Apparently Bill Gates isn't ready to let other companies build their own versions of the Xbox. That was one of the things I speculated last...
LAS VEGAS — Apparently Bill Gates isn’t ready to let other companies build their own versions of the Xbox.
That was one of the things I speculated last week that Gates would announce during his swan song keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show Sunday night, but it didn’t come to pass. When I asked a spokesman, I detected a smirk over the phone, and he said any big Xbox announcements are more likely to happen at a game conference in July.
Gates and Xbox boss Robbie Bach did talk up the Xbox, noting its strong sales in 2007 and announcing a new movie-download service, but there wasn’t much news about Microsoft’s hottest electronic consumer device.
It’s hard to second-guess the chess game they’re playing with Sony and Nintendo, but the lack of major Xbox news in the address felt like a missed opportunity.
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Maybe it says more about this year’s show. It’s become so big and far-reaching, featuring everyone from General Motors to obscure Chinese socket manufacturers, that it’s hard for even the most influential companies to make a splash.
This year’s show also seems to be more about iteration than revolution. What’s hot isn’t new technology for moving high-def digital content around the home, it’s products that finally are living up to the digital home promises made at CES in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Microsoft, meanwhile, opted to emphasize new services more than far-out gadgets.
There was a parade of flashy new Vista PCs, but the newest gizmo presented was the “mobile navigator,” a research project on technology that could add the ability to recognize locations and even people to next-generation phones. The devices could then automatically call up directions and other relevant information.
But the point of the gizmo wasn’t the hardware. It was to demonstrate the power of online services that may be available on a variety of Web-enabled devices.
Services are important, but what I want to see most at CES are gadgets. Here are a few I wish Gates had announced, all speculative:
• A handheld, wireless game and video player and messaging device with the Xbox brand — one that works as an extra controller with motion control. Its wireless connection and display also make a great two-way remote for the Xbox and Windows Media Center.
• More touch-screen home PCs that take advantage of the touch-interface capability of Windows Vista. Only a few ungainly desktops from Hewlett-Packard really take advantage of this transformative technology. Meanwhile, Apple’s moving into pole position with the iPhone and probably a touch-screen Mac one of these days.
Even Whirlpool’s getting traction here. Its standout at CES is a refrigerator sporting a touch-screen PC running home-management software from Cozi, a Seattle startup led by ex-Microsofties.
• A Windows Home Server for the home theater, with built-in Media Center software, HDMI output, high-def DVD playback and a two-way remote control. The server, which debuted last year, has great features for storing and sharing files, but it’s too expensive for the average home.
• A consumer version of the Surface tabletop computer that Microsoft is selling to commercial customers such as hotels and retailers.
How about a prototype vertical, wall-mounted Surface computer that would function as a television and home control center? It might be a few years before this sort of thing is feasible or affordable, but it’s one of the things I’m wishing for in the next “digital decade” that Gates talked about.
Otherwise the Surface could suffer the same fate as Microsoft’s Tablet PC software, which never captured the public’s fancy (like the iPhone) because it was pushed as a business system.
• An Xbox with a TV tuner and the ability to record TV, perhaps one built by a partner company such as Toshiba.
My early speculation was based on an October report from Australia, based on comments by a Toshiba executive.
It makes sense for Microsoft to share the platform with select partners, especially with the Xbox group under pressure to stay profitable. The number of people who want a game console is far smaller than the number who will buy digital video recorders with gaming capabilities.
CES seems like the logical place for such an announcement — that’s where Gates unveiled the Xbox in 2001.
At last year’s show, Gates and Bach announced plans to offer phone and cable companies a modified version that works as a set-top TV receiver.
I can hardly wait for CES 2009.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.