiorina takes the stage Thursday for a speech expected to include details of the computing giant's new consumer push, which includes selling high-end TV sets and running a music download service. HP's calculator division is also promising big news.

Other computing stalwarts on tap Thursday include Intel President Paul Otellini, who is expected to describe the chipmaker's plans to produce chips for big-screen TV sets, and Dell founder Michael Dell, who is expected to tout recent introductions of LCD TV sets, portable music players and other consumer goodies.

Mark Oldani, director of U.S. consumer marketing for Dell, said the PC giant isn't jumping willy-nilly into gadgets. "Our plan is not to go into a broad range of offerings," he said. "We want to be fairly targeted in our approach. We want to focus on areas where we can think we can add the most value for the customer."

Toshiba will introduce a new miniature hard drive, about the size of a quarter and capable of storing up to 4GB of content, for use in MP3 players, set-top boxes and other devices.

Along with dozens of companies showing of "personal media centers" or some other moniker for hard drive-equipped living room gadgets, CES will have:
• A number of companies are expected to show products supporting IPv6, the new version of the Internet protocol standard.
• 321 Studios, makers of the controversial DVD X movie-copying software, will announce several new applications sure to raise copyright hackles.
• CES will also be circled by an array of smaller events, including the Cyber X Games, a computer gaming tournament sponsored by Microsoft and chipmakers ATI and AMD boasting $600,000 in prizes.
• Iomega will show samples of devices using its new 1.5GB DCT storage media. Chipmaker Transmeta promises a slew of new devices based on its microprocessors, including the debut of "submersible computing," devices that work under three feet of water.
• Toshiba is set to announce a new line of high-speed flash memory cards for digital cameras and other devices.