CES: Gates pitches Microsoft for 'digital lifestyle'

Little to offer in the way of new products during keynote

In his ninth keynote speech at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Bill Gates did not unveil any new Microsoft products, opting instead to promote the company's existing products and highlight partner offerings.

In previous years, the Microsoft chairman and chief software architect has used his keynote at the annual consumer electronics industry confab to unveil products such as the Xbox game console, wireless displays or smart watches. Not this year.

In addition to making no new product announcements, Gates did not set out a new or updated Microsoft vision of computing and electronics for consumers. In a mock episode of Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Gates instead discussed his vision of a digital lifestyle. Interviewed by O'Brien, Gates told the audience that Microsoft can enable that lifestyle with products available today, such as Windows XP Media Centre Edition, Portable Media Centres, MSN online services and the Xbox.

"Look at today's living room, you have five remote controls and you still can't get your music where you want it," Gates said. Microsoft can overcome this problem by integrating its products, he said.

O'Brien was on stage with Gates to provide comic relief for the audience. He did a standup routine making fun of Microsoft and technology industry executives and got unsolicited help from botched product demonstrations, including the demonstration of a Windows XP Media Centre Edition PC that repeatedly refused to show a slide show of pictures taken of O'Brien and Gates out for a night on the town.

Microsoft has divided its vision of the digital lifestyle into five categories that align with its products: music, pictures, television, communication and gaming. The company, helped by hardware makers, has delivered products that can integrate all of these categories, Gates said.

Gates' speech this year was short on news because Microsoft has no major consumer products coming out this year. The next big product introduction is expected to be Longhorn, the successor to Windows XP due in 2006, said Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research.

"This is a transition year to the next operating system," Wilcox said. "If you look at past CES [keynotes], you had Microsoft announcing new stuff that would be coming out in the year ahead. If you look at this year, there is more momentum news than talk about new things."

The keynote address, which Microsoft sees as an annual overview of its consumer strategy, was not entirely void of news. For example, Microsoft is working with South Korea's LG Electronics on a device that combines a digital video recorder with a DVD recorder and is also able to access content on Windows PCs, Gates said.

Also, Microsoft has struck a deal with MTV Networks to build content services based on Windows Media technologies. The MTV content will also be available to Windows Media Centre users, according to Microsoft. Additional content agreements have been signed with Yahoo and Fox Sports, Gates said.

Additionally, looking to further improve the Windows user experience, Microsoft will also work with rival Tivo to extend the recently announced "TiVoToGo" service. Users will be able to transfer recordings from their Tivo device to Windows Mobile devices such as Pocket PCs, smart phones or portable media centres, Gates said.

But Gates talked mostly about momentum for Microsoft products. For example, Gates noted that Windows Media Player 10 has been downloaded over 95 million times since its release a few months ago and that Microsoft has now sold 1.4 million copies of Media Centre Edition, up from 1 million at the end of September.

Microsoft has also won another customer for its system that delivers television signals to consumers over a broadband telecommunications network. US carrier BellSouth has committed to using the Microsoft IPTV, Gates announced on stage. When BellSouth actually plans to roll out IPTV services was not disclosed.

Furthermore, the Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT), announced at CES two years ago, is finally moving beyond watches. At CES, will Microsoft announce that Oregon Scientific will sell alarm clocks that use the technology to download weather information.

Back in 2003 Microsoft envisioned SPOT in a raft of appliances, even fridge magnets that could download the latest special offer from a local pizza restaurant. SPOT uses a portion of the FM radio spectrum to deliver information to devices equipped with the technology.

On stage, Gates and O'Brien also demonstrated a Nikon digital camera with support for Microsoft's Media Transfer Protocol (MTP), a synchronisation protocol that promises to make transferring data from portable devices to Windows-based PCs simpler and faster. Canon already supports the protocol.

While the entertainment value was high, the keynote lacked new products, said CES attendee Dror Amir, an electronic business and automation manager at La Curacao in Los Angeles. "They are getting better at entertainment, but there were no new products, only more on products we already know," he said.

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