Through its push into non-PC devices such as handheld computers, phones and set-top boxes, Microsoft hopes to extend its domination of the desktop software space into other markets.
"In the broader scope of consumer electronics, there's still great things to come," Paul Maritz, Microsoft vice president of platforms and applications, told 2,000 developers. "We have tremendous growth ahead of us." To that end, the company is eyeing the car market with its proposed Auto PC. Microsoft said it has enlisted Intel's help to build a CE-based product that will let drivers check e-mail, retrieve addresses, listen to the radio and get navigation help - all while driving.
"Probably the next place we spend time, besides the home and office, is the car," said Mike Aymar, vice president of Microsoft's consumer products group. The motor car market is nearly triple the market for desktop PCs. Microsoft said it's signed up seven car companies for the voice-activated system, which fits into any car's stereo slot.
The company is also going after home users and vertical markets such as healthcare and finance with CE. US Medical monitoring company, Data Critical, demonstrated CE-based technology that notifies doctors when a patient's heart rate changes. Eventually the company envisions hooking heart monitors up to CE-powered screen phones, so a doctor can talk to a nurse and look at a heart-rate display from the same machine.
For the home market, Microsoft unveiled plans to license CE to Sony for use in set-top boxes and other machines that will let users retrieve information and entertainment programs through the same machine.
Such plans for CE put Microsoft in direct competition with companies such as Sun Microsystems , which is pushing Java as the technology to power low-cost information appliances. Developers at the CE conference said Microsoft's move will at least add momentum to the market, which has yet to produce a critical mass of products.
"They have the biggest programmer base already out there. It's good for the industry as a whole," said Chris Goodman of US chip designer, Chromatic Research. Steve Heynemand, an engineer at Montreal-based graphics card maker Matrox, agreed the move would spark more interest in non-PC products. "I think it could really change our daily lives," he said.
But others were a bit wary of some of the promised products, particularly the Auto PC. "If the interaction requires diverting your attention away from the road, what does that mean?" asked James Furey, a design engineer at video equipment manufacturer Inline.