Gates: 'Digital decade' is here

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LAS VEGAS -- Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates unveiled a slew of new products and content partners Sunday in his keynote address kicking off the 2007 International Consumer Electronics Show, vowing to deliver access to video and data no matter where the consumer might be.

In a 90-minute address at the Venetian Hotel, Gates hailed the momentum that has driven the digital media space forward in recent months. "It's amazing to see the progress over the course of the year," Gates said in his 11th consecutive CES address. "The digital decade is truly happening."

As he touted the new Windows Vista environment Microsoft plans to launch Jan. 30, entertainment and gaming capabilities figured prominently in the company's plans, from the media partners signed up to Vista's Media Center platform, which facilitates content delivery to the PC as well as transmission to TV sets.

Microsoft has signed up four content partners for its Media Center: News Corp.'s Fox Sports, CBS Corp.'s Showtime Networks, Viacom's Nickelodeon and Liberty Media's Starz Entertainment Group. Highlighted during the presentation was the partnership with Fox Sports on Media Center SportsLounge. SportsLounge, among the new content deals that supercharge Media Center, is a high-definition, sports-oriented showcase empowered with real-time alerts customizable to a viewer's favorite teams and athletes as well as fantasy-league applications.

"It's a dream if you're a sports fan or there's a sports fan in your house," said Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division and the company's chief liaison to Hollywood. Bach and Gates alternated introducing new products during Microsoft's CES presentation.

In addition, Microsoft said that it has signed Lionsgate to its roster of programming contributors to Xbox 360 Live Marketplace, joining Paramount and Warner Bros. Bach hailed the addition of a library of video content to Xbox Live that either can be streamed or downloaded, noting that 100 million downloads of games, TV episodes and movies have been generated over the past 13 months; he did not offer a separate account of how video alone has fared since Microsoft signed content partners including ABC, Comedy Central and the CW as of Nov. 22.

Xbox 360 also will provide an IPTV service that can deliver video programming, essentially functioning as a set-top box. Although that doesn't put Microsoft in the video distribution business, it opens up the possibility that the company could partner with AT&T to offer a mix of voice, video, data and wireless. Microsoft already provides software for AT&T's IP-based rollout, raising the specter that the telco's current U.S. service, U-Verse, could eventually be bundled with Xbox 360.

In a conversation with The Reporter shortly after his address, Gates said that while there is no deal with AT&T in place, "we'll offer this to AT&T as an opportunity to make this available as a? set-top box."

IPTV video has DVR and video-on-demand functionality and also will enable seamless switching between video programming and games, and even blur the two, demonstrating functionality that allowed a community of users to talk to their Xbox even while its in TV mode.

"This portion will continue to grow and will be come a major part of the TV-delivery ecosystem," Bach said.

Bach reported that 10.4 million Xbox 360 consoles have been sold since its Nov. 25 launch, about half a million more than forecasted. Membership for Xbox Live has climbed to 5 million and should exceed 6 million by June, Bach predicted.

Starz Entertainment's subscription video-download service, Vongo, has been named the premier "movies" launch partner for Vista. Consumers purchasing either a Windows Vista Premium-based or Ultimate-based PC can download movies onto these devices and view the titles on any connected television in the home.

Previously, Vongo users would traditionally view content on computer screens. Additionally, the new Windows Vista-enabled Vongo service also enables users to stream movies and other content through an Xbox 360 console connected to the home network.

Intended to enhance the overall "10-foot" viewing experience, Starz designed a new interface allowing subscribers to access and browse their PC-based movie library on the TV screen. The new interface includes easy to navigate "sliding screens" that display movie offerings and information. Nickelodeon's broadband video destination, TurboNick, will offer up its branded kids fare through a collaboration with Vista.

With TurboNick on the Vista platform, users can search a catalog of content that contains hundreds of clips and full-length Nicktoons, including "SpongeBob SquarePants," "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" as well as "Zoey 101" and "The Amanda Show."

Users also can create personalized playlists, rate video content and participate in trivia challenges, while those with a Windows XP Media Center Edition tuner card can view Nickelodeon television live on their computer through TurboNick.

Showtime Networks will provide consumers with the ability to download episodes of "The L Word," "Sleeper Cell" and "Weeds," among others, and play them on their PC or transfer them to a portable player.

Microsoft's Media Center also will have content springboards for some of its own in-house programming, including MSN Soapbox, its video upload service, as well as Live Spaces and Messenger.

Microsoft also announced a Windows home server product that will launch in the second half of 2007. With vast amounts of digital media expected to require storage and security in the average U.S. home, the product also will allow users to connect to that software remotely over the Internet, to accommodate homes with multiple sets in particular.

Microsoft also introduced several new PC models with an eye on the entertainment space, including the Sony VAIO VGX-TP1, a hatbox-shaped PC used for watching programming at a distance, and HP TouchSmart PC, which features a touch-screen interface.

In addition, Microsoft and Ford Motor Co. are collaborating on an auto-based Web platform dubbed Sync. "It has the ability to be a full entertainment platform," Ford Motor Co. executive vp Mark Fields said.

"We want people to get their content wherever and whenever they want it and whatever device they want to put it on," Bach said.
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