Despite stepping down as the day to day head of Microsoft Bill Gates will still do the opening night keynote at the 2007 CES. At the same time Microsoft is set to spruik its new Vista OS.

Microsoft will use CES to try to turn up the buzz for the Jan. 30 retail launch of the Vista operating system, along with the 2007 Office System. But to gauge Windows Vista’s chances for success, keep a close eye on PC makers, to see what types of Vista-ready machines they’ll offer.

It will also be interesting to see how many new machines support new features like Windows SideShow.

Linksys Media Center ExtenderMedia Center Extenders: Apple’s upcoming set-top media-streaming box, code-named “iTV,” threatens to overshadow the existing Windows Media Center Extender devices from Microsoft’s hardware partners. (The Xbox 360 also doubles as a Media Center Extender.) Media Center Extenders do essentially the same thing as iTV will — streaming television, music and other media from a computer to a television set — but they haven’t really caught on among the masses. It wouldn’t be surprising see Microsoft and its hardware partners use Gates’ CES keynote (two days before Steve Jobs’ Macworld Expo keynote) to unveil some new Media Center Extenders to accompany Windows Vista. But can Microsoft overcome Apple’s marketing savvy and cool factor?

Windows Home Server: This one probably qualifies as an open secret at this point. Microsoft executive Bob Muglia has been talking for a while about a possible version of the next Windows Server designed especially for home users, for serving up media files and managing PCs on a home network. And last month, CRN’s Barbara Darrow, citing anonymous sources, reported that the company was looking to have it ready as early as April. Microsoft isn’t commenting.

PlayTable: In the past year, there have been two offhanded references to a Microsoft project of that name (warning: strong language in that last link). A few weeks ago, I looked into this and encountered some tell-tale signs that a product is in the works, but no concrete information about what it is. It’s not clear if PlayTable would have elements of Microsoft Research’s Surface Computing “PlayAnywhere” project, last year’s Bill Gates CES mobile phone demo, the tabletop game in the Microsoft Home of the Future, some combination thereof, or none of the above. I did find these concept sketches of a children’s digital “Microsoft Imagination Station PlayTable” by a designer who does work for Microsoft, but at least one is more than three years old. (The designer didn’t comment when I contacted him.) There’s a chance PlayTable could be discussed at CES, but that’s pure speculation on my part. Anonymous tips welcome.

Live Anywhere: This is Microsoft’s strategy to connect the Xbox Live online gaming system to Windows PCs and mobile phones. Announcing the initiative at the E3 video-game convention in May, Bill Gates made a point of saying that the underlying technology would be built into Windows Vista when the operating system was released. Since then, Microsoft hasn’t talked a lot about Live Anywhere. It will be interesting to see what happens at CES on this front.

Project Origami: Remember Microsoft’s Ultra-Mobile PC initiative? According to the team blog, “the Origami bees are busy at work with some killer new products.” CES would seem a logical place for Microsoft and hardware makers to show some new UMPCs, depending on their progress.

HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray: The war over next-generation DVD formats was the story of CES 2006, and it’s likely to persist through the upcoming show. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 peripheral solidified its position in the HD-DVD camp, while the release of Sony’s PlayStation 3 was a key step for Blu-ray, production problems notwithstanding. At the upcoming CES, industry watchers will no doubt be looking for signs that one side or the other is gaining momentum.

Zune: Once the holiday sales season is over, CES could provide a logical venue for Microsoft to get more specific about its plans for the Zune music player over the next year. Maybe we’ll hear more about the long-rumored program for compensating Zune users when people they share songs with end up buying the tracks. See John Paczkowski’s Nov. 29 post on Good Morning Silicon Valley.

Xbox 360: The Xbox team will have a presence at the show, and people in the video-game industry will be watching closely to get a sense for how the company will try to fend off the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii in the coming year.

 

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