RealTime IT News

Gates: This Will Be the Digital Decade

With a host of new gadgets in tow, and a break to get trashed and trash talked by Shaquille O'Neal in a game of Midtown Madness III played over the Xbox Live network, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates kicked off the 2003 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas Wednesday evening.

Determined to stamp the 2000s as the "Digital Decade," Gates offered a retrospective of where Microsoft has been and where it is going. And if Microsoft has its way, the company will find its way into just about every electronic device imaginable, from DVD players to digital watches, refrigerators and even sewing machines.

One of the key devices was a prototype for Microsoft's new Media2Go platform which allows playback of photos, music and video from a single device with a four-inch screen. The device sports a 20-gigabyte hard drive, and Microsoft has lined up four partners to manufacture the devices, including Sanyo, Samsung, ViewSonic and I-River.

Another of the key technologies that will enable the "Digital Decade" strategy was one of Gates' focuses during his keynote address Wednesday evening: Smart Personal Objects Technology, or SPOT.

"At COMDEX we talked about this," he said. "We introduced this SPOT, Smart Personal Objects Technology -- that's the acronym for that -- and said that there would be a wide range of devices that take advantage of this. Actually the one that we went into the most depth showing there was an alarm clock, an alarm clock that when you wake up can tell you your schedule, tell you about the traffic, and built in there was some magic chips that did the job of receiving that information and being able to display it to you."

He went on to show further implementations, like a traffic magnet -- a small device that a users could put up in their homes or in their cars. Through a constant connection using Microsoft's DirectBand FM transmission technology, the magnet maintains updated information on where traffic is heavy and where it's not. He also mentioned the possibility of other types of magnets, like a baseball magnet which displays scores and even a little diamond for play-by-play information.

"Now, to meet the characteristic for being a SPOT device we've got to have personalization, we've got to have this special network that connects things together and it's got to be a very simple device," Gates said. "In fact, what we do with these devices is we say that all the things you want to do to customize them, to pick the information or change it, you do that by going to a full--screen PC and simply entering in the device ID and then you have the full richness to pick exactly what's going to show up on that device. The device itself is simple; it's just to display information."

Gates said the implementation he is most excited about is using SPOT in a wristwatch.

"Well, SPOT to us is sort of the next evolution in what the watch should be," he said. "And you know, it's about glanceable information. You can glance and just pick a channel, the weather, and see what's there. If you take your watch and you change time zones it will notice that. You can have it set up to display your home time zone, the time zone that you've going into. You're able to send messages like this. You can just set it up to send instant messages so it's like a paging device receiving information from people who want to contact you just on the device, the one device that you always have when you carry it around. Of course, it's always got the right time of day because it's synchronized. The data signal actually makes sure that it stays together."

To make sure the SPOT-enabled sport style as well as utility, Gates said Microsoft has partnered with Fossil, Suunto and Citizen Watch as its initial partners.

At its heart, every SPOT device sports a 28 MHz National Semiconductor ARM CPU with 512K of ROM and 384K of RAM, giving it four times the speed and eight times the memory of IBM's original PC. It is even possible to use a PC to write programs in BASIC that can be translated into .NET byte code and sent across the network to a SPOT device.

Meanwhile, the Direct Band network enables the technology's connectivity, creating a one-way network that adds data to an FM signal (called an FM sub-carrier).

"It's really great use of technology because the infrastructure for FM is already there," Gates said. "Those are very powerful transmitters and we were able, with advances in this chip technology, to send quite a bit of information across that sideband and make it very robust. If you can connect up and listen to FM radio, even in places where the FM doesn't sound that good, you'll be able to receive the data into that SPOT watch."

In addition to the SPOT devices, Gates used the keynote to showcase a few other devices as well, like an exercise bike by Exertris which uses Windows CE .NET to turn exercise into a game. Also on display was a Bernina sewing machine which contains a CD-ROM drive, USB port and a modem, allowing it to connect to the Web and download new patterns and stitches. Other devices included new DVD players with native support for Windows media video formats.