January 8, 2003 8:35 PM PST

Little things mean a lot to Gates

LAS VEGAS--Microsoft's latest plan to improve your life revolves around wristwatches and refrigerator magnets.

Slicked-up versions of those common objects--based on Microsoft's previously announced Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT)--were the highlights of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' opening keynote address Wednesday night at the Consumer Electronics Show here.

Offering more of a greatest-hits show than usual, Gates mostly focused on updates of previously announced technology centered on the familiar theme of a fully networked home and display screens everywhere imaginable.

The only notable new arrival in Gates' talk was Media2Go, a portable multimedia gadget design being developed by Microsoft and Intel. Media2Go devices will have a 4-inch screen, a hard drive and basic controls for viewing photos and TV programming downloaded from a PC, as well as listening to digital music. Early manufacturing partners include Sanyo, Samsung and ViewSonic.

Gates spent much of his time elaborating on SPOT, a new initiative he outlined in Las Vegas a few months ago at the Comdex computer trade show. SPOT is software that allows devices, such as alarm clocks, to run Microsoft's .Net Compact Framework and gain access to data stored on a central PC or remote servers.

While initial presentations on SPOT have stayed on the theoretical side, Gates on Wednesday demonstrated the first devices that will use the technology. Watchmakers Fossil, Citizen and Suunto all plan to have SPOT-enabled models available by the end of the year.


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At the Consumer Electronics Show,
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The watches will connect to PCs to calibrate themselves, download software and connect wirelessly to streaming data beamed over FM radio signals to grab the latest sports scores or stock prices.

Gates hailed the watches as the first fruition of Microsoft's effort to seamlessly blend digital data into everyday life. "This is something we've been working on for a number of years, and it's really exciting to see it coming to reality," he said. "We see these devices continuing to get smarter and get better at knowing what messages you might be interested in at a particular time."

He also noted that the forthcoming watches have faster processors and four times as much memory as the first IBM PCs.

More theoretical SPOT items included refrigerator magnets that wirelessly retrieve information on local traffic or specials at area restaurants.

Gates also highlighted several announcements from earlier in the week. Microsoft revealed plans Tuesday for licensing its Windows Media 9 software to enable digital media playback on devices other than Windows PCs. Polaroid will soon offer the first DVD player with Windows Media support.

The software giant also announced mobile phone software that will work with Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, one of two main formats for modern cell phones.

Gates showed off the first product based on Smart Display, Microsoft's design (introduced at last year's CES as Mira) for wireless PC tablets that will let gadget junkies access digital media and other PC content anywhere in the house. ViewSonic's Airpanel device is set to go on sale next week in North America, followed next month by a version from Philips Electronics. BenQ and Samsung also have signed on as manufacturing partners, and several electronics companies have agreed to build Smart Display support into their TV sets.

"Getting the PC so its capabilities are continually available throughout the house is really the next step," he said.

Growing support for Windows XP Media Center--the media-centric version of the operating system also announced at last year's CES--was also highlighted and included plans by Toshiba and Alienware to offer the first laptops running the software.

Gates also had fun demonstrating Xbox Live, the new online gaming service for Microsoft's video game console. Gates logged on to Xbox Live to hook up with basketball star Shaquille O'Neal in Los Angeles, who pasted Gates in a round of Microsoft's "Midtown Madness" racing game.

Gates also offered his typical bits of self-deprecating humor, starting with a handful of New Year's resolutions he considered, beginning with finally getting a college degree. "And I think it's time to pitch USA on doing a sequel to that great special, 'Pirates of Silicon Valley.'"

The billionaire also highlighted new anti-spam technology in MSN, Microsoft's Internet service, by noting the types of e-mail messages he was no longer receiving. He said he had second thoughts about missing out on all those offers for prepaid legal services. "You get the top law firms for pennies a day," he said while reading from a typical solicitation. "That would be a significant savings in my case."

 

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