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Gates shares vision of the digital lifestyle

But what's it going to cost?

Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates shared his company’s future vision for seamlessly connecting users to personalised digital content through next-generation software, services and devices during his keynote speech at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas yesterday.

If the array of demonstrations Microsoft showed on the stage was any indication, the future of the digital lifestyle is dizzying. Gates showed off a gaggle of gadgets and new software features aimed at letting users access customised digital media at any time and anywhere from a plethora of devices.

Gates began his keynote by walking through a demonstration of a scenario he predicted is not far off in the future, in which he seamlessly carried customised content with him from his home to his office and even to the airport through a range of intelligent, wireless devices.

In the demo, Gates used a screen at home to transfer a report from a news channel to his mobile phone, and then used a futuristic office setup, with a large flat-screen displaying various application interfaces, to interact with a variety of co-workers through real-time video chat while still watching the news report on the screen.

He also demonstrated a scenario at an airport where he placed his mobile on a flat-screen table, and information from the phone came up on the screen. By using his fingerprint, Gates was able to access information on his mobile phone and work until he had to catch his flight, with a reminder on the screen letting him know how much time he had before his plane was to depart.

The effect was certainly impressive, but not exactly realistic – at least not any time soon, observers said. "It was very overwhelming," Andrew Hintz, internet technology director for the California Democratic Party, said of Gates' presentation.

Hintz, who was attending the conference to see the latest in digital gadgets, said that he can't imagine a world where, for instance, intelligent display screens would replace the regular PC screen in an office, simply because of the sheer expense of such technology.

There were some practical applications to the vision Gates put forth in his keynote, however, and many of them were for home entertainment. Microsoft's Windows Media Center OS was a major focus of his talk, and a technology for which Microsoft unveiled several new partnerships.

Gates announced a new, multi-year deal with DirectTV to stream video from the service directly onto the Windows Media Center PC, and to download that content to portable devices that are certified to run Media Center content. Microsoft also demonstrated how new internet-based services through its Windows Live portal will let users find and sync television content they can play on Media Center PCs.

Digital music, which arguably is driving consumer adoption of internet-based digital media, also took centre stage during Gates' keynote, with a surprise – albeit brief – appearance by popular music star Justin Timberlake to promote MTV Networks' new music download service, Urge. Gates and MTV Networks Music Group president Van Toffler announced that Microsoft is teaming with MTV to provide the service, announced on stage here, on Windows Media Player 11.0, which will be available on Windows Vista before the end of the year.

Though many of the technologies highlighted were cutting-edge, Gates also revived two technologies that have not quite lived up to their hype, but that insiders say are particular pet projects for the Microsoft founder: the Tablet PC and IPTV, an internet television service.

During his keynote, Gates said that Microsoft is making a lot of investment in providing Tablet PC capabilities in Vista, and expects to make inroads in that area this year. "Driving that to the mainstream is something we're committed to," he said. Microsoft launched its Tablet PC device at CES several years ago, but the product did not catch on with consumers as the company had expected.

Gates also predicted that Microsoft's IPTV service, which had some widely reported setbacks in 2005, will emerge from the trial stage into widespread deployment in 2006.


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