Though we had arrived early for Monday's Press Day and a
number of meetings with Microsoft and other companies,
the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) didn't
officially kick off until Tuesday morning. Unlike
COMDEX, CES has grown dramatically in recent years, and
the types of consumer electronics products seen here are
far more interesting and relevant than most of what
COMDEX has to offer. We expect the attendance and
importance of CES to soon surpass that of COMDEX, if it
Monday night, we attended the Gates keynote address, which wasn't as boring as many of his recent speeches. Microsoft's Freestyle and Mira technologies are genuinely exciting, though they're probably almost a year from fruition. The Microsoft employees we spoke with at the post-keynote reception were even more conservative, stating that they expected these technologies to require numerous iterations and several years before they would be mainstream. We're not so sure about that: Freestyle, especially, is pretty mature and in the same state that Windows Media Player 8 was when we first previewed it six months before it was completed.
In a Tuesday morning meeting with Microsoft, we discussed Freestyle and Mira briefly with Dave Fester, the general manager of the Windows Digital Media Division. Fester reiterated that Freestyle was designed specifically for what the company calls "the ten foot experience," and said that it was just the first generation. He noted that his Windows Media group provides the underlying plumbing for the work the eHome Division is doing. "Freestyle is just another UI for accessing the digital media features in Windows XP," one that uses a remote control.
Most of our Microsoft meeting Tuesday morning, however, concerned Corona, the next generation Windows Media technologies. Corona encompasses several components, including new versions of the Windows Media Server (which will be included in Windows .NET Server), Windows Media Player, Windows Media Audio and Video codecs, Windows Media Encoder, and the Windows Media Software Development Kit (SDK). The timeframe for Corona is somewhat vague, but we expect that all of these products will be finalized before the end of the year. Note that the Corona version of Windows Media Player will run on "several Windows versions" according to the company, though the XP version will be more full-featured because of that platform's richer feature set.
Microsoft Group Product Manager Jonathan Usher provided a tour of Corona's capabilities, and noted the momentum that Windows Media formats have experienced over the past year. Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) formats are now supported by a wide range of devices, including portable, car audio, home stereo, and PC-based products. The company has distributed 350 million copies of its player, and windowsmedia.com is the most popular audio/video guide on the Web, with 11 million unique visitors. This figure was less than 7.5 million before Windows XP shipped.
One of the key digital media announcements Microsoft made at the show concerned major DVD makers supporting WMA format in their consumer DVD players. Panasonic, Toshiba, APEX, and other companies will support the playback of WMA audio files on data CD-Rs and DVD-Rs, providing 22 hours and 160 hours, respectively, of playback per disk. Panasonic, in particular, is offering WMA support on a wide range of devices; the company will issue 10 different DVD players this year, a range of portable audio players, and other products that support Microsoft's format. Pioneer, Kenwood, Blaupunkt, and Aiwa are supporting WMA data CDs in various car stereo systems as well.
"When you consider we've gone from 0 to 60 in just two years," Usher said, "it's incredible the progress we've made." The Corona player and server products support 6 discrete channels of sound, for blistering, theatre-quality playback. A particularly effective demo used earlier during the Gates keynote featured a THX-style sound promo and a WMV clip from the Disney movie Dinosaur, which rocked the house and elicited much applause. Usher said that users would be able to fit two feature length films per single-sided data DVD, using Corona's 3 Mbs near DVD quality encoding process.
Windows .NET Server will support two interesting Windows Media technologies that will benefit content providers and consumers alike. An Instant On feature will effectively eliminate buffering for broadband users, ending the annoying wait when loading streaming video. A Fast Stream feature silently saturates your data pipe as you stream video, loading the player's cache with as much of the movie as is possible; this will prevent network degradation from disrupting the movie playback and ruining the experience for the user.
After the Windows Media meeting, we hit the show floor, which spreads far and wide throughout the recently expanded Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC). Clearly, CES is a bigger show than COMDEX, from a square footage perspective, but the crowds seemed more manageable than their COMDEX equivalents.
Zenith dominated the entrance to the main hall, with its XP-themed "Digitize the Experience" products. We spent some time with Sonic Blue, which now owns a number of key digital media products and technologies, including the Rio line of digital audio products, the RePlay Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), and GoVideo. In February, Sonic Blue will ship a 20 GB hard drive-based portable audio player, called the Riot. This jukebox device includes a beautiful screen and interface, USB connection, and 10 hour battery life; it will retail for about $400, giving the iPod a serious run for its money. SonicBlue is also shipping a home entertainment device called the Rio Advanced Digital Audio Center, which features a 40 GB hard drive, a CD-RW, USB connectors for connecting Rio portable devices, and a whopping $1499 price tag.
