If it hasn't already been made abundantly clear, Microsoft
expects to be at the center of your daily life. At least, that's the
recurring image presented by the company's chairman and chief
software architect, Bill Gates, during his appearance at the 2006
International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Gates used his keynote address here -- his tenth at the trade
show -- to highlight his vision of how consumers' work and home
lives will be made more efficient during the final years of the
so-called "digital decade." Not surprisingly, much of the
infrastructure behind this vision stems from the upcoming version of
Microsoft Windows, Vista.
"This is the year that [Windows] Vista, Office 12 and many other
products will come out, and the realization of [Windows] Media
Center as a volume mainstream product will really be clear to
everyone in the marketplace," Gates said. "Consumers are getting
more and more connected. They're getting richer experiences, and
software is really at the center of that."
Gates and other Microsoft officials dangled glimpses of the
latest Vista build, as well as devices and services that are to be
tied into Vista. But the software mogul spent much of his time on
the stage describing scenarios that, while not specifically promised
in Vista, would at least be coming in the near future thanks to the
operating system's features.
His vision is a digital lifestyle and "work style" in which
users' desktop PC interfaces would be available via PCs, notebooks,
mobile phones and futuristic mobile phone kiosks. You might find a
kiosk say, in an airport lounge, ready to provide full desktop
capabilities when paired with your cell phone.
Gates demonstrated selecting a video news story on his home PC
display to receive updates on the story on his cell phone and office
PC. He also showed off location-, device- and situation-aware
presence for IM and communications; drag-and-drop capabilities for
adding new participants to video- and screen-sharing-enabled
conference calls; and fingerprint authentication for all features.
He also spoke at length about the ability to send video and other
content to other screens and devices throughout the house --
including the Windows Media Center PC, notebooks, phones, and
televisions connected to the Xbox 360.
"Software will come in and make things both simpler and more
effective," he said, such as helping to find other music by that
artist or similar artists, not having to think about disks and
putting them in the case. You might use a digital jukebox that lets
you call up the movies that you own and see those exactly when you
want to. You could organize not just photos but all the memories of
your kids growing up, search those, send them off to relatives, and
have them appear on various screens around the house.
"These are scenarios that people can understand, if we make them
simple, we make them inexpensive and we drive them through a single
interface," he added.
While the talk centered on the future, it also segued, naturally,
into a presentation on the media features for Vista. Vista is
scheduled to ship later this year. During the presentation, the
forthcoming OS received its broadest demonstration to date.
In the build highlighted at the show, Vista boasted incremental,
productivity-enhancing features that approach Gates' vision of a
digitally-assisted home and work life.
With new features ranging from the mundane to the impressive,
Vista's in-depth presentation in Wednesday's keynote offered
Microsoft a chance to map out how it's been working to beef up the
OS's user-facing capabilities -- a departure from previous talks on
Vista, which tended toward the technical.
Navigation enhancements in Vista include improving Alt-Tabbing to
display active windows, which are updated in real-time. Another
enhancement is Flip 3D, a visual way to navigate among active
windows, in which windows are cascaded, displayed like a stack of
playing cards. A user can switch among active windows using the
mouse scroll wheel.
Additionally, the next version of Windows Internet Explorer's
tabbed browsing feature also got a navigation improvement: tabs can
be viewed simultaneously in real-time, or closed, from within a
Vista's media library offers tweaks making it easier for users to
organize and search their music, photos, and video. The OS's
powerful graphics engine renders thumbnails and album covers quickly
and without interruption.
Microsoft also said the new OS can help users organize their
information through a right-hand dock containing tiny programs,
dubbed gadgets. These might include a RSS feed, a picture-viewing
tool, or a custom app showing the latest sports scores. Gadgets can
be expanded to display more information by dragging them onto the
Another visual enhancement delved into hardware. Demonstrated at
the show by Microsoft Vista's lead product manager, Aaron Woodman,
Windows Sideshow is a feature in which a single gadget -- such as a
user's schedule -- can be displayed on a small LCD panel embedded in
into the exterior case of a laptop. The upshot of Sideshow is that a
user can access the widget with the PC closed -- and even while the
notebook is off, Woodman said.
Other key media-centric features in Vista include embedded
photo-editing tools in the OS -- including permanent backups of
original photos -- and an enhanced look and feel for Windows Media
Player 11, offering easier navigation and context-sensitive
It's no surprise that Vista adds a whole slew of eye-candy
throughout the OS. In addition to a 3D-feeling user interface for
most windows throughout Vista, Microsoft treated the audience to a
brief preview of Microsoft Flight Simulator to show off still more
graphic goodies (no doubt dependent, like much of Vista's visual
enhancements, on modern graphics hardware.) Flight Simulator is
about a year away from completion.
Microsoft brass also described new features in Vista's Windows
Media Center capabilities. Chief among these is a tweaked user
interface, designed to be more readable and more intuitively
controlled via a remote.
Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president for Microsoft's Windows
eHome division, showed a sampling of other devices that support and
extend Media Center. Among them were a small form-factor Averatec
Home Theater PC, and Toshiba's Gigabeat music player/hard drive,
which offered synchronization with Media Center and a similar user
interface. Belfiore also demonstrated using a beta Live Messenger IM
bot to suggest television content to watch or record.
Windows Media Center also will support the output of video to
other devices, like the Xbox 360. Windows Media Center also will
support digital cable display, recording and playback, in connection
with a cable company-provided decoder box. Additionally, a new deal
with DirectTV and BskyB will enable digital satellite users to watch
and record those content streams as well. Media Center also will
offer close support for HD-DVDs, including enabling users to take
advantage of features like legally backing-up movies to PC hard
In addition to touting HD-DVD support in connection with Media
Center, Microsoft also touted other ways in which it's supporting
the emerging DVD format. These include the announcement of a HD-DVD
add-on drive for the Xbox 360 -- designed to entice consumers to
adopt the format by avoiding the need to purchase a standalone
player. Microsoft also said it expects to have 50 high-definition
games in the market by June.
Gates and company also seized the moment to crow about a recent
series of partnerships. A deal with MTV resulted in MTV Urge, an
Internet service tied into Windows Media Player and Vista's media
library that offers music downloads and related content.
Microsoft, Palm and Verizon Wireless are also working together to
bring the new Treo 700w handheld device to market tomorrow. The unit
will support Verizon Wireless's EVDO network. Similarly, work with
Phillips and Uniden will culminate in home wireless phones with
embedded Windows Live Messenger support.
Additionally, Microsoft said it had added Celestica to its roster
of Xbox 360 manufacturers, in a move to meet customer demand.
Amid the show-and-tell about the future of digital homes and
work, Microsoft took a few moments for levity.
A virtual boxing match by way of the Xbox 360's Electronics Arts'
"Fight Night Round 3," pitted Gates against Chief Executive Steve
Ballmer (who lost, loudly); and some quips by MTV Music Group
President Van Toffler about Gates' resemblance to the film character
in the movie "Napoleon Dynamite." Pop music star Justin Timberlake
also made a brief appearance to rub elbows with the Microsoft crew
and tout Urge.