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Gates: Media Center Is Due For 2004

LAS VEGAS — Microsoft founder Bill Gates took the Media Center operating system to a new level when he announced during his pre-show keynote that portable A/V products featuring Windows Media Center will ship later this year, along with versions of the Xbox for new set-top boxes.Gates told the crowd of 1,400 that packed the Hilton Theater on the eve of the show that the new Media Center products will allow people to take their content not only outside the home, but to any corner of their house through the use of the Windows Media Extender Technology. This will be found in set-top boxes to be made by Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, Dell, Samsung and Alienware. These set-top boxes will be located near televisions and A/V systems, then networked, with or without wires, to a home’s Media Center PC. The PC will act as the server delivering the content to the remote devices. Gates hopes these additions will make Microsoft as indispensable to the home entertainment industry as it has become to the computer world. His avenue for accomplishing this will be the Windows Media Connect specification. This will allow seamless interoperability between computing and A/V products, he said. The specification should be finalized this year.

The first portable Media Center products are expected during the summer. Gates demonstrated a portable device from Creative that will run Media Center, allowing it to download video and audio content from a Media Center PC for use on the go. Other hardware partners expected to release similar products are iRiver, ViewSonic, Sanyo and Samsung.

The Xbox Media Center Extender will give the game console the same powers as the dedicated Media Center set-top boxes. Gates did not mention pricing or when these would hit retail.

A new version of the Media Center operating system will launch to coincide with the availability of these devices.

Microsoft’s other news included the official launch of MSN Premium, the broadband version of the ISP, and Gates said the SPOT watches introduced at the 2003 CES are now available at retail.

“Tonight Show” host Jay Leno helped Gates unveil MSN Premium through a short monologue that suggested that the head of Microsoft could afford to take advantage of the recent improvements in eyeglass technology and update his pair.

The SPOT watches, which were originally scheduled to ship last summer, are now available in several retailers, including CompUSA, Circuit City and Fry’s. The watches receive signals from FM stations containing news, sports, weather and other information.