January 8, 2004 8:00 AM PST

Gates pushes PC-TV connection

LAS VEGAS--Kicking off the Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates demonstrated new technology for connecting digital content on Windows PCs to home entertainment centers, TVs and portable devices.

Gates said in his keynote speech that Microsoft is committed to "seamless computing," Microsoft's vision for technology that automatically shuttles information to the appropriate devices throughout a home. "We've been working very hard at Microsoft to get all these connected devices to hook up," he said. "We want to make it easy to have the same information on the devices you have at work and the devices you have at home."

Gates also previewed new and future products for the home which promote that concept to attendees at CES, an increasingly important venue for Microsoft and other technology giants to tout their consumer strategies.

Those include a new family of products dubbed Windows Media Center Extender, technology that will allow TVs and other devices to display content from PCs equipped with Windows Media Center software, which Gates called "a centerpiece product for our vision of what's going to go on in the home."

Media Center is a version of the PC operating system tweaked for handling digital media and entertainment tasks. The software, only available preinstalled on new PCs configured for entertainment tasks, allows consumers to use a remote control to navigate music files, digital photos and other media stored on the PC.

Despite support from most major PC makers, sales have been slow to take off, due partly to the high cost of most Media Center PCs.

Devices built on Media Center Extender technology will tap into a home network to serve as a bridge between a PC and other devices. The first such products, set for release late this year, will be television set-top boxes that display photos, video clips and other media files stored on a central PC.

PC makers Dell, Gateway, Alienware and Hewlett-Packard, along with consumer electronics specialists Samsung and Tatung, plan to have Extender set-top boxes on the market by the end of the year. Gateway and HP will also sell TVs with Extender technology built in.

Microsoft also plans to create a kit that will allow its Xbox video game to perform similar functions. The additional feature, which follows a karaoke add-on for the Xbox, fulfills long-held expectations that Microsoft would attempt to bridge the Xbox and PCs, and is a sizable swing in the direction of game consoles acting as convergence devices that can handle a variety of digital media tasks.

Gates also provided deeper looks at a number of consumer technologies announced previously, including several items from last year's CES. "Smart watches" based on Smart Personal Objects Technology were the hit of last year's CES and are now ready for your wrist.

Gates demonstrated SPOT-based watches from Fossil and Suunto, all set to go on sale this week, and showed how they retrieve weather forecasts, calendar appointments and other data from MSN Direct, a new wireless data service run as part of Microsoft's Internet services arm.

Gates acknowledged that some of the initial MSN Direct services are somewhat rudimentary--sports fans can get only pro basketball scores for now--but he promised continual improvements. "Over the course of the year, we're going to get a lot of input from people and decide what (new) channels make sense," he said.

Gates also unveiled MSN Premium, a new version of the Internet service aimed at people with high-speed broadband connections. The service will focus on streaming video and other media content, such as recaps of NBC's "The Tonight Show." Host Jay Leno was on hand to promote the service.

"Bill and I go way back because we introduced Windows 95 together," Leno said. "Who would have guessed back then this computer thing would catch on."

Also making a return appearance from last year's CES was the Portable Media Center (formerly named Media2Go), Microsoft's design for a small portable device that plays movies, music and other digital content.

Creative Technology plans to have the first Portable Media Center device on the market in the second quarter of this year, with other manufacturers entering shortly thereafter.

Several major media companies, including music download service Napster and record label EMI Recorded Music, announced that they will sell content optimized for Portable Media Center players.

Gates also showed the new version 1.5 of TV Foundation, Microsoft's software for cable TV operators, to offer advanced services such as video on demand. The update includes enhanced support for high-definition TV display and revamped programming guides.

Gates also touted some under-the-hood advances, including Windows Media Video 9 HD, software that supports high-definition video capabilities in Microsoft's Windows Media 9 Series technology.

On Thursday, Microsoft said Sonic Solutions, a maker of DVD authoring software, is developing new production tools that will allow the creation of high-definition DVD titles using Windows Media Video 9 HD. The tools will debut in May, Sonic said.

Microsoft is also preparing to release Windows Media Connects, a series of application programming interfaces (APIs) that will allow consumer electronics manufacturers to equip their devices to support automatic connections to share media with a standard Windows PC.

"All the different devices in the home can contact the PC and see what's there, and no special software installation has to take place," he said.

 

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