Gates And The Digital Lifestyle

LAS VEGAS — If it hasn’t already been made abundantly clear, Microsoft expects to be at the center of your daily life. At least, that’s the recurring image presented by the company’s chairman and chief software architect, Bill Gates, during his appearance at the 2006 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Gates used his keynote address here — his tenth at the trade show — to highlight his vision of how consumers’ work and home lives will be made more efficient during the final years of the so-called “digital decade.” Not surprisingly, much of the infrastructure behind this vision stems from the upcoming version of Microsoft Windows, Vista.

“This is the year that [Windows] Vista, Office 12 and many other products will come out, and the realization of [Windows] Media Center as a volume mainstream product will really be clear to everyone in the marketplace,” Gates said. “Consumers are getting more and more connected. They’re getting richer experiences, and software is really at the center of that.”

Gates and other Microsoft officials dangled glimpses of the latest Vista build, as well as devices and services that are to be tied into Vista. But the software mogul spent much of his time on the stage describing scenarios that, while not specifically promised in Vista, would at least be coming in the near future thanks to the operating system’s features.

His vision is a digital lifestyle and “work style” in which users’ desktop PC interfaces would be available via PCs, notebooks, mobile phones and futuristic mobile phone kiosks. You might find a kiosk say, in an airport lounge, ready to provide full desktop capabilities when paired with your cell phone.

Gates demonstrated selecting a video news story on his home PC display to receive updates on the story on his cell phone and office PC. He also showed off location-, device- and situation-aware presence for IM and communications; drag-and-drop capabilities for adding new participants to video- and screen-sharing-enabled conference calls; and fingerprint authentication for all features.

He also spoke at length about the ability to send video and other content to other screens and devices throughout the house — including the Windows Media Center PC, notebooks, phones, and televisions connected to the Xbox 360.

“Software will come in and make things both simpler and more effective,” he said, such as helping to find other music by that artist or similar artists, not having to think about disks and putting them in the case. You might use a digital jukebox that lets you call up the movies that you own and see those exactly when you want to. You could organize not just photos but all the memories of your kids growing up, search those, send them off to relatives, and have them appear on various screens around the house.

“These are scenarios that people can understand, if we make them simple, we make them inexpensive and we drive them through a single interface,” he added.

While the talk centered on the future, it also segued, naturally, into a presentation on the media features for Vista. Vista is scheduled to ship later this year. During the presentation, the forthcoming OS received its broadest demonstration to date.

In the build highlighted at the show, Vista boasted incremental, productivity-enhancing features that approach Gates’ vision of a digitally-assisted home and work life.

With new features ranging from the mundane to the impressive, Vista’s in-depth presentation in Wednesday’s keynote offered Microsoft a chance to map out how it’s been working to beef up the OS’s user-facing capabilities — a departure from previous talks on Vista, which tended toward the technical.

Navigation enhancements in Vista include improving Alt-Tabbing to display active windows, which are updated in real-time. Another enhancement is Flip 3D, a visual way to navigate among active windows, in which windows are cascaded, displayed like a stack of playing cards. A user can switch among active windows using the mouse scroll wheel.

Additionally, the next version of Windows Internet Explorer’s tabbed browsing feature also got a navigation improvement: tabs can be viewed simultaneously in real-time, or closed, from within a single window.

Vista’s media library offers tweaks making it easier for users to organize and search their music, photos, and video. The OS’s powerful graphics engine renders thumbnails and album covers quickly and without interruption.

Microsoft also said the new OS can help users organize their information through a right-hand dock containing tiny programs, dubbed gadgets. These might include a RSS feed, a picture-viewing tool, or a custom app showing the latest sports scores. Gadgets can be expanded to display more information by dragging them onto the desktop.

Another visual enhancement delved into hardware. Demonstrated at the show by Microsoft Vista’s lead product manager, Aaron Woodman, Windows Sideshow is a feature in which a single gadget — such as a user’s schedule — can be displayed on a small LCD panel embedded in into the exterior case of a laptop. The upshot of Sideshow is that a user can access the widget with the PC closed — and even while the notebook is off, Woodman said.

Other key media-centric features in Vista include embedded photo-editing tools in the OS — including permanent backups of original photos — and an enhanced look and feel for Windows Media Player 11, offering easier navigation and context-sensitive information.

It’s no surprise that Vista adds a whole slew of eye-candy throughout the OS. In addition to a 3D-feeling user interface for most windows throughout Vista, Microsoft treated the audience to a brief preview of Microsoft Flight Simulator to show off still more graphic goodies (no doubt dependent, like much of Vista’s visual enhancements, on modern graphics hardware.) Flight Simulator is about a year away from completion.

Microsoft brass also described new features in Vista’s Windows Media Center capabilities. Chief among these is a tweaked user interface, designed to be more readable and more intuitively controlled via a remote.

Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s Windows eHome division, showed a sampling of other devices that support and extend Media Center. Among them were a small form-factor Averatec Home Theater PC, and Toshiba’s Gigabeat music player/hard drive, which offered synchronization with Media Center and a similar user interface. Belfiore also demonstrated using a beta Live Messenger IM bot to suggest television content to watch or record.

Windows Media Center also will support the output of video to other devices, like the Xbox 360. Windows Media Center also will support digital cable display, recording and playback, in connection with a cable company-provided decoder box. Additionally, a new deal with DirectTV and BskyB will enable digital satellite users to watch and record those content streams as well. Media Center also will offer close support for HD-DVDs, including enabling users to take advantage of features like legally backing-up movies to PC hard drives.

In addition to touting HD-DVD support in connection with Media Center, Microsoft also touted other ways in which it’s supporting the emerging DVD format. These include the announcement of a HD-DVD add-on drive for the Xbox 360 — designed to entice consumers to adopt the format by avoiding the need to purchase a standalone player. Microsoft also said it expects to have 50 high-definition games in the market by June.

Gates and company also seized the moment to crow about a recent series of partnerships. A deal with MTV resulted in MTV Urge, an Internet service tied into Windows Media Player and Vista’s media library that offers music downloads and related content.

Microsoft, Palm and Verizon Wireless are also working together to bring the new Treo 700w handheld device to market tomorrow. The unit will support Verizon Wireless’s EVDO network. Similarly, work with Phillips and Uniden will culminate in home wireless phones with embedded Windows Live Messenger support.

Additionally, Microsoft said it had added Celestica to its roster of Xbox 360 manufacturers, in a move to meet customer demand.

Amid the show-and-tell about the future of digital homes and work, Microsoft took a few moments for levity.

A virtual boxing match by way of the Xbox 360’s Electronics Arts’ “Fight Night Round 3,” pitted Gates against Chief Executive Steve Ballmer (who lost, loudly); and some quips by MTV Music Group President Van Toffler about Gates’ resemblance to the film character in the movie “Napoleon Dynamite.” Pop music star Justin Timberlake also made a brief appearance to rub elbows with the Microsoft crew and tout Urge.

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