Bill Gates' opening talk at CES generally sets the tone for many of the products that Microsoft and others will work toward delivering over the following years. In this year's talk about "smart living in the digital decade", Gates focused on the transition to a more digital world and on devices, connectivity and services for consumers. Many of the devices he talked about were not PCs or smart displays, but included things like watches, exercise bikes, sewing machines and magnets. Although this all sounds a bit "off the wall", we recall how a decade ago "information at your fingertips" sounded far out too -- and yet we all have it today.
Although no big fanfare surrounded it, we thought that the announcement of MSN8's being the first piece of software to receive the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" was an interesting symbol of where Gates wants to go. His target is clearly "the common person". Most devices are fair game -- in the case of the Bernina sewing machine, Win CE.NET for embedded devices is intended to enable a "global sewing circle" in which patterns and stitches can be shared and traded.
Focus on SPOT
Gates started by reminding us how Microsoft had delivered on his talk from last year, including concepts like Freestyle (now Media Center PC) and Mira (Smart Displays). He then introduced the idea of "projecting" information around and beyond the home. The idea is that nuggets of desired information are provided on consumer devices (not PCs). They show the user "collapsible information", which extracts the essence and provides what's relevant to the owner. A technology Microsoft calls SPOT, short for Smart Personal Object Technology, gives devices access to information. The intelligence, connectivity and applications that deliver the information are taking place behind the scenes.
These devices include a watch that tells more than time, and a refrigerator magnet which shows the weather, traffic and sports scores. Microsoft wants these watches to be fashion statments, not nerd toys, and has made the first deals with "in" companies like Fossil. The watches, to be available in 3Q03, will have a small display and the ability to receive short data messages which can identify where the user has traveled, the local time and weather forecast. The watches are based on technology from National Semiconductor which has combined low cost and small size with more capability than had been in the original IBM PC.
To keep things simple, you configure what will be displayed on your devices through a Website (or configuration can be done at the store where you buy the device). The devices get their information through the data broadcasting ability of FM radio stations, which Microsoft has leased to create a delivery network. Note that Microsoft is present in the watch (where SPOT technology will be licensed); the connectivity; and the service.
A potential sticking point of this vision is that the watch will require a subscription to a data service, which some sources said might cost from $5 to $12 a month (although it might be bundled in the price of higher-end watches). People are used to paying for Internet or telephone usage, but not for information on their watches. What information is compelling enough to want, need and pay for? The service pricing and how it gets paid seem to us to be a key issue in the success of this vision.
Gates also briefly showed a prototype of Media2Go, a portable media player (PMP) with a hard drive and color screen for listening to music or watching videos and looking at photos at a relatives house or in a plane or car. The units will be made by such companies as Samsung, iRiver, Sanyo and ViewSonic and should be available for the 2003 hoiday season. They can store copies of broadcast and cable television programs recorded by Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition as well as home movies and video downloaded from the Internet.
Media2Go is based on the next version of the Windows CE.NET operating system. Microsoft is working with Intel Corp., whose early work led to jointly delivering the first "Media2Go" hardware reference design based on Intel XScale technology.