CES: Microsoft generates mild enterprise buzz

I'm still in bandages with several therapy sessions left to go, but I made it back from CES 2006 alive. For those who didn't go (and it seems like most of you did), the show was huge. Think Comdex during its heyday, just bigger. I went on the cut-rate special, which meant taking a cheap flight via US Airways and staying in a house with some of InfoWorld Senior Contributing Editor Brian Chee's buddies, who turned out to all be Jesuit priests. Fun bunch of guys -- and amazing drinkers, too. (Padre, thanks again for the berth.)

I'll be blogging about the coolest business-oriented discoveries I made at CES on the SMB IT blog, because just like the show itself, not everything can be covered in one session. So this column is devoted to Microsoft's CES showing and what that might mean for the rest of us in the enterprise trenches.

Bottom line: not that much outside of the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray debate. Otherwise, Microsoft was mostly showcasing technologies we already knew about, notably the Xbox 360, the latest Windows XP Media Center Edition, and, of course, Vista. Lots of Vista. None of these had anything new to offer specific to CES. Bill Gates' keynote was the expected coupling of "great stuff we have now" with a much lengthier oratory on "what we'll have tomorrow." The only parts of this speech that weren't mostly vapor were the content deals announced with DirecTV, MTV, and Verizon.

One technology that Microsoft did revive, however, is SPOT. In case you missed it (and many did), this is the Smart Personal Object Technology that Microsoft hyped in 2002, when SPOT was just emerging from Microsoft Research. The technology revolves around adding chip and software smarts to everyday devices, such as watches, pens, clocks, and similar personal appliances. Since 2002, it languished around an ill-defined plan to market MSN watches, and most of us thought we'd heard the last of it.

This CES, however, Microsoft pushed SPOT out into the world again showing not only new versions of the MSN watch concept but a new Regional Weather Station from Oregon Scientific designed for the desktop. This weather clock takes local data, such as temperature and humidity, and combines it with data pulled from MSN's Weather service. You then get a detailed display of local weather conditions both inside and out, including things like indoor air quality and upcoming weather warnings. All this for about US$200. Microsoft says there will be several more similar SPOT devices offered during 2006. Personally, I'm hoping for a pair of SPOT-enabled glasses that display the names of people I'm looking at via facial recognition. That way, I won't have to read that Mega Memory book.

As mentioned, Microsoft also announced a musical download content deal with Verizon. The latter announced its direct-to-the-phone music download service at CES, dubbed V Cast. There's a field day of two evil-empire wordplays here, but I'll avoid them. The upshot is that V Cast is going to use Microsoft's codecs and DRM (digital rights management) software. We'll have to see how well this works in a handheld format, but Verizon doesn't seem worried. And, hey, it's got to be better than Sony's DRM software.

In the same musical vein, Microsoft also offered a peek at WMP (Windows Media Player) 11 in conjunction with MTV's Urge library of downloadable audio content. I only caught a glimpse of this demo before they set the dogs on me, but the new WMP interface looked suitably impressive, and the search speed that Microsoft touts certainly appeared fast. Of course, that was being demoed in optimal conditions, so I'll reserve judgment until I see it operate with a few dozen Internet routers and a couple of million simultaneous searchers in the way.

Last was Microsoft's announcement of HD-DVD-format commitment. The company has all along backed the HD-DVD format over Blu-Ray, but with several large vendors looking as though they were going to accept the Blu-Ray standard, there were rumors floating that Microsoft would do the same.

Well, it doesn't look that way now, as Microsoft not only reaffirmed its commitment to HD-DVD but even announced that it was going to be coming out with an external HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360. Redmond plans to have around 50 HD-DVD-compliant game titles available for that drive by this summer.

However, while this is an exciting issue for Xbox users, enterprise readers shouldn't be overly concerned. Optical may be the next backup platform after tape, but simply because Microsoft is backing HD-DVD hardware on the consumer side doesn't mean its internal OS backup utilities will ever ignore other emerging optical standards. Blu-Ray may have some problems, but if it remains a viable standard, Redmond's business software will no doubt support it.

Look for more CES coverage on the blogs. Meanwhile, I'm going to take more Advil and see about getting this tattoo removed.

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Oliver Rist

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