Microsoft Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Gates offered his vision tonight of a wired, digital world in which information can be accessed easily from any device in the home, in the car or outdoors. At the center of that world, of course, will be Microsoft software.
In a keynote speech at the start of the Consumer Electronics Show here, Gates said digital technology is revolutionizing everything from entertainment to information to home security.
"The pace of innovation has never been more rapid. Many of the promises about convergence and digital media that have been made in the past decade will come true in the next few years," he said, adding that Microsoft's role is to provide the software that makes it all happen.
For handheld computers, Microsoft has reworked its much-maligned Palm-size PC platform with a version that will include new features and capabilities. To be called the Pocket PC, the new devices will run on a revamped version of Windows CE and are due to appear in the first half of this year.
Gates hosted a brief demonstration of the Pocket PC, which includes the Microsoft ebook Reader software as well as Clear Type, a technology designed to increase the resolution of on-screen text. This will allow users to download books and articles from the Web and read them on the go, or even play them back using a speech program, Gates said.
The Pocket PC will also include as standard a version of Windows Media Player, allowing users to play digital music files downloaded from the Web. The Windows Media Player will also be available for existing Palm-size PC customers, he said.
Philips Consumer Electronics Co. and Thompson Multimedia SA have agreed to work with Microsoft's WebTV subsidiary to build set-top boxes that combine television viewing with Internet content, he announced. The set-top boxes will include hard drives that allow viewers to pause live television broadcasts, Gates said, a technology pioneered by TiVo Inc. and Replay Networks Inc.
Gates also demonstrated version 2.0 of the company's Auto PC software, which has been renamed Windows CE Automotive Operating System. He showed how the software allows a user to check e-mail while driving, using a speech-enabled program.
But Gates devoted most of his energy to describing the digital home of the future. Users will be able to access music, video and other content from the Web and display it on any device around the home, he said. Washing machines will be wired, and could display a message on a user's television set alerting them that a load of washing is finished.
The television could also be hooked up to security cameras around the house.
When the doorbell rings, a user could flick a button on the TV remote and view an image of whoever is at the front door. Glorified light switches could become control panels from which a user could control heating systems, a stereo and any other appliances in the house.
"The home itself will be like a computer system," Gates said, adding that Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play technology will act as a glue that binds the disparate devices to a network.
At least one person in the audience thought that sounded more like a threat than a promise.
"I'm not sure I like the idea of living in a computer," said an executive with a large consumer electronics company, who didn't want to be identified.
Gates' speech barely mentioned personal computers, highlighting one of the challenges facing his company: to carve out a role for itself in a world where the PC may no longer be the center of attention, and where software is offered to users in the form of a service rather than as a packaged product.
Still, Gates played down the oft-repeated idea that we are entering a post-PC era.
"It's actually more revolutionary to say it's the post-TV era, or the post-phone era, because those things will work in new ways," he said.