CES - Gates unveils vision for connected world

Bill Gates kicked off CES Sunday by unveiling new products that support a world full of connected devices that serve up real-time personalized content to users.

Microsoft's chairman, Bill Gates, has unveiled products Microsoft hopes will encourage more widespread adoption of the digital or connected home.

The software giant has been promoting the idea of a connected home, where multiple devices can access and share multimedia content stored on a PC or a central server hub, for some time, but so far only the most savvy or wealthy technology enthusiasts have realized even a piece of that vision.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Gates and Robbie Bach, the president of Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices Division, showed how Microsoft could help more people can get access to the technology.

Gates announced service providers, such as AT&T, that offered Internet Protocol Television using Microsoft's software would begin offering this year the Xbox 360 console in lieu of a set-top box.

Service providers still would give users the option of the typical set-top box for IPTV or an Xbox 360, Microsoft spokesperson, Eric Hollreiser, said.

Still, the announcement sets up a scenario where a home user can watch television and surf the Internet through their Xbox 360 console, which also is an IP-connected device. The move shows Microsoft upping the ante to provide not just software, but also hardware for the digital home, which could eventually put it in competition with its own hardware partners.

Windows Vista, which will have its widespread consumer release on January 30, was also a major focus of Gates' speech. He unveiled new deals that will deliver more media content through Vista's Media Center capabilities. Windows Media Center, which used to be its own OS but is now part of Vista, allows users to serve up content stored on their PC on televisions, or use their PC or another device to set content for their TVs.

The new deals with NASCAR, Fox Sports, Nickelodeon, Showtime and Bongo will deliver specialised content through Windows Media Center. All of the content except Bongo's will be free; users will have to pay a subscription for Bongo content.

Microsoft also will allow users to submit video content they have created to Media center by integrating it with Soapbox, Microsoft's YouTube-like user-generated video upload service.

The debut of Windows Home Server, a product Microsoft has mentioned before under the code-name Quattro, is also aimed at helping consumers establish a more connected home.

Windows Home Server would not be sold directly to consumers, but would be used by OEMs such as HP as the basis for new hardware that consumers could put in their homes to connect their Windows Vista computers, Hollreiser said.

Users with a broadband connection and more than one computer or device that has an Internet connection can access data stored on Windows Home Server. It also will provide data security and automatically back up data every night.

Windows Home Server was aimed at providing a centralised server hub for multimedia files in the digital home, Hollreiser said. It will come in both Windows Vista and Windows XP versions, and pricing and specifications will vary according to the manufacturer. The first hardware using Windows Home Server software should be available sometime this year.

Gates also showed off some new hardware from Microsoft partners that use new Vista features. HP's TouchSmart PC, for instance, will take advantage of touchscreen capabilities in Vista, while the Toshiba Portege R400 laptop will include a display screen on the top of the laptop that uses Vista's Sideshow technology to show users content such as their Outlook schedule without having to open or turn on their PC. Other new products included an ultramobile PC from Medion, as well as a new Vaio by Sony optimised for Media Center.

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Elizabeth Montalbano

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