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Fiorina, stars outline HP entertainment plans

By John K. Waters


A succession of surprise celebrity appearances and a spate of dramatic announcements kept Consumer Electronics Show (CES) attendees on the edges of their seats during Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina's keynote presentation late last week. Speaking before a packed Hilton Theater in Las Vegas, Fiorina unveiled a new digital music player, revealed an online music alliance with Apple Computer, and weighed in on the online music piracy debate.

Faced with flagging PC sales, computer industry heavyweights like HP, Intel and others are pushing aggressively into digital entertainment. Fiorina's presentation underscored her company's move into this market with products designed to provide customers with new and/or more efficient tools for managing their increasingly unwieldy collections of digital songs, videos and photos -- and to reduce the number of devices consumers need to do it. "We don't believe the revolution is a shoot-out in gadget land," Fiorina told her audience. "We are focused today on creating a new class of system that will enable you to do anything you want with your digital content from anywhere in the home. We are, in essence, building the data center for the consumer."

The heart of the Fiorina data center is HP's Digital Entertainment System, essentially a home media server, which is designed to serve as a central repository and access point for digital music, photos, videos and movies. The system includes a hub, digital displays, projectors, music players and handhelds, and involves partnerships with content companies. HP promises to ship the system sometime this fall. Fiorina also ticked off some upcoming product releases, including new 30-inch LCD and 42-inch plasma digital displays, due in June, and a new line of digital projectors. The company expects to begin supporting Microsoft's Media Center Extender technology (which Microsoft chairman Bill Gates announced at CES), and plans to add remote control functionality to its iPaq handheld computers. The beefed-up iPaqs could then also serve as access points for digital content.

"The digital revolution is about technology that is there for us when we want it to work and how we want it to work," Fiorina proclaimed. "And that reality is there now." The news that HP would be putting its name on music players based on Apple's iPod technology drew a few gasps from the crowd. The agreement calls for HP to begin shipping a branded music player this summer that even resembles Apple's portable MP3 player.

"I think everyone here would agree that Apple has done a great job with the iPod, iTunes software and iTunes Music Store," Fiorina said, pointing to Apple's impressive, though short, track record as a purveyor of digital music. The agreement, she said, represents recognition of that success, and a response to a large and growing demand for downloadable digital music. She cited internal HP research that found that more than 54% of current HP consumers download music to their PCs.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs made his own iPod announcement earlier in the week at the Macworld show in San Francisco, when he unveiled the new iPod Mini.

HP is also expected to ship its Pavilion, Media Center, and Compaq Presario lines of desktop and notebook computers with pre-installed versions of Apple's iTunes jukebox software, as well as an icon that links users with the iTunes online music store. "We think it's a good deal for everyone," Fiorina said, "for HP, for Apple and for consumers." On the issue of content piracy, Fiorina declared HP's intention to "take a stand for what's right" by implementing technologies in her company's products that protect content copyrights. "It's illegal and there are things we as a computing company can do to prevent it," Fiorina said.

Among those things, Fiorina said, is HP's intention to begin utilizing encryption technologies in its products.

Fiorina gave Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine a substantial turn at the mike during this portion of her presentation. Iovine lauded HP for its stand against piracy, blasted those who copy and share music without paying for it -- some of whom his company is suing -- and predicted major support from his industry for consumer electronics companies that take steps to protect the rights of recording artists. Iovine then called to the stage U2 guitarist The Edge, rocker Sheryl Crow, country singer Toby Keith, hip-hop music legend Dr. Dre and others who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Fiorina -- literally and figuratively -- to admonish consumer electronics companies to make products that protect the rights of content owners.

That striking display was followed by a live, two-song concert appearance by singer Alicia Keys, who also expressed her support of HP's efforts. And that was followed by an appearance by actor Ben Affleck, and his partner in Project Greenlight, Chris Moore. (Matt Damon is also a partner, but could not attend the keynote.) Project Greenlight is something of a talent search for movie projects, which are then funded and guided to completion. HP is a sponsor of the latest search, and Affleck lauded Fiorina for her company's participation in the project and its stance on content owner rights.

Early in her presentation, Fiorina set a light tone with a video clip featuring Carson Kressley from TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," who arrives to help an electronically challenged guy (played by "The Daily Show" correspondent Rob Corddry) with a technology makeover. The crowd loved the send-up of the popular show, which ended, of course, with Corddry's hodgepodge of home electronics gear and media integrated and organized with HP products.

For CES -- and even for Las Vegas -- it was a star-studded keynote.

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