Here are some stories and photos from CES 2004, the biggest trade show I've ever encountered. I'll have a full show write-up available soon!

CES Kickoff: Gates Expands Digital Decade with Seamless Computing

In another sleep-inducing keynote address that belied the importance and excitement of his intended message, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates opened the 2004 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) with a preview of the home-oriented products his company will release throughout the year and beyond. Gates touted MSN 9 and the new MSN Premium (the latter provides subscription services to broadband customers); the Outlook Mail Connector, which lets MSN users view and share Microsoft Outlook calendar, contacts, tasks, and email as well as information from family members; the MSN Direct service, which powers a new generation of Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) watches; Windows Mobile-based Smartphone devices; the company's automotive and telematics work; Microsoft TV, which was recently enhanced to support low-end set-top boxes; Media Center PCs and the hardware and software add-ons that will extend recorded TV content and other digital media from the PC to TVs and many other devices in the home; new Portable Media Center PCs that make current-generation MP3 players look silly by comparison; and even a futuristic look at work that Microsoft researchers are doing to make organizing and sharing digital media easier. All in all, the keynote speech presented an exciting vision of the future.

"What is the glue that is going to make this all come together?" Gates asked during his address. "Well, there's a lot of industry cooperation, a lot of standards, and--perhaps most excitingly for Microsoft--a lot of software to make it all work. We talk about it as 'seamless computing' experiences, making it so you don't have to do a lot of work to get your calendar to show up on the different devices, making it so that your email is wherever you go. We are developing software that's in the car, in the phone, of course in the PC, the set-top box, the watch--all the places where software can run. We want to make sure that we do the best we can to make [them] connect up and to make it seamless."

The most exciting aspect of Gates's speech centered on the Media Center PC; Microsoft recently launched a second edition that's outselling the first version by four times, he noted. With a Media Center PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2004 connected to a TV signal in the home office, you'll soon be able to pump content from that PC to other devices around the home. These devices, and the services that will enable this feature on existing devices, will ship in 2004, Gates said, and will include the following:

  • Windows Media Center Extender--software that will drive new set-top boxes from a host of partners. The boxes will look and act like stereo components and be able to connect to a home network through a wired or wireless connection. "It is thin; it is completely silent," Gates noted. "There is no fan. It also has a green button so that you can tell [that] it's part of the Windows Media Center family."
  • Xbox Media Center Extender Kit--an Xbox DVD that will provide the same functionality to the Xbox that the Windows Media Center Extender will provide to set-top boxes and which will include a unique remote control. "Bill, we have made this so easy that even a 5-year old or a chief software architect of a major corporation can actually use this," Microsoft's David Alles jokingly told Gates.
  • Portable Media Center--a new generation of portable media devices, shipping this year from several companies, that will include the Media Center UI and will feature compatibility with all the digital-media formats that Media Center PCs can consume and generate, including recorded TV. "The Portable Media Center [won't] just have your music on it, it's going to have your movies there, movies for your kids, the movies you like; you just find it on the Web, download it, off you go, and it's available. That's because the hard-disk capacity, battery life, cheap LCD screens--those have all come together," Gates said. "This device is small enough to fit in your pocket, has a big enough screen to enjoy movies, and is about the same weight as a wallet, so finally you have something in a great device that takes all of your media with you," Alles added. "And it's not just those recorded shows like we talked about; it's also your music, your photos, and your videos--whether those videos are home videos or a downloaded film from the Internet."

One aspect of Gates's talk that probably won't get a lot of press but deserves to be applauded is the vast number of partners that Microsoft is involving in its various consumer-related products. Gates mentioned the 45 partners that are creating Media Center PCs; the various companies that are providing high-quality video content for MSN and MSN Premium; the companies that are producing SPOT watches, the numerous retail locations at which you can purchase those watches, and the hundreds of metro areas in which the watches can connect to back-end services; the 80 companies that are producing Smartphone devices; the movie companies that are supporting the high-resolution Windows Media Video (WMV) high-definition video format on specially formatted DVD movies; the companies that are making Portable Media Center devices and Windows Media Center Extender set-top boxes; and the dizzying array of consumer electronics and computer companies that are producing the various hardware, software, and service-oriented offerings that make all these products come together in a truly connected home. The level of cooperation Microsoft engenders with its partners stands in sharp contrast to the digital-hub strategies that some of the company's competitors have proposed and highlights the true diversity and choices we expect from the PC industry. Seeing this business model coming to the consumer electronics industry is exciting. If Gates's keynote address is any indication, 2004 is going to be a milestone year for home computing.

News blurbs from CES 2004

Hell Freezes Over as HP Announces iPod Pact with Apple

HP stunned onlookers this week when it announced that it will license the iPod from Apple Computer and bundle Apple's iTunes application with select consumer-oriented PCs. Sometime this summer, HP will ship an HP-branded iPod portable music player that will feature a unique blue color, the company told me. Given HP's strong relationship with Microsoft, the Apple deal comes as a surprise. But HP's PC competitors, including companies such as Dell and Gateway, have launched their own digital-music strategies and partnered with other companies to get into the market quickly. Clearly, HP felt that the Apple deal would give it a unique competitive position.