We stopped by Pinnacle briefly to check out their movie maker and DVD creation packages. The company makes a a number of video-oriented hardware and software products that we'll cover more extensively in Connected Home Express.
Belkin got stiffed with poor booth location but the company made up for it with a number of design awards for its USB hubs, wireless products, Keyboard-Video-Mouse (KVM) switchers, and game controllers. We still use a keyboard/mouse combo on most first person games, but came away impressed with Belkin's Nostromo game controllers, which are amazingly cheap and easy to configure.
Microsoft had a suitably humongous booth, though it was buried in the back half of the north hall. Like last year's show, the company used a connected home theme to show how its products work in each of the rooms in a typical home. There were also big displays for Windows CE for Automotive, Xbox, Windows XP, Pocket PC, Freestyle and Mira, and Windows Media.
After that, we headed into Compaq's meeting rooms, where we used the company's free wireless connection to check our email on our 802.11b-equipped iPaqs. Compaq was showing off its new line of Presario PCs, which all include a smart card-based keyboard; these smart cards can be used to store Web passwords and credit card information, so that you don't have to type this in every time you visit secure sites. Though Compaq didn't agree with the comparison, it's pretty clear that this system competes with Passport, made by the company's biggest partner, Microsoft. We also checked out its new Evo laptop products and iPaq accessories.
We had a couple of hours before our next meeting, so we headed over to the Star Trek-themed Quark's Bar and Restaurant at the Hilton, where we were accosted by a Klingon for using inferior technology.
After that, it was time for some more meetings. First up was Windows CE .NET, which was recently released, and Mira, the upcoming networking technology based on Windows XP. Windows CE .NET is aimed squarely at the embedded market, a sister product of sorts to Windows XP Embedded (XPe) that targets small, mobile, intelligent devices. This latest iteration adds better real time features, low-level XML and SOAP support, and support for the .NET Compact Framework, a subset of the full .NET Framework. Developer support for CE .NET is in a bit of a transition right now, since the Visual Studio .NET environment, which will target CE .NET, won't ship until mid-February. But Microsoft has some interim tools available, including a free emulation edition and an embedded C++ compiler that will get early adopters going now.
Mira is another story. Designed in tandem with Freestyle, Mira is a standalone technology that will enable users to "remote" their PC's displays to screens other than their standard CRT. One typical example is a dockable flat-panel display that would be used normally while the user is sitting in front of the PC. But you could pick the display up, like a tablet, and bring it around to other parts of the house, connected wirelessly, and access all of your apps and data using a stylus. The connection technology is based on 802.11b and Windows Terminal Services. Other remote screen possibilities include a new generation of television sets and cabinet mounted displays in the kitchen.
Mira makes for a good demo, but it's slow. Clicking on icons or the Start button requires a bit of patience as the response time lags by a second or two, which feels slower than it reads. The idea that every screen in your home could be connected is a good one, however. It will be interesting see how Mira pans out.
Finally, we sat down with some people from the Windows XP team to discuss some of the upcoming products that are being built on the new XP platform. Third party developers are just starting to ship XP-specific products, and a few are worth mentioning. The first is a Digital Persona fingerprint reader that makes it easy to logon to an XP PC. It works amazingly quickly and interacts with Fast User Switching to provide instant logons: Just walk up to the PC, press your thumb onto the USB-connected pad, and you're in. We also looked at an upcoming Sonic Foundry product called Super Duper Music Looper. Aimed at kids and the young at heart, this application lets you create music using a variety of instruments and a simple "painting" interface. It's cool and a lot of fun. But most interestingly, it builds on the Messenger service in XP and allows you to contact your online buddies from within the program and share your music or collaborate on songs, assuming the other person owns the program as well. Super Duper Music Looper works natively with WMA format as well.
We asked about some of the upcoming .NET Alerts we had seen at the XP launch, some of which we're still waiting for, and found out about another cool alert that's going to ship soon. Microsoft is working with the Weather Channel to provide location-based weather alerts through Windows Messenger, and the service will be configurable to provide a variety of weather-related notifications, such as severe weather alerts. If you're going to travel, you can set it up to feed you weather updates from that destination.
After the Microsoft meetings, we headed over to Paris (the hotel) for dinner at the Mon Ami Gabi restaurant, which is excellent for a variety of reasons, but also offers a great view of the water show across the street at Bellagio. Good stuff, and a perfect capper for a long day.
Before the Gates keynote, the Hilton stage was lit with three of the Aquarium screensavers from XP Plus!.