International CES - Convergence Hits Home

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates was giving the keynote address at CES on Monday evening, January 7, when he suddenly realized (or so he said) that he'd neglected to instruct his personal video recorder to save the Monday Night Football broadcast then in progress. No problem. Using a computer set up onstage, he simply logged onto a new UltimateTV Web site -- available from any Internet connection in the world -- and called up a program guide that duplicated the one for the DirecTV satellite service. He highlighted the game and clicked record. Within seconds the command was downlinked to the UltimateTV receiver in his home, and it began recording the program. The audience applauded. Such is the power of convergence.

While ReplayTV already lets you control its hard-disk recorders by logging onto, the record instruction isn't retrieved by the set-top box until it performs its daily guide download, which could be as late as the next day. The instant record-from-anywhere feature Gates demonstrated will be available to UltimateTV subscribers beginning in April.

Gates used the keynote to introduce two prototypes in Microsoft's "eHome" initiative. One, using technologies code-named "Mira" and based on CE.Net, a Windows operating system optimized for Internet use, was demonstrated by an LCD-based tablet PC. Also called a media pad or a "thin client," it has a WiFi (wireless home networking) connection so you can carry it around the house and use it on your lap. In a video clip shown during the presentation, a man has to choose between a folded newspaper and a media pad with an active Internet connection to a new site. He grabs the media pad and takes it with him into the bathroom. (Sony's A/V Gateway tablet has similar capabilities.)

Hilda Guttormsen of Microsoft happily shows off her Freestyle remote control at CES.

The other eHome technology, "Freestyle" (not to be confused with drawing software introduced by Aldus in the 1980s), is a remote-control interface for PCs based on the new Windows XP. Using it you'd be able, say, to operate a music or movie player on your computer from anywhere in the room. Several peripheral makers already offer infrared controllers with similar capabilities, but none has the marketing clout of Microsoft.