Exclusive: HP Working to Get WMA on iPod

HP's blockbuster deal with Apple will have one exciting side effect, I discovered today. The company will be working with Apple to add support for Microsoft's superior Windows Media Audio (WMA) format to the iPod by mid-year. You heard it here first.

Microsoft: Your Digital Content, in Any Room in the House, at Any Time

Microsoft's plan to have Windows Media Center Extender devices remotely use XP Media Center content (i.e., digital music, photos, movies, and recorded TV) is a good strategy that will nicely obviate the one huge complaint I have with Media Center PCs--they're too obtrusive in rooms such as the den. (After using a Media Center PC in my den for 2 years, I feel reasonably sure that the machine isn't a viable solution for most people. Nevertheless, I can't live without it.) Under the new scheme, which will become reality this fall (and require a new MCE update--don't worry, it's a software-only update), users will be able to put inexpensive, quiet, and reliable Windows Media Center Extender devices in the rooms that have nice TVs and stereo systems and leave those ugly, loud PCs back in the home office in which they belong.

"The Register" Has Some 'Splainin' to Do

The UK online magazine "The Register" reported on the eve of CES that Microsoft planned to drop XP MCE, just as the company had quietly dropped its Smart Display technology a few weeks earlier. The report has just one problem: It isn't true. Perhaps more damning, XP MCE was the centerpiece of Microsoft's presence at CES and the company's consumer-oriented plans for the next year, and Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates devoted more than 50 percent of his keynote address to the topic.

Portable Media Center Devices Will Blow You Away

This week at CES, I spent some time with three Portable Media Center devices (from Creative, iRiver, and Samsung) and ... wow. These devices are going to blow you away. Expect prices in the $400 to $600 range, 20GB to 40GB hard disks, and 3 hours of battery life when watching video (the battery life jumps to 12 hours when listening to audio). I'll post a big preview on the SuperSite for Windows soon, but rest assured, these devices are going to be the must-have gift for the 2004 holiday season.

MSN Provides Free High-Quality Video Streaming Service

Take that, CNN and RealNetworks. MSN.com is now offering high-quality 700Kbps and 300Kbps streaming video, with content from the Discovery Channel and TLC, NBC News, and a huge selection of other content providers. And it's free. The service isn't just free for MSN Dial-up, MSN Plus, or MSN Premium customers--it's free for everyone. That statement is pretty powerful in this era of subscription-only video offerings on other sites, but MSN Group Product Manager Lisa Gurry told me that Microsoft's Drizzle technology (which Automatic Updates also uses) and the luxury of having a popular site that draws so much advertising makes this offering a no-brainer. Check it out, and see for yourself.

Microsoft: WMA Is Kicking Butt

And speaking of streaming video, Microsoft announced at CES that its WMA format is now supported on more than 500 devices, including portable music players, DVD players, personal video recorders, and amplifiers. Furthermore, the company notes, the installed base of portable media players that support Microsoft's Digital Rights Management (DRM) platform now numbers more than 4 million--more than twice the number of iPods, which use a competing DRM scheme.

Smart Watches Ship

As promised, Fossil shipped its new Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) watches during CES at two stores in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Keith and I picked up two of them to check out the new features. Our opinion is that the watches are cool, not as big as we had feared, and appear to work well. We'll have more information about the SPOT watches after we've had a chance to really see how they work, but our initial reaction is overwhelmingly positive, with one notable exception: How could Fossil ship these watches without the much-needed (and much-touted) vibration-alert feature?

WMV HD Goes Hollywood with 16 New DVDs

After a successful trial with the Extreme Edition DVD of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" last year, various Hollywood moviemakers are releasing 16 new DVDs in the coming days that will contain special second disks with 1080p Windows Media High Definition Video (WMV HD) versions of the films, offering users an unparalleled video experience. The WMV HD versions of the films, which will ship from companies such as Artisan, IMAX, and National Geographic, will feature 5.1-channel surround sound and require a 2.4GHz (or faster) XP-based PC running Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 Series. The first film, the gorgeous "Coral Reef Adventure," is available now. For more information about WMV HD, check out the Microsoft Web site.

Jobs's Disappointing Macworld Keynote Address Makes Even Gates Look Good

Lost amid all the hubbub of CES was the start of Macworld Conference & Expo, which opened Tuesday with an unexciting Steve Jobs keynote. Jobs usually kills at these events, delivering a slew of exciting products to a friendly crowd eager to lap up whatever he has to offer. But even the most crazed Apple fan has to admit that this Macworld conference was the lamest since Jobs returned to the company, with few exciting new products. The new iPod minis are cute but predictable--and vastly overpriced. Garage Band, a music-mixing application, targets the smallest possible market. The new iLife application, although interesting, isn't shipping yet and won't be free. Apple didn't present any faster Power Mac G5s, cheaper PowerBooks or iPods, or Apple-branded office-productivity tools, as many rumor sites had hoped. All in all, Macworld was a rather boring affair.

