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Gates Talks Interconnected Future (Courtesy of Microsoft)

LAS VEGAS -- Seamless, omnipresent and interconnected. That's how Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, speaking today here at the 2007 International CES trade show, sees the future of consumer electronics. And not surprisingly, he sees Microsoft and Windows Vista being at the heart of it all.

In what might be his final keynote at CES (considering his plans to leave his day-to-day role at Microsoft next year), Gates spent a good portion of his speech detailing the slew of recent and upcoming Microsoft product launches -- most notably, Windows Vista, Microsoft Office 2007, the Zune digital music player, and the Xbox 360.

Yet the central message from Microsoft's co-founder and longtime chief software architect centered less on hyping new launches than on describing the ways that these software, devices and services would interconnect to deliver better experiences to users.

"There is an element of the equation of what we need to deliver on the promise of the decade," he said. "The key thing missing is the connections."

Gates said he envisions a world where users have connectivity to each other and to their data at any time, wherever they may be.

Specifically, Gates outlined a plan that sees the PC and the Xbox 360 game console serving as hubs for a networked home, using new features he said would debut during 2007.

The PC, of course, remains at the core of the future digital home in Gates' plan. Thanks to Windows Vista, which is slated for its consumer product launch at the end of the month, the PC gains new abilities to share digital content with other users and devices.

"Windows and Office will, of course, connect up to services ... from Microsoft and other companies," he said. "In our case, we talk about Live services -- the ability to share files, connect your email, connect your schedules up in the Internet, so they can flow to your devices and other people as well."


Windows Home Server

Indeed, Gates sees 2007 being a critical year in which users build home networks with Vista PCs, music players, game consoles, and media centers. To manage these increasingly complex installations, however, requires a dedicated server, he said.

To that end, Gates today also announced Windows' entry into the home server market, with a launch of Windows Home Server software.

"This is for homes where you've got multiple PCs and Xboxes, where you want to have all your storage available at all times, to all devices," he said.

Features of the Windows Home Server software include automated backups of networked PCs, remote accessibility, and file-sharing integration with Xbox 360 and Zune music player. It also offers advanced storage management, enabling users to add a new hard drive "and automatically, the software will see the new storage, move the data around, and make sure you're not losing information."

HP is Microsoft's launch partner for the home server, and this year will begin offering its HP MediaSmart Server bundled with Windows home server software. Gates added that other vendors are planning their own servers based on the software, but didn't indicate when (and whether) the software would be available in a standalone retail version.


New Xbox 360 Capabilities, Integration

Vista and the new Microsoft-powered home server represent only two portions of the increasingly complex home network, Gates said. And while these will continue to play a central role, "all these other devices are very, very important -- and they've got to work together," he said.

Chief among those devices is the Xbox 360, which Gates said would play a major role in delivering Vista-based content with the living room. When placed in a home network with Vista or an XP Media Center PC, an Xbox can play stored video, music and photos.

Later this year, Windows Vista users will be able to play games against Xbox Live gamers, using a planned service called Live on Windows.

Another way in which the Xbox would serve as a hub for the digital home is through its upcoming IPTV feature, an enhancement Microsoft promises to deliver by the 2007 holiday season. In connection with network and content partners, the 360's IPTV functionality would essentially add PVR and cable set-top box features to the device, enabling fast channel surfing, picture-in-picture channel "browsing," program recording, video on demand, and program search using a variety of criteria.


Windows in Your Car

Gates also identified another area where users might benefit from a "connected experience" -- in their car, where consumers want to be able to access content and connect with others.

"You want the same kind of entertainment in the car, and the same things you have everywhere else," he said. "But the car is special. If you want to deliver [functionality] to the driver, you have to think of incredibly simple commands."

Together with Mark Fields, president of the Americas at Ford Motor Company, Gates announced a new service that would provide voice-controlled features in several new Ford automobiles. Dubbed Sync, the service's features would enable a driver to control their Bluetooth mobile phone and digital music players using only voice commands.

"Drivers can place and receive calls, and also text messages, through the audio system," Fields said. "The most exciting [feature] is that it has the ability to become a full entertainment platform, as it accepts nearly all portable music players and USB storage devices. It also accepts Flash and Zip drives."

Fields said the new feature would be available on a dozen Ford products during 2007.


New Vista Features

Vista, nevertheless, remains at the center of Gates', and Microsoft's, vision of the future. Consequently, the keynote also featured demonstrations from various Microsoft executives that highlighted new and previously unannounced features of Vista. These include the ability for a Vista PC, while doing a file search, to also include documents on other Vista machines in a home network.

Microsoft Group Product Manager Justin Hutchinson also said Windows Vista Ultimate Edition automatically downloads small, useful applications like GroupShot photo software (which offers a solution to the dreaded problem of group photos being ruined by a blinking subject), and DreamScene, a feature that enables full-screen video desktop wallpaper.

Hutchinson also demonstrated a new 3D mapping feature that's available to Vista users, courtesy of Windows Live, Microsoft's online content service that integrates with the new OS. During his demo, Hutchinson "flew" around a Flight Simulator-like 3D representation of Las Vegas using a Xbox controller, which also demonstrated Vista's ability to support Xbox 360 peripherals.

Another new feature in Vista targets sports fans. Through Vista's Media Center, users can launch SportsLounge, which uses live content from FoxSports.com to offer live TV, sports score "weather crawls," scheduled recording, and fantasy sports player tracking.


Gates Looks Ahead

Gates wound down his keynote by discussing his expectations for future "connected home" scenarios that would build on current technologies.

One such possibility revolves around delivering deep and location-aware content to a mobile phone. At a bus stop, for instance, Gates said he expects to receive bus schedule information on his phone, as well as information, coupons, and menus for nearby restaurants.

Gates also highlighted the idea of using a mobile phone to remotely control functions at home. While still at the bus stop, he said that he'd be able to use his digital phone to respond to a ring on his home doorbell. In this case, he's use a front-door Webcam to identify the visitor -- a deliveryman -- and to securely send a digital signature to sign for his package.

In the kitchen of a future home, Gates said to expect help from advancements in projection and display technology, along with RFID and voice control. Here, he described preparing a recipe with the assistance of his home computer, which could project recipes and item information on his countertop. The system could also analyze products (like a bag of flour) when placed on the countertop, using RFID chips in those products, and Gates demonstrated navigating through a menu-driven recipe program using voice commands.

Similarly, Gates said greater availability and affordability of display technology would enable bedrooms to sport entire walls comprised of computer-controlled displays. He briefly demonstrated changing the "wallpaper" of a mock bedroom using a tablet PC, to show off a music group poster, a playable feed from the Xbox 360, and a Webcam.

"The idea of connected experiences can go way beyond what we've got this year," Gates said. "We can take these incredible improvements in the hardware, take the new type of content being designed for interactivity, take this powerful software building on the work you're seeing this year in Vista, Office, and all these great third-party things connecting up to the device."

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of JupiterWeb's Sysopt.com.