RealTime IT News

Gates Touts Media Center PCs, IPTV in CES Kickoff

By Eric Grevstad, Executive Editor, Hardware

LAS VEGAS -- It's a brave new world, but it still has the Blue Screen of Death.

The memory-dump system crash, coming during Xbox program manager Garrett Young's presentation of the forthcoming Forza Motorsport game, was one of two or three demo gremlins that, along with emcee Conan O'Brien's quips, enlivened Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates's opening-eve keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas Wednesday evening.

Both product-demonstration glitches and Gates keynotes are venerable traditions in the tech industry. But while the CES 2005 kickoff filled the Las Vegas Hilton Theater to capacity, it lacked the major announcements of past Microsoft CES presentations such as the debuts of Windows XP Media Center Edition, the Xbox game console, or wireless news-, weather-, and other information-receiving Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) wristwatches.

Instead, NBC talk-show host O'Brien led Gates through a rather low-key rundown or update on the current generations of these and other Microsoft products for the digital home. "We predicted this would be the decade when the digital approach would be taken for granted, in photos, videos, [and] music," Gates explained, adding, "I'd say it's going even faster than we expected."

Microsoft's vision of the digital lifestyle, however, remains firmly anchored in the Windows PC: "The PC has a central role to play, in that it's where it all comes together, e-mail, instant messaging, if you want to organize your memories in a rich way, if you want to edit photos, if you want to create papers," Gates said, making one of numerous references to "memories" as collected and organized photos and videos and to "rich" communication or multimedia messaging.

Another oft-repeated phrase: "rights management system," highlighting Microsoft's commitment to copy protection that appeases music, movie, and TV producers' fear of piracy. While Apple's iPod may have ruled the just- past holiday season, the Microsoft mogul's first words when asked about music were, "Music's a fun area; it's one everyone would agree [is] going digital. We're going to provide a rights management system that can hook up everyone with Plays for Sure [the Windows-media-format logo program for handheld devices such as Creative's and iRiver's music and Samsung's video players]."

From PC to Phone, From DVD Deck To PC

In Gates's vision, the PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005 is the hub of the household -- even to the point where, in new remote controls from Philips, Logitech, and NiveusMedia, the green Media Center button takes pride of place on a universal remote, just as a Windows key has become common on computer keyboards.

While MCE has acquired competition in the form of alternative TV- program-guide and music-and-image-browser interfaces from vendors like Sony and InterVideo, Microsoft hopes to keep it on top with enhancements ranging from home-theater-caliber video and sound quality -- involving vendors like HP, Alienware, ATI, and Nvidia in a new certification program with the Imaging Science Foundation -- to new content partners -- MCE-optimized program guides and previews from the Discovery Channel and Fox Sports.

Later in the first quarter of the year, an MSN Remote Record service will offer Media Center PC owners remote, browser-based access to schedule a show for personal video recording. And Microsoft has partnered with TiVo on the latter's TiVoToGo feature, an upgrade for Series 2 TiVo set-top boxes announced earlier this week that lets owners transfer recorded programs over a home network from the TiVo to a PC and from there to a handheld player or Windows Mobile phone.

Also on display was a DVD recorder from LG, scheduled to ship later this year, that adopts the MCE interface to simplify selecting shows and creating a DVD, with a "sync" function to move programs recorded on the device to the Media Center PC.

Gates also helped O'Brien ogle slimmer, second-generation SPOT watches -- now able to access a wider variety of MSN Direct wireless content and to be joined this fall by a wake-up-to-the-weather-forecast alarm clock from Oregon Scientific -- and bragged that the Xbox, helped by the hit game Halo 2, has surpassed the sales of Sony's PlayStation 2.

Possibly the star of the show, however, wasn't MCE but Microsoft's work on ever smarter TV set-top boxes, as shown by SBC service manager Lee Ann Champion, who said the carrier's IPTV service would deliver four simultaneous streams of content to every home, with additional bandwidth for "next-level Internet access" and IP-based voice services.

In addition to giving every TV in the house digital-video-recorder and picture-in- picture capabilities, Champion promised, IPTV will deliver a program guide with instantaneous channel changing -- no two-second lag for the new video to appear -- and an extensive "video store" of program rentals and live sports options including different cameras or viewing angles of the same baseball game.