January 7, 2008

Not Just a Hobby

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Bill Gates, the famous founder of Microsoft, gave his last keynote address to the International Consumer Electronics Show last night in Las Vegas. Gates has now delivered 12 addresses in his many years at the helm of the software behemoth, so the event was marked by a great deal of reminiscing and retrospection.

Although the video montages were quite entertaining (perhaps even Oscar-worthy, considering the current strike-induced lack of quality programming) and while the event did give some fitting closure to Gates’ lengthy career, the real meat and potatoes of the Microsoft keynote were presented by Robbie Bach, the company’s president of entertainment and devices. Bach’s portion of the event stood out from the rest by providing some welcome, concrete and substantial plans for the here and now, as opposed to general, hand-waiving plans for the future, or inconsequential fluff that has little to no impact on daily life.

Microsoft has garnered something of a poor reputation in recent years amongst both the “technology elite” and regular consumers. 2007 was supposed to have marked a new era in the Windows world with the introduction of Vista. Instead, the operating system arrived not just late but severely lacking in many aspects, earning it a great deal of criticism. Were Vista’s deficiencies a sign of the monopolistic, status quo-loving cruft that has been growing on Microsoft’s bulwarks?

I didn’t see much in the keynote to convince me otherwise. However, as I mentioned, Robbie Bach’s presentation on Microsoft’s entertainment offerings were particularly interesting. Bach touched on many of the more “cool” things that Microsoft is doing, including Windows Media Center, the Zune portable music player, and Sync, the in-car entertainment system developed by Microsoft for the Ford Motor Company. Although these are some of the better things coming out of Redmond nowadays, none of them really pushed the envelope at all.

This changed, however when the show came to Xbox, Microsoft’s video game console. The two major announcements of the night came at this time, when Bach informed the audience that Xbox Live Marketplace’s video content would be getting a huge boost from MGM’s entire movie library and from ABC and Disney Channel’s television selection. In addition to the Xbox’s ability to stream media content from Windows PCs on the local network and its high definition-compatible video output, this enlarged media library makes the Xbox a serious contender in the living room.

Also interesting was that fact that Microsoft made no effort to avoid the 1,000-lb. gorilla in the room: Apple, Inc. The proprietor of the world-leading iTunes Music Store, Apple has been trying to push its way into online video distribution, with relatively little success, and some very public incidents along the way. The company introduced Apple TV last year, a set-top box that can sync and stream media content from iTunes on any Mac or Windows PC on the local network. However, due to iTunes’ limited video selections, and technical constraints on the box, Apple TV never really took off.

Microsoft took a clear shot at Apple TV, and potentially at Apple’s entire media strategy, last night. Describing online media, Bach said that this is “not just a hobby” for Microsoft, echoing Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ description of Apple TV as just that. As it stands right now, Microsoft clearly has the high ground. Xbox 360 is a far more functional device, and despite its larger form factor, it is a much more valuable addition to the living (or dorm) room than Apple TV is.

Although the gauntlet has been laid down, Apple may yet rise to the challenge next week at the Macworld Expo. Steve Jobs is going to be giving his own keynote, and he is expected to announce some heavy-duty improvements to iTunes and possibly Apple TV as well, in the form of much-desired video rentals from 20th Century Fox.

Two things are for certain: one, that it will be exciting to wait and see what will come out next week and through the rest of the year; and two, we’ll miss Bill Gates, if only for those videos. Maybe he actually will end up in acting after all; who knows?

Chris Barnes is the Sun’s Web Editor. He can be contacted at [email protected].