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.

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