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CES There are many out there who would characterize Bill Gates as coming from the wimp mould made so popular by the first President Bush. Such a description, however, is far off the mark as the Microsoft Chief proved today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Gates had the guts to face up to a gadget-hungry crowd and inform them that many of the services they once hoped to take for granted will now come wrapped in hefty service fees.

The man has no fear.

First up in a long list of announcements from Gates was a new premium version of MSN. For $99 per year, users can "get the most out of broadband" by subscribing to a secure, easy-to-use and media-friendly service. The $99 entitles MSN Premium users to spam filtering, pop-up blocking, McAfee's anti-virus and firewall products, a Money package and Encarta.

Gates seemed especially proud of the pop-up blocking tool.

"(This is) really important to make sure your time online is productive," he said during a keynote speech.

Gates must have been playing with one of the myriad other browsers out there to figure this out. IE is still unique among Internet browsing rectangles in that it fails to block annoying ads, and the plebs not willing to cough up $99 per year will continue to suffer in this world void of productivity.

To Microsoft's credit, however, both the regular and premium versions of MSN have been cleaned up a fair bit and, in our opinion, have a look and feel that surpasses similar services. Users can move around movie, calendar or weather modules with their mouse, and a host of data from various sources is pulled into a clear menu. Another top-notch addition is a tool for shrinking the size of software images being sent via e-mail. Gates turned 8MB of photos into a 138K package and then used Microsoft's photo software to display the images in an easy-to-view fashion up on a personal Web page.

Is all of this worth $99 per year when, as a Microsoft user you already own anti-virus software, probably not.

Something else that is not worth the digital heartbeat pumping out of its chunky frame is the new line of SPOT watches Gates also showed. For close to $10 a month or $60 a year, users can subscribe to another data updating service that will send weather info, news and stock quotes to their watch via an FM signal. This might be interesting if the watches weren't the size of an immature rat and didn't have to be recharged every two days.

But these, friends, are the low points and don't do justice to the digital prison Microsoft would like you to be a part of.

First up in Microsoft's content underworld is a new portable Media Center product made by Creative that gives users a large-screened device in a small package for viewing movies on the road. The kit will ship in the second half of this year and was demoed by Gates.

He also unveiled a host of new Windows Media Center components that link the operating system software to the TV. Sometime this year, consumers will be able to purchase a Windows Media Center Extender device from the likes of Dell, HP and Gateway. These tissue box sized products connect into a TV and help it link to a Media Center PC in the home via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Similarly, Media Center televisions will be coming to market that already have the Microsoft software built-in. And last, Xbox users can now purchase a DVD that loads the Media Center software onto their machine.

This all makes it much easier for a consumer to have a TV, for example, automatically go out and search for movies on a home network and then play them without too much fuss. Microsoft has done a nice job with these products, but the thought of an all Microsoft world running through the home is a bit much for one, simple reason.

"Music flexibility has phenomenally changed," Gates said.

Gates meant this in a good, optimistic way. He seemed to indicate that consumers have more choices than ever as to what devices they can play their music on and how. But if you think Microsoft and its buddies at companies such as Napster are opening up a great expanse of content freedom within your home, you're wrong.

Almost every product shown by Gates in the Media Center field relies on Microsoft controlling when, where and what you can play content that could once be distributed freely.

You can understand Microsoft wanting to use its might to put a version of Windows on every device possible, but this future comes with consequences. That Gates can so easily skip past the underpinnings of many of the products proves his inner-strength. ®

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