NEWS - Monday, January 7, 2008

CES 2008: Bill Gates Keynote

Despite weeks of speculation about the possibility of major gaming announcements from Microsoft at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, company head Bill Gates and other senior executives delivered a low-key performance that included little related to gaming.

Rumours of a new Xbox 360 SKU to potentially contain HD-DVD playback, a 320GB hard drive and other wish-list features were laid to rest by Gates and the president of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, Robbie Bach, as sentimentality of Gates’ closing tenure as corporation boss, a slew of social networking products for Windows, Zune updates and Windows Mobile took precedent over gaming in a presentation that contained little solid detail about existing ranges and few announcements about new ones.

After a video showing how Gates’ last day at the office may look before he retires as Microsoft’s front man this year and focuses solely on his charity concerns – a piece of film including the likes of Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg and Bono – Gates told a packed auditorium that Windows Live now has 420 million users and that Windows Mobile is currently the handheld platform of choice for 20 million people.

A demonstration of ’new’ Windows features such as a calendar (reminiscent of Google’s web calendar), an event and social network tool (that seemed similar to Facebook) and an online video search system were followed by an announcement that Microsoft will be handling all the internet video coverage of this year’s Beijing Olympics.

It wasn’t until about 40 minutes into the presentation that Robbie Bach appeared on stage, although he didn’t have much to say that wasn’t already public news. He revealed that Xbox Live has now passed 10 million users, and reiterated the recent announcement that Xbox 360 has sold more than 17 million consoles worldwide.

With 2007’s launch of Vista, he said, Windows gaming has continued to "grow and be strong". Non-gaming entertainment – video, specifically – formed the bulk of the conference’s new 360 content, with announcements that Disney and ABC are to add TV programmes for download on Live Marketplace, and that MGM is to include movies.

The other major announcements for Xbox 360 concerned "Extender devices" from Samsung and HP, allowing Windows Media Center functionality without an Xbox 360, while HP is going to build Extender functionality into one of its new TVs.

On the media-convergence tip, Bach also confirmed that BT will be the first global telecom provider to allow subscribers to use Xbox 360 as a set-top box. No other details were offered.

"When you look at all this together, what we’ve done with Xbox and Xbox Live and what we’re doing with Media Center and Mediaroom [the company’s IPTV and multimedia platform] it’s abundantly clear that building great connected TV experiences is not a hobby for Microsoft. This is something that we take quite seriously and we think we can build a great business with great products for ourselves."

Bach went on to laud Microsoft’s gaming performance in the US with the claim that up to November 2007 Xbox 360 products had accounted for USD 3.5 billion of business.

"That’s a billion dollars more than Nintendo did on the Wii and 2 billion dollars more than Sony did on the PS3," said Bach. "And if you look at the spend on Xbox 360 games, it’s more than the spend on Wii and PS3 games combined. So our Xbox business is in a very, very good place."

There was no comparison given of sales in Europe and Japan, however.

The Consumer Electronics Show is taking place in Las Vegas and will continue until January 10.

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