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Microsoft @ CES 2007: A SuperSite Special Report

This week, over 150,000 people will gather in Las Vegas for the 2007 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world's largest consumer technology trade show. For the first time in several years, however, I'm not one of them. I've got personal and professional reasons for opting out of CES this year, and I'm still unsure it was the right decision. But I can say this: I've got the scoop on what Microsoft will announce this year at the show, and being home is allowing me to write about it in a timelier manner than would have been possible had I been at the show.

Here's the thing. With a rapid influx of show-goers, press (and bloggers), and exhibitors, CES is a mess, an increasingly pointless event where you spend most of your time walking. And walking. And walking. The downtime-to-uptime ratio at CES swung in the wrong direction years ago, and after last year's out of control event, which like this year was spread between the ginormous Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and the seedier Sands Convention Center, I had some thinking to do. Being at CES, I decided, was no longer worth it.

For me to not show up in Vegas for CES, however, I needed assurances that the number one reason I previously attended this show--Microsoft--would be interested in briefing me ahead of time. And thankfully, they agreed: I got to see the hardware and software they'll be showing off at CES last month at the company's Redmond labs and offices. And a few days ago, I got a final phone briefing in which I was told about the content of Bill Gates' keynote address. Amazingly, not going to CES is allowing me to cover Microsoft's presence at this show more ably than had I been there.

That's the theory, anyway, and we'll see how it goes. In the meantime, I've got this report, which details what Microsoft is announcing at CES. Should the company make an unexpected announcements that I'm unaware of, I'll update this report to ensure its complete.

The Bill Gates keynote

While Bill Gates is widely admired for being a technical visionary, the richest man in the world, and a charitable donor of historical proportions, I've always thought of him as a businessman, not a technologist. His keynote addresses are typically boring, droning affairs, though they always draw a standing-room crowd.

At CES 2007, Microsoft will unveil a new wave of products under the slogan "Connected Entertainment," and Gates' keynote address will highlight these new products, which as usual come from both Microsoft and its partners.

Specifically, Gates and others will show off Windows Vista-inspired PCs, new Windows Vista features that haven't been shown publicly yet, a new IPTV-enabled Xbox 360 model, a new partnership with Ford Motor Company called Sync, and the long-rumored Windows Home Server, which was first revealed two years ago right here on the SuperSite for Windows. As you might expect, I've been sitting on the scoop about Windows Home Server for some time now, and I now have a full and separate report about this product available separately.

Windows Vista

While Microsoft held a business launch event for Windows Vista in late November 2006 in New York City, CES is the new operating system's coming-out party for consumers. (A separate consumer launch is set for January 29.) Gates will talk about a program called Life With Windows Vista, in which 50 families from around the world helped Microsoft design the product through feedback. "This product was built by people for people," I was told. Also, Gates will highlight the over 5 million people who beta tested Windows Vista, via the technical beta program, the Consumer Technical Preview (CTP), and various other programs like MSDN, TechNet, and the Rapid Deployment Program (RDP).

Regarding new Vista-inspired hardware, Microsoft will show off a number of hardware designs, including a Hewlett-Packard (HP) TouchSmart all-in-one Media Center PC that features a bulky but iMac-like design and a gorgeous widescreen display with touchscreen capabilities. Toshiba is showing off a new Portege Tablet PC model with a nifty and bright LCD-based auxiliary display that utilizes Vista's new SideShow feature. Sony is highlighting what I think is the best-looking Vista-inspired PC I've seen, a VAIO TP-1 living room PC that mimics Vista's Aero glass effect by ringing its widescreen display with a bezel of clear glass. It's beautiful and--believe it or not--better looking than anything Apple's ever made. Finally, Medion will be showing off a second-generation Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) that runs Vista. And yes, it's got Aero. (Microsoft jokingly refers to these machines as "Vistagami" since the first-gen systems were codenamed Origami.)

Gates will highlight that over 1.5 million hardware devices are compatible with Windows Vista launch, along with over 2000 devices that are logo-certified for the new system. This level of compatibility is "an order of magnitude" better than any previous Windows version at launch, including Windows XP. Most XP-compatible devices, I'm told, will work just fine on Windows Vista as well.

Ending a long period of secrecy and silence, Microsoft will finally unveil its Windows Ultimate Extras, set of downloadable add-ons that will only be made available to users of Vista Ultimate edition. Among the Extras are DreamScene (formerly "Motion Desktop"), which lets you use any video content as an animated desktop background, and Hold 'Em, a version of the popular Texas Hold 'Em variant of poker. Microsoft says it won't make these Extras available to the public until Vista launches on January 29.

