Musings of a Mac user at a Bill Gates keynote

Allow me to begin by disclosing that I have seen Apple CEO Steve Jobs address an audience upwards of a dozen times. By contrast, I have never before heard Microsoft chairman Bill Gates deliver a keynote. Having seen things from "the other side" at last yearis Consumer Electronics Show, when Intel CEO Paul Otellini delivered a keynote, I opted to do the same again this year and see what Mr. Gatesi vision of the future might be. Only this time, doing so meant forgoing another Jobsian product unveiling, as my duties at CES will keep me in Las Vegas until Tuesday evening.

Was it worth it? While I donit know anymore than anyone else what Apple has in store tomorrow?and it will be peculiar to not be hearing of these developments as they happen?I have to admit I feel better for having seen Mr. Gatesi keynote, if only in the way that taking the time to explore a third-world country will enrich your perspective of the world (not that Iim equating hearing a tech billionaire talk for two hours with the contrast in living conditions across our globe).

Bill Gates is the Steve Jobs of the PC world, make no doubt about it. True, he lacks the charisma and polish of Mr. Jobs, and sounds like the outright nerd that he is on stage with his slightly hunched posture, uncombed hair, and nasally voice as he utters PC lingo, but if the packed audience in the 4,000-capacity Palazzo Ballroom at The Venetian hotel was any indication (on the evening prior to the official start of CES, no less), everyone is still eager to hear what the man introduced as one of the worldis leading visionaries has to say.

Unlike Mr. Jobs, however, hardly anyone seems to actually respond to anything he touts. Applause from the crowd was generally eerily quiet and came at infrequent intervals, especially given the response that typically accompanies Mr. Jobsi keynotes, where Mac fans seemingly offer a roaring ovation when features like rotating photos in iPhoto are demonstrated (perhaps thatis an exaggeration, but just a little).

Ironically, the greatest response from the audience came when Microsoft group manager Justin Hutchison made a subtle jab at Apple. In demonstrating Vistais new back-up functionality, which basically works at a document-level and allows users to revert to previously saved versions by simply right-clicking the document, Mr. Hutchison declared, "Itis better than going back in time!"

Right.

Not that there arenit some nice features in Vista; Vistais Media Center is really showing signs of growing up, for example, with an interface that nearly matches Appleis Front Row, especially given how much more functionality it packs. A new component called Sports Lounge allows users to watch their preferred game on screen with two Media Center-generated tickers. At the top, instantly updated scores of all other games (or at least, games the watcher wants to track) are shown, while alerts are displayed at the bottom. The software can even track whatis going on in each game, so that if youire watching a hockey game and your favorite baseball player comes to the plate to the bat, an alert will notify you and allow you to switch to watch him swing away, and then revert back to the hockey game when his turn is over.

The high-end version of Vista, Vista Ultimate, will also pack a new feature called Ultimate Extras, new features that will be automatically downloaded by the operating as they are released. Two examples were demonstrated to the audience, including new functionality in Photo Gallery (iPhoto) that allows users to stitch two photos together with a single click, so you can merge the best elements of each photo together and achieve an optimal result (if one person is blinking in the the first photo, and another is blinking in the second, for example).

Itis both slick and impressive, and rather Apple-like. Another Ultimate Extra is full-motion desktops, essentially replacing desktop pictures with desktop videos. Why someone would want to put a video of their kids playing on their desktop escapes me (I imagine it would be terribly distracting and annoying, but Iim not a parent), but having a desktop picture of a waterfall turn into a moving waterfall isnit a bad touch.

Still, Microsoftis consideration of these features as "Extras" that only high-end customers will be able to tap into underscores the fundamental differences in product development between Apple and Microsoft. Mr. Gates was keen to tout Microsoftis penchant for focus groups in developing Vista and the new version of Office. Beta versions of Vista were distributed to more than 5 million users, Mr. Gates said, the collective feedback of which was gathered to make Vista the "best Windows release ever."

Apple, meanwhile, has previously sued those who have leaked betas out its operating system beyond the close circle of registered developers.

Similarly, in developing Officeis new user interface Microsoft observed more than 1 million sessions of customers working with Office in order to make sure that features customers want to use are where they would expect them to be. Itis hard to imagine Apple doing the same for any of its applications, yet Appleis interfaces are generally well received.

Returning to the "connections" theme of Mr. Gatesi keynote, iti apparent that not just connections between devices are key to Microsoftis future strategy, but rather that interoperability between the companyis more successful products will be used as a means to drive sales of its less successful ones. With Windows Vista, Xbox 360 owners will be able to plug their Xbox controller into their PC, not just to play games, but also to navigate around the world with Microsoft Live (Google Earth). Other expanded functionality for the Xbox controller can certainly be expected down the road.

Microsoft is also planning to integrate the 200 million PC gamers with the 10 million Xbox 360 customers with the release of Live on Windows later this year (Live will allow PC gamers to play against Xbox Live users). The company also touted Xbox Live, with its 5 million members, as the "largest social network on TV," and plans to expand the Xboxis role in the home.

At present, the Xbox Media Center Expander allows Windows Media Center PCs (thereis 30 million of them out there now) to broadcast their media to their television?no need for an iTV or similar device. In the future, the Xbox will likely be able to tap into a Zune owneris music collection automatically and wirelessly. Taking it a step further, sharing media with other Xbox owners or PC users will be similarly seamless.

Speaking of which, CES is all about Zune, at least on the outside (inside, plenty of companyis are showing products for dock-enabled iPods). Thereis advertisements for the device everywhere, and Mr. Gates was proud to declare that Zune is "already" the number two player in the market, and that they expect to be the segmentis leader in the future. Weill see. There was no mention of Apple during the keynote, and the word "iPod" was only uttered once (with parts of the audience seemingly aghast when it was), which occurred when Mark Fields, Fordis president of the Americas, explained the new Microsoft-Ford partnership.

That partnership will bring Microsoft technology to Ford vehicles exclusively (at least initially), in an effort to once again improve "connections" between devices. A dozen Ford cars will ship later this year with the feature, including the new Ford Edge and Ford Focus. The technology, dubbed Sync, allows a user to easily pair the devices they own with their car while making the experience as safe as possible.

If youire talking on your Bluetooth phone when you enter your vehicle, for example, the software will automatically transfer your call to the caris speaker system, no button pushing needed. Text messages and emails sent to your devices can be read aloud to you thanks to a new speech reading technology that can even correctly interpret SMS short-hand. Connecting your audio devices, like a Zune, will also be seamless. It was at that moment that Mr. Fields also added "iPods" would be supported, likely sensing the fact that many in the audience were probably wondering if Ford had made yet another blunder by excluding the most popular media device.

The only announcement to truly impress me from Microsoft involves the new Windows Home Server, developed jointly by Microsoft and HP. The tower makes it a cinch for home users to deploy a server in their house, and packs plenty of functionality. The Server can be configured to automatically back up all devices connected in a house, from laptops, desktops, Zunes, or Windows Mobile devices.

It can also automatically collate all the media on each of these devices and make it available to all others, or make it available to you remotely while youire traveling. Storage can be increased simply by adding another hard drive module?the Windows Home Server software will automatically detect it, add it to the RAID 5 array, and move the data stored on the other drives in such a way to optimize the data for delivery and backup without any input from the user.

The audience was impressed by this new product, but not in the way a Macworld crowd would be if it came from Apple. Do Mac and Windows users simply have different expectations, or are Windows users simply wise to the fact that few products from Microsoft work as well as the company likes to believe they do?

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