Gates sees the future in moving pictures

Just as its Windows operating system brought the PC to millions of users, Microsoft is developing new software that will make multimedia content delivered over the Internet a part of our everyday lives, Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and CEO has said.

"(Streaming media) is an area we really believe in. We're investing heavily in it and it's going to become a mainstream part of the PC and the Web-device experience," Gates said, speaking on the opening day of the Streaming Media West 99 conference in San Jose this week.

The Microsoft executive demonstrated a new software application, called Windows Movie Maker, which will be included in the Millennium Edition of Microsoft Windows, which is aimed at consumers and due for release next year. The application allows users to load home movies from a handheld video camera onto a PC and to edit and distribute them to friends.

Movie Maker detects when a video camera was turned on and off during the filming of a home movie, and automatically divides the stored video clip into segments which appear in the software application as a series of still images. A user can drag and drop selected video clips into a "storyboard," allowing the user to compile a customized movie that can be e-mailed to a friend or relative, Gates said.

Gates also gave what he said was the first public demonstration of a television set-top box being used to download streaming video content from the Web. The software in the set-top box allows users to download and watch on their television sets "all the video that's published on the Internet," Gates said. He didn't say when that capability will be available commercially.

For audio playback, the Microsoft executive showed a prototype of the next version of the company's Windows Media Player that includes an on-screen graphics equalizer, allowing a user to adjust the bass and treble settings of music files downloaded from the Internet.

Gates also promised big changes for the workplace, where he said companies will use streaming video to save money, by allowing employees to watch videos of meetings and training presentations.

"We think we'll revolutionise how people do things in the workplace by bringing streaming media and Microsoft Office together in a combined vision," Gates said.

He demonstrated another prototype of Media Player that allows a user to speed up the playback of a streaming video presentation without altering the pitch of the speaker's voice. The software works by detecting pauses in a presentation -- such as when a speaker stops speaking or changes a slide -- and eliminating those pauses when the video is played back.

The software also allows a user to annotate a streaming video clip with notes or questions. The user can then e-mail the annotated clip to a friend or co-worker, who opens the e-mail and is instantly taken to the annotated part. The idea is to allow workers to make more efficient use of their time when they watch streaming media clips, he said.

"I'd be as bold as to say that over the next three years the majority of companies will decide that having streaming media for the information they share internally and externally will be of critical importance," Gates said.

The new products are part of an aggressive move by Microsoft to make its software the de facto standard for delivering and playing back multimedia content, much as its operating system software became the de facto standard for running PCs. Microsoft may face tougher competition in the multimedia arena than it did in the PC field, however, with companies like RealNetworks already having established products in the market.

Microsoft's goal isn't to become a content provider, Gates said, but to provide the software that providers and end users need to create and view multimedia content.

The Microsoft executive acknowledged that several hurdles will have to be overcome before multimedia becomes truly mainstream. Consumers need broadband connections to the Internet, such as DSL or cable, he said. In addition, devices need to be easier to use, and it must be easier for users to store, access and manipulate content, he said.

"A big focus for us has been reliability. People don't want their video interrupted," Gates said.

Still, the Microsoft executive was bullish for the future. Wireless technologies and programming languages like XML, which make it easier to index and search content on the Web, will drive the growth of multimedia, he said.

"I don't see anything holding back this industry. Some of the enabling elements will improve very dramatically in the next 12 months," he said.

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