CES 2004 Photo Gallery

Here are our pictures from the show!

Bill Gates CES 2004 keynote address

Gates takes the stage after the friendliest introduction possible. Geesh.
Microsoft's CES message: Seamless computing.
Just some of the consumer electronics devices Microsoft is now promoting.
Keynote spoof video: Gates and friends try network-attached toaster.
Keynote spoof video: It works!
Keynote spoof video: Great moments at work.
Keynote spoof video: Spinning a Tablet PC like a football.
Keynote spoof video: Gates does an end zone dance.
Launching today: MSN 9 Premium.
Yusuf Mehdi discusses MSN 9 with Gates.
Mehdi demonstrates new MSN 9 features.
MSN 9 Premium exclusive feature: Pop-up ad blocking preview.
MSN 9 feature: Email photo sharing via the Web with downloading capabilities.
Jay Leno.
MSN Direct-powered Smart Watches, launching today.
Close-up of a Smart Watch display.
Just some of the Windows Powered mobile devices available today.
Portable Media Centers.
Windows Media Center Extender: Taking the Media Center experience into any room in the home.
A Media Center Extender device connects to a Media Center PC over a network.
Some of the companies making Media Center Extender devices.
A cool Microsoft Research project that clusters digital media files.
Another view of the same digital media data.

Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Convention Center

The now-familiar LVCC.
LVCC, looking toward the South Hall. This entire place was packed.
Crowds in front of the LVCC Central Hall.
The famous "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign.
Dusk over Las Vegas, view from our Aladdin hotel room.
Cool Netscape minis prowling the LVCC parking lot.

CES 2004 show floor

New Compaq notebook with the 2004 lineup style.
OQO portable PC: Will it really happen this year?.
Paul tries the keyboard on the new OQO.
VOOM booth - HDTV service throughout the home.
VOOM multi-TV demonstration.
VOOM prototype slave set-top box.
Daewoo Electronics booth.
Samsung's Napster area.
Samsung promoting the world's largest plasma TV.
Kodak booth.
Neat and tiny Beatsounds portable MP3 players, in 128 MB and 256 MB varieties.
HP booth.
Real booth.
Belkin's awesome iPod accessories.
Dell booth.
Intel booth.
Microsoft booth: Digital media area.
Microsoft booth: Digital media area.
Microsoft booth: WMA-compatible portable devices.
Microsoft booth: Windows Embedded devices.
Microsoft booth: Digital photo frame (not a Microsoft product).
Texas Instruments pushes DLP displays.
Sony booth: Awesome looking Sony all-in-one PC.
Sony booth: Sony Media Center PC.
Sony booth: Sony remote display.
Sony booth: Sony Network Walkman.
Sony booth: Sony Network Walkman with charging station.
Sony booth: Sony CLIE PEG-TG50 with integrated keyboard.
Sony booth: Sony Gigavault portable hard drive.
Reporter testing handwriting on Toshiba Tablet PC.
Artist works up caricatures on Toshiba Tablet PC.
Toshiba's tiny new hard drive.
Sharp's line of Aquos TVs.
Classic old Betamax unit.

Portable Media Centers

Microsoft briefing: Creative Portable Media Center.
Microsoft briefing: Creative Portable Media Center.
Microsoft briefing: Album art on the Portable Media Center.
Microsoft briefing: Horizontal navigation on the Portable Media Center.
Microsoft briefing: Creative Portable Media Center ports.
Microsoft briefing: Photo options.
Microsoft briefing: Creative Portable Media Center size compared to Paul's wallet.
Microsoft briefing: Creative Portable Media Center size compared to iPAQ PDA.
Samsung's awesome Portable Media Center.
Samsung Portable Media Center with stand.
Samsung Portable Media Center fits in Paul's shirt pocket.
iRiver Portable Media Center.
Three Portable Media Centers compared.

Media Center PCs and Media Center Extender devices

Microsoft briefing: HP Media Center Extender device prototype.
Microsoft briefing: Alienware Media Center Extender device prototype.
Microsoft briefing: Xbox Media Center Extender Kit running on Xbox prototype.
Microsoft briefing: Cool new Gateway Media Center PC.
Microsoft briefing: Gateway Media Center Extender device prototype.
Microsoft briefing: Samsung Media Center Extender device prototype.
Microsoft briefing: Media Center Extender device prototypes compared.
Microsoft briefing: Various WMA-compatible portable devices.
Microsoft briefing: Various Windows Media-compatible set-top boxes.

Paul at CES 2004

Paul meets the Energizer Bunny.
What now?
Seriously. What?
The world's biggest Smartphone (the battery life still stinks).
Waiting in line to get a fix at Starbucks.
Paul checking his schedule on the iPAQ.
I just want to tweak your little Mac-loving cheek.

CES 2004 booth babes

CES boasts a massive automotive section that is otherwise uninteresting.
Fun with spinning plates.
Paul meets the girls at Rivet and agrees to do free advertising...
... for obvious reasons.
Bikini model in the Central Hall.
More bikini models, signing autographs.
Panasonic booth.
Yikes.
It's better with the butterfly.