Geek chic on display at Vegas confab

As the Consumer Electronics Show opens today in Las Vegas, Sony and Microsoft are offering their own visions of the future of entertainment with themselves at the center.

In a keynote speech this morning, Sony CEO Howard Stringer is expected to lay out plans for a revamped version of the Connect online media service that would enable downloads of movies, music and books to digital devices including Sony’s own PSP and, potentially, its soon-to-launch PlayStation 3.

Connect has thus far offered only music and has been a bust, barely registering against competitors like iTunes and Napster. The Walkman digital music player has proved a blip on the radar against the iPod, but PSP, which plays videogames, movies and music, had a successful launch in 2005.

Rather than give up on Connect, however, Sony is looking to re-invigorate it as part of Stringer’s strategy to unify the conglom’s disparate divisions.

Though Sony isn’t disclosing details ahead of time on Stringer’s speech, several sources confirmed that Connect will be a key feature. By creating a fully featured online media service, Sony would finally have a way to “connect” its vast library of content from Sony Pictures, MGM, Sony BMG Music and its vidgame unit to its successful devices like the PSP and Playstation as well as televisions and computers.

Still unclear is whether Connect will initially have movies from other studios, though Sony would surely like to have them onboard.

Stringer will also undoubtedly focus on Blu-ray, the high-definition DVD format backed by the conglom, along with other efforts to create synergies between Sony content and electronics.Microsoft, meanwhile, is pushing HD DVD, the competitor to Blu-ray that has been losing ground among studios. After initially backing HD DVD only, Par and WB last fall said they are supporting both camps, joining Blu-ray backers Sony, Disney, MGM and Lionsgate. Universal is the sole studio backing HD DVD only.

But the tech giant is giving its preferred format an added boost. Late Wednesday night in his show-opening keynote, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates was to reveal an HD DVD drive that connects to the new Xbox 360 console. Set to go on sale later this year, the drive could make Xbox 360 users convert to HD DVD, particularly if it comes at a low price.

Microsoft is projecting it will sell about 5 million units of the 360, which debuted in November and quickly sold out its relatively small shipments, by June.

Sony launches the PS3, which will ship able to play Blu-ray discs, in mid-2006.

Gates was also expected to announce a partnership with DirecTV to enable digital transfer of video content throughout the home. DirecTV subscribers would be able to transfer shows recorded with a DVR onto PCs and portable devices using Microsoft software. In addition, they could take video from the Internet and watch it on a TV.

Microsoft founder was set to devote part of his keynote to Urge, the new digital music service on which his company is partnering with MTV. Microsoft’s own musicstore hasn’t made much of an impact, so it is putting its weight behind Urge, which launches soon and will be heavily promoted on MTV’s music networks and Internet properties as well as integrated into Microsoft’s Windows Media Player.

Biggest focus for Gates will undoubtedly be Vista, the update to company’s Windows operating system that launches in 2006. Digital media capabilities, from HD DVD playback to online music and video connections, as well as antipiracy features demanded by Hollywood, are expected to be key parts of Vista.

Also debuting at CES today is a new set-top box that downloads and plays movies from the Internet. Akimbo, which provides Internet content for TVs and has thus far focused on niche content , is partnering with Movielink, the Internet video-on-demand company, to put its offerings on TV.

Users of the new box will be able to rent films from Movielink, which offers content from every major studio. Cable companies are already starting to offer movies on-demand, but Movielink has a much bigger library thanks to the huge bandwidth of the Internet.

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