Las Vegas (NV) - In his pre-show CES keynote address Wednesday evening, Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates outlined his vision for the digital home of the future. He demonstrated tools futuristic enough for another "Minority Report" movie, but he also brought some near-term innovations such as the upcoming Windows Media Player 11, some new features for Windows Vista, as well as several partnerships to extend the company’s reach into new markets.
Bill Gates’ keynote at the CES is always one of the most visible events, and as a result, the one that draws the most attention. This year, we were told, the tickets for his keynote were sold out long ago - in fact, within a few minutes after they were first made available on the CES Web site. Many journalists, including this writer, ended up being locked out of the event. So I followed the keynote from a comfortable chair at a Convention Center bar, with an up-close view of a 27" HDTV.
Streamed in HD quality, Gates announced delivered a solid presentation with the usual surprise guests, but few real stunning announcements. In an effort to keep the interest in the upcoming Windows Vista operating system on a high level, Microsoft unveiled a few new features : "Sideshow" will enable notebook manufactures to attach a small LCD on the outside which could, for example, display a calendar without requiring the user to power up. Vista will also include built-in parental controls, enhanced slideshows, automatic picture editing functions, tabbed browsing with preview support, as well as a "next-generation" WMP 11 media player with redesigned "Aero Glass" front end, and enhanced search capabilities.
Corporate vice president for the eHome division, Joe Belfiore, told attendees that WMP 11 will also be able to receive HD programming natively.
As one of Vista’s key multimedia components, Media Player 11 will develop more into the direction of iTunes. As a joint venture with MTV, Gates announced Microsoft will be building "Urge," a new music download and subscription service that will launch with 2 million tracks, allowing access to MTV’s audio and video content. While only few of Urge’s features have been demonstrated, it appears to be more deeply integrated into WMP 11 than Apple’s iTunes service is integrated into the iTunes software. For example, Urge can be configured to automatically search for or suggest songs that are available online. Subscriptions to Urge will be priced at $9.95 for unlimited usage, though additional music download fees have not been announced.
In the communication space, Philips will be cooperating with Microsoft in the deployment of a wireless household phone. The device will make VoIP calls via Microsoft’s Instant Messenger and its "Windows Live Call" service. Also, in the interactive TV field, Microsoft is partnering with DirecTV, AT&T and Verizon.
Among the anticipated next-generation Media Center Edition PCs will be a slew of Intel Viiv systems, including an Averatec compact PC for $499 without a TV tuner, and "less than $1000" with a tuner, Microsoft said.