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Weekend: How Microsoft will digitise your life

Gates gets off on about tablets and multi-screen units at conference

Microsoft wants to be wherever you are, making your life — be it work or play — easier. It's a familiar Microsoft theme and one 'chair and chief software architect' Bill Gates hammered home during a demo-laden talk at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference this week in Seattle.

"PCs in the home have traditionally been in the den," Gates said in his Thursday keynote speech. "We want to extend that. We want to connect multiple PCs together. We want to make the power of the PC available wherever you go."

That means creating software and hardware that lets you use your PC to access applications, files and the web from anywhere in the house. It also means squeezing more digital data into less space and wringing the most productivity out of your work time.

A key to extending the PC's power is the continued development of wireless networking, Gates said. Microsoft will continue to work on 802.11-related products and will aggressively push Bluetooth in coming months. The company will launch Bluetooth-based keyboards and mice in the near future [see yesterday's story].

There's no reason to choose one technology over the other, Gates added. "These are both key technologies. They play different, complementary roles."

Tablets, Mira, and TVs

Wireless connectivity means freedom and Microsoft plans to participate by offering products and software that let you wander from your traditional desktop, Gates said. One of Microsoft's favourite parts: the much-discussed XP-based tablet PC, which he called "the most important thing to come along in years" — and it's taken years to get here.

But for home users, a tablet may be overkill. Instead, in the home, a detachable smart monitor wirelessly linked to the base PC could do the trick. Mira, Microsoft's technology that will offer this capability, first appeared at CES with a host of big-name vendors behind it. Gates announced on Thursday that Fujitsu, NEC, Toshiba, and Wistron will join that list.

Microsoft wants to see Mira technology spread throughout homes, he said. "In the future it will make a lot of sense to embed Mira in flat-screen TVs, too," he said.

This would enable features such as instant messages that pop up on your TV screen. You could answer there, or through a portable Mira device. "In the future it's not just the PC, it's not just the TV, it's how you interact with them both," Gates added.

As digital media plays a larger role in homes, Microsoft plans to significantly upgrade its media programs, Gates said..

To that end, the next generation of Windows Media Player, code-named Corona, will offer significant gains in compression and audio quality, said Steven Guggenheimer, senior director of Microsoft's digital decade consumer experience division, during a demonstration with Gates. Using Corona you'll be able to burn nearly 22 hours of music, upward of 365 songs, on a single CD, he said

Multiple monitors

Another way Microsoft wants to make life 'easier' is to offer multi-monitor support in its software, so you can do more work at once.

Humans can process information from several screens at once, said David Williams, Microsoft's director of Windows hardware platforms, in an onstage demonstration. "Our research tells us that users are very aware of their peripheral vision — they've developed it through driving," he said.

With multiple monitors "you can truly immerse yourself in the document", Williams said. Microsoft demonstrated a prototype with two LCDs (liquid crystal displays) stitched together with a bar in between, which works even better than two separate monitors, he said. Microsoft claims users experience a productivity increase of 20 to 50 percent by adding a second monitor. That pays for itself in weeks, Williams said.

Even monitors can work, too, he added. "What you want to do is have a screen with a focal point and then periphery screens," he said, displaying a four-LCD unit stitched together in an upside-down T configuration. "You get tremendous gains with four screens," he said.


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