Attendees at Bill Gates keynote speech at the CES show in Las Vegas Wednesday night had to wait an hour and a half before he and Steve Ballmer paired up on stage in what's become something of a comedy tradition. The two squared off against each other—almost literally—as Ali and Frazier in Fight Night Round 3 on the Xbox 360, with Ballmer saying he'd been waiting 30 years for this chance. All bustle and hustle, Ballmer's Frazier, of course, lost the round to Gates' fleet-fisted and –footed Ali.
But the rest of the keynote, including a brief appearance by Justin Timberlake as part of the announcement of a partnership between MTV and Microsoft in a new music service, called Urge, had little less sizzle and pop. There was interesting but not jaw-dropping news, including some tidbits about the Vista operating system, all set in the context of this "decade of the digital lifestyle, a decade of the digital workstyle," as Gates called it. That is, a software-driven environment in which seamless connections among applications, services and devices through a single interface—guess which one—give the user a simple, personalized, inexpensive and immersive experience, whether they're using "two-foot or a ten-foot interface" (the PC or the TV). The realization of Windows Media Center's role in this environment will become increasingly clear in the year ahead, Gates promised.
"We see software really surprising people with what it can do," Gates said.
As proof, the company unveiled features that will appear in the new media player under the Vista operating system, including better digital music and media stack management and improved search capabilities; direct content delivery to Media Center PCs, portable devices and Xbox 360s through a partnership with DirectTV; "spotlight applications" in Media Center to give content providers, such as Comedy Central, a chance to form deeper relationship with their viewers over multiple content choices; the ability for groups of users to share their video-content preferences and for that information to be used to help prescribe content their buddies might like to watch; and the aforementioned deal with MTV for the Urge music service that is designed to be "deeply integrated" with the media player. Gates says Media Center had a "pretty unbelievable" year, with 6.5 million copies in use versus 1.5 million at this time last year.
Company executives also displayed other additions to Vista, including improved application switching, quick Web tab browsing, the Windows sidebar (consisting of customized actionable "gadgets" lining the right side of the screen), and the Windows side show, which gives users access to features, such as their calendars, over a small LCD that will be built into the sides of laptops. For the first time, the operating system also will include built-in parental controls that let adults restrict their kids' browsing time and the games they play. The company also says it will build other features, such as simple photo editing and the ability to display motion and still images side by side, into the OS to provide an immersive environment.