Gates puts Microsoft at heart of digital home

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates previewed new technologies for Windows XP Monday evening that transform the humble PC into a kind of digital control center, allowing users to access their applications and digital content wirelessly from computer screens and other devices anywhere around the home or office.

Taken together, the technologies are part of a familiar vision that the Microsoft executive has hawked here at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in previous years. The company is betting that consumers want anytime, anywhere access to their digital files and applications -- and that they'll trust Microsoft's software to do it.

The new software includes Mira, a set of wireless technologies that enable users to unplug a flat-panel display from their desktop PC and carry it around with them, retaining access to all of the applications and digital content on the PC. The wireless connection is based on the 802.11 wireless standard, and users can interact with the PC through the touch-sensitive display as if they were sitting at the PC.

Hardware partners such as ViewSonic Corp. are expected to release flat-screen terminals enabled with the Mira technology by the end of the year, Microsoft officials here said. The technology could also be embedded in simple screens around the home that could display digital videos or pictures, Gates said.

"What we mean when we talk about integrated computing is that as you move from device to device, your information is there for you," Gates said, addressing a crowded hall on the eve of this year's annual CES event.

The other new technology, dubbed Freestyle, turns the Windows XP interface into a control panel that can be operated using a remote control-like gadget. Large icons on the screen allow a user to operate the computer from a distance, starting music or a video clips that could be played on the PC or another computer screen in the home. The Freestyle interface should also be available in the next 12 months, Gates said.

Microsoft's ambitions don't stop in the home. Gates announced that the company's software for smart cellular phones, dubbed Stinger, has been renamed Smart Phone 2002. The software will power devices that blend the functionality of a PDA and a phone, he said, showing future products from Samsung and Cyberlink.

The development are made possible by dramatic improvements in the power of computer chips, combined with declining hardware costs, he said. Software has a vital role to play, he said, providing the glue that will allow smart devices to talk to each other and share information.

Key to this new environment will be wireless technology, he said. "The explosive way that these devices work together will overwhelmingly be wireless, and the standards around Wi-Fi, or so-called 802.11," he said.

Building such a world will mean building trust among consumers that Microsoft's software is secure and reliable enough to manage it all, he said. Well-publicized security problems with Microsoft's software mean the company may face an uphill battle to win that confidence.

"This trustworthiness will have to be an element of all the different devices -- that's a substantial challenge, but it's a challenge we can meet," he said.

One analyst said the Mira concept is a good one, because it will allow users to roam about their home or office and still have complete access to their PC. However, one stumbling block is likely to be price, which could limit the use of the technology to early adopters, said Tim Bajarin, president of research company Creative Strategies Inc.

Mira depends on the use of relatively expensive flat-panel displays, and it would be hard to sell one for less than US$500 and still make a profit, Bajarin said. Corporate users may find the technology appealing, however, and might be willing to pay for the mobility.

"I could see the usefulness in certain corporate environments; if you were to go down the hall to a conference room and give a presentation, you could imagine it might be useful to have access to an extension of your PC," he said.

The concept described by Gates Monday is similar to the one put forward by Apple Computer Inc. CEO Steve Jobs at the Macworld conference in San Francisco Monday morning, in which the personal computer acts as the hub of a universe of digital devices such as music players, cameras and handheld computers.

Microsoft's plan is more ambitious, however, seeing a role for its software in virtually every electrical appliance in the home. The company's plans are based on two operating system products, Windows CE and Windows XP, and complemented with its Windows Media technologies.

"Those are the software products we adapt to every one of these intelligent devices to make sure we can deliver the intelligent experience," Gates said.

CES, in Las Vegas, runs through until Friday.

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James Niccolai

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