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CES Kicks Off With High-Def Debate

5 Jan, 2006 By: Kurt Indvik

LAS VEGAS — It's the decade of the “digital lifestyle.” It's the year of the “digital citizen.” It's the “HD era.”

These were just some of the pronouncements made during keynote presentations by Microsoft chief Bill Gates and Sony chairman Howard Stringer at the opening of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where an expected 120,000 were in attendance.

Both Gates and Stringer used the bully pulpit to showcase their respective products and strategies for the coming year — much of which is focused on entertainment and high-definition. Microsoft took the opportunity to hype its support of Toshiba's HD DVD, while Sony promoted its Blu-ray Disc.

The two next-generation, high-definition optical-disc camps staged their own CES presentations for press and consumers, highlighting content coming from supporting studios and the launch of players from supporting hardware manufacturers.

Gates, in his keynote Jan. 4, laid out Microsoft's vision of software that integrates a variety of consumer electronics devices for the user through a single interface. Microsoft isn't interested in creating software for devices as much as “software for the user,” Gates said.

The Windows Vista operating system was at the center of Gates' presentation. Due in the fall, Vista promises new content management interfaces, more robust search and Internet capabilities, and applications for entertainment and personal media that Gates showed off.

A new music digital download venture, Urge, was announced with MTV Networks, offering more than 2 million tracks, organized in about 100 genre or play lists. Justin Timberlake made a brief appearance to express his enthusiasm for the new service.

Calling 2006 the year of “the realization of the media center,” Gates announced five additional content services attached to its Media Center Edition 2005 and highlighted coming innovations in streaming live TV as well as more enhancements in portable media player integration services.

Of course, Xbox 360 was a highlight for Microsoft coming into CES. The company expects to have as many as 5.5 million consoles sold in the market by midyear, Gates said. High consumer demand for the player has caused product shortages, and Microsoft said it has added a third manufacturing partner to ramp up production.

Gates also announced that Microsoft will make an external HD DVD hard drive attachment for Xbox 360 to ship sometime this year, blunting some criticism against Microsoft for not incorporating the platform into its game console, as Sony has done with Blu-ray Disc and PlayStation 3, which is set to launch in the spring.

Meanwhile, in his Jan. 5 keynote, Stringer highlighted Sony's 2005 accomplishments and 2006 plans in “e-entertainment,” digital cinema, high definition and gaming.

If star-power is any indication of a keynote's success, then Sony won the game over Microsoft. Stringer shared the stage with Tom Hanks, the director-producer team of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and author Dan Brown. They joined the executive in promoting the upcoming May 19 release of The Da Vinci Code as a segue to highlighting Sony's advancements in digital projection and camera technology for theatrical films, and its new Sony Reader electronic book system. The Reader, due this spring, will store up to 100 titles on its internal hard drive. CBS's Greg Gumbel and Dell CEO Michael Dell made appearances to promote high-definition TV and Blu-ray Disc, respectively.

Stringer called Blu-ray “revolutionary” and emphasized the format's capacity, its support by the majority of Hollywood studios — representing 90 percent of catalog titles — as well as its backward compatibility with DVD and its support of legal copying of content to a user's PC hard drive or other portable devices. He said Sony's DADC replication facility will begin taking orders for Blu-ray Disc in February. Sony also announced a variety of Blu-ray Disc products at CES.

While Stringer showed off a tantalizing selection of high-definition games in development for PlayStation 3, no hard date was given for the console's launch. PS2, meanwhile, has shipped more than 100 million units worldwide and was the only game platform to enjoy sales growth this year, according to Stringer, with a 10.5 percent rise in sales.

Also highlighted was the PlayStation Portable's ability to port video accessed from a user's PC via a broadband connection and using Sony's LocationFree technology.

Other early news from CES included:

  • DTS announced its DTS-HD Master Audio technology for high-definition video discs, which will be supported by both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD. The company presented the technology with the help of such celebrities as actor-rapper Ice-T, composer Martyn Ware, musician Omar Hakim and music producer Nathaniel Kunkel during a presentation at CES.

  • Toshiba bowed three new models in its Gigabeat line of portable media players, with storage capacity of 30GB to 60GB. Using Microsoft's Portable Media Center, the devices will be able to play movies and other video and are $299 to $699.

  • During a panel discussion, it was revealed that MobiTV has struck a deal with Universal Music Group to use the publisher's more than 1,100 music videos for a new set of mobile music video channels to be delivered by MobiTV.

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