In another sleep-inducing keynote address that belied the importance and excitement of his intended message, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates opened the 2004 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) with a preview of the home-oriented products his company will release throughout the year and beyond. Gates touted MSN 9 and the new MSN Premium (the latter provides subscription services to broadband customers); the Outlook Mail Connector, which lets MSN users view and share Microsoft Outlook calendar, contacts, tasks, and email as well as information from family members; the MSN Direct service, which powers a new generation of Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) watches; Windows Mobile-based Smartphone devices; the company's automotive and telematics work; Microsoft TV, which was recently enhanced to support low-end set-top boxes; Media Center PCs and the hardware and software add-ons that will extend recorded TV content and other digital media from the PC to TVs and many other devices in the home; new Portable Media Center PCs that make current-generation MP3 players look silly by comparison; and even a futuristic look at work that Microsoft researchers are doing to make organizing and sharing digital media easier. All in all, the keynote speech presented an exciting vision of the future.
"What is the glue that is going to make this all come together?" Gates asked during his address. "Well, there's a lot of industry cooperation, a lot of standards, and--perhaps most excitingly for Microsoft--a lot of software to make it all work. We talk about it as 'seamless computing' experiences, making it so you don't have to do a lot of work to get your calendar to show up on the different devices, making it so that your email is wherever you go. We are developing software that's in the car, in the phone, of course in the PC, the set-top box, the watch--all the places where software can run. We want to make sure that we do the best we can to make \[them\] connect up and to make it seamless."
The most exciting aspect of Gates's speech centered on the Media Center PC; Microsoft recently launched a second edition that's outselling the first version by four times, he noted. With a Media Center PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2004 connected to a TV signal in the home office, you'll soon be able to pump content from that PC to other devices around the home. These devices, and the services that will enable this feature on existing devices, will ship in 2004, Gates said, and will include the following:
- Windows Media Center Extender--software that will drive new set-top boxes from a host of partners. The boxes will look and act like stereo components and be able to connect to a home network through a wired or wireless connection. "It is thin; it is completely silent," Gates noted. "There is no fan. It also has a green button so that you can tell \[that\] it's part of the Windows Media Center family."
- Xbox Media Center Extender Kit--an Xbox DVD that will provide the same functionality to the Xbox that the Windows Media Center Extender will provide to set-top boxes and which will include a unique remote control. "Bill, we have made this so easy that even a 5-year old or a chief software architect of a major corporation can actually use this," Microsoft's David Alles jokingly told Gates.
- Portable Media Center--a new generation of portable media devices, shipping this year from several companies, that will include the Media Center UI and will feature compatibility with all the digital-media formats that Media Center PCs can consume and generate, including recorded TV. "The Portable Media Center \[won't\] just have your music on it, it's going to have your movies there, movies for your kids, the movies you like; you just find it on the Web, download it, off you go, and it's available. That's because the hard-disk capacity, battery life, cheap LCD screens--those have all come together," Gates said. "This device is small enough to fit in your pocket, has a big enough screen to enjoy movies, and is about the same weight as a wallet, so finally you have something in a great device that takes all of your media with you," Alles added. "And it's not just those recorded shows like we talked about; it's also your music, your photos, and your videos--whether those videos are home videos or a downloaded film from the Internet."
One aspect of Gates's talk that probably won't get a lot of press but deserves to be applauded is the vast number of partners that Microsoft is involving in its various consumer-related products. Gates mentioned the 45 partners that are creating Media Center PCs; the various companies that are providing high-quality video content for MSN and MSN Premium; the companies that are producing SPOT watches, the numerous retail locations at which you can purchase those watches, and the hundreds of metro areas in which the watches can connect to back-end services; the 80 companies that are producing Smartphone devices; the movie companies that are supporting the high-resolution Windows Media Audio (WMA) high-definition video format on specially formatted DVD movies; the companies that are making Portable Media Center devices and Windows Media Center Extender set-top boxes; and the dizzying array of consumer electronics and computer companies that are producing the various hardware, software, and service-oriented offerings that make all these products come together in a truly connected home. The level of cooperation Microsoft engenders with its partners stands in sharp contrast to the digital-hub strategies that some of the company's competitors have proposed and highlights the true diversity and choices we expect from the PC industry. Seeing this business model coming to the consumer electronics industry is exciting. If Gates's keynote address is any indication, 2004 is going to be a milestone year for home computing.