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Notes on Gates

By Yuki Noguchi
Thursday, January 6, 2005; 6:45 AM

Super-remote controls, Internet TV, Conan O'Brien and a surprise guest appearance by the Blue Screen of Death.

The point of the annual speech at CES by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was to drive home how the Internet, digital media, and new devices are all coming together to make the home into one big supercomputer/entertainment system (all powered by Microsoft, of course.) This year's presentation in an overpacked theater focused primarily on developing better remote controls bringing together digital TV, music, and photo galleries and allowing you to program your television or your home computer from afar.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is introduced by talk show host Conan O'Brien at the Consumer Electronics Show on Wednesday night. (Jeff Christensen - Reuters)

Although Gates's speech wasn't full of big introductions of new products this year, he did come up with a few things to wow the crowd. Among the biggest crowd-pleasers: an Internet television that runs on super high-speed lines, allowing you to switch channels without that customary two-second pause many HDTV watchers get today. The mostly male crowd sighed with longing for another feature on the same TV: a sports fan can watch one game and scroll through three other sports events at the same time, on the same screen. [SBC Communications's chief executive Edward Whitacre is expected to elaborate on that company's plans for such technology in a speech later today.]

A new version of TiVo that allows users to download television programs to their personal computers also elicited big, love-struck sighs from the packed audience. [I have gotten some reader queries about new TiVos, so I hope to check those out in person sometime in the next day or two.]

A highlight for some in the crowd was to watch the supremely confident Gates face the same technical glitches that frustrate the rest of us.

Not once, but twice during the show demos broke down, bringing the presentation to an awkward halt, and eliciting snickers from the audience. The first glitch kept a photo slide show from working -- the same way old slide projectors used to jam. Gates's cohost, late-night TV's Conan O'Brien managed to crack a few jokes about the malfunction. ("Who's in charge of Microsoft?" he demanded. "....Oh.")

The second glitch may have been worse. A staffer was on stage talking about the sweet features of a new Xbox race-car game. The game allows the user to customize his or her car by choosing from 150 types of bumpers. Without warning, the screen went deep blue. (Echos of Windows's classic Blue Screen of Death.) White lettering popped up saying, "Out of memory." Oops. More nervous laughter from the crowd. Someone sitting behind me pondered how many jobs at Microsoft will be lost as a result of this malfunction. Game over for the cool car.

Even with the snafus, Gates's presentation laid out the general themes I expect to encounter at CES in coming days: Digitized pictures, video, music, radio, television, movies, etc. that can be manipulated from the Internet, from your cell phone, from a car, from a personal computer. All, apparently, with a few run-of-the-mill bumps along the way.

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