Microsoft will also tout its Games for Windows program, which seeks to make the Windows gaming experience as simple as that on a game console like the Xbox 360. The company will show off 30 new games at CES, including the long-awaited Crysis, Shadowrun, Age of Conan: Hiberian Adventures and, what might be the most eagerly-awaited Windows game of all time, Halo 2. The Windows Vista version of Halo 2 is notable because it will be the first to allow Windows users to compete against Xbox 360 users. Additionally, Microsoft is moving its Xbox 360 Gamertag functionality to Windows with this release, so that users can obtain Achievements and other features in Windows games, not just Xbox 360 games.

Gates will talk up new Media Center features as well, including some new services like the Fox Sports Lounge. Other partnerships that will be announced include Nascar, Showtime, and Starz.

Xbox 360

There have been lots of rumors lately about a new model of the Xbox 360, but curiously, none of the rumors got the point of this new model at all: Robbie Bach, who oversees all of Microsoft's new Connected Experiences initiatives, will show off an upcoming Xbox 360 model during the Gates keynote that features IPTV capabilities. Those in the United States may be unaware that Microsoft has been aggressively pushing its IP-based television platform around the world, and this new Xbox will seek to bring the technology to a much wider audience. It will include a larger hard drive than the current Xbox 360 premium console, as well as the circuitry needed for IPTV. It will not, however, include a TV tuner card. This is about Internet-based television.

Bach will also announce that Microsoft has met its goal of delivering over 10 million Xbox 360 consoles to the market by the end of 2006 Don't misunderstand this milestone, however. It does not mean that Microsoft has "sold" 10 million consoles to customers, only that it has delivered 10 million consoles to retail outlets. No doubt, there are a million or more unsold Xbox 360 consoles out there. That said, the 10 million mark is an important milestone, and this is indeed the goal that Microsoft announced early last year.

Additionally, Bach will highlight that the Xbox 360's Xbox Live service is off to a roaring start on the new console. Over 5 million Xbox 360 users have opted into the subscription-based Xbox Live Gold service (which costs $99 per year), and Xbox 360 users have downloaded over 100 million TV shows, movies, games, trailers, and other content from the service.

Ford Sync

Microsoft is working with Ford Motor Company to introduce a new service for Ford (and Mercury and Lincoln) automobiles called Sync. This service will put Microsoft's Windows for Automobile platform inside various Ford models, providing hands-free, Bluetooth-based access to connected devices like cell phones, MP3 players, and the like. You'll be able to access device content via the car's stereo display, and use voice control. 12 Ford models will have Sync capabilities built-in by the end of 2007, with more to follow next year.

Windows Home Server

Rumors about Windows Home Server have sprung up in recent weeks, but all of them have gotten the point behind this release wrong. Windows Home Server (WHS) is not about streaming digital media around the home, though of course it does include Windows Media Connect technology and can be used in this fashion. No, WHS is about storage first, and remote access second. WHS's storage features are innovative and will likely blow people away: The product moves the notion of backup from the PC level to the family level, and lets you backup all of the machines in your home seamlessly. Best of all, you can add storage however you'd like, and WHS will simply aggregate all of that space into a single, drive-letter-less storage pool.

WHS's remote access features will allow users to access any of their home PCs from anywhere online, duplicating functionality that people today associate with products like GoToMyPC. Microsoft will even throw in a free domain name, making this access easier than ever. Note that remote access requires Windows XP Pro or higher, or Windows Vista Home Premium or higher.

Finally, in a nod to enthusiasts, WHS will be available in both pre-made server appliances from companies like HP, and as a separate software product that you can install to any PC or server. WHS is based on Windows Server 2003 R2, and not Longhorn Server as rumored. It features a super-simple tabbed-based interface that beginners and advanced users will both enjoy, and will ship in late 2007. HP will show off a cool and compact WHS design at the show, as will original device manufacturers like Inventec and Quanta.

Check out my separate Windows Home Server Preview for more information on this exciting and innovative product. I can't wait to get one in my house.

Final thoughts

Coming as it does right after the holiday selling season, CES is typically a show that highlights the future of consumer technologies, products and services that won't typically ship for several months or years. This year, however, Microsoft has decided to focus its CES energies on products that are happening more quickly. "They're not just futuristic," I was told. "This year, they're real."

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