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Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer told the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that a beta version of the much-maligned Windows Vista's replacement will be available for download on Friday. ((Paul Sakuma/AP))

Las Vegas — Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer kicked off the annual Consumer Electronics Show on Wednesday night with an announcement that the widely reviled Windows Vista is at the end of its rope.

Microsoft will make the beta test version of its new Windows 7 operating system available to the public for download on Friday. The beta, which is available immediately to Microsoft's business partners, will be capped at 2.5 million downloads. The official launch is scheduled for 2010, although many industry analysts expect it will be sooner.

Windows 7 will replace Vista, which has been plagued by performance problems and annoyed many users with its constant alerts.

On the surface, the new operating system appeared similar to Vista in a demonstration during Microsoft's CES keynote address. Windows 7 does, however, boast some better navigation abilities, and promises easier home networking and should work more smoothly with touch screen computers.

Ballmer outlined several new partnerships, including a deal with Facebook that will see the social networking site share its users' news feeds with Windows Live. He also said Windows Live would come installed on Dell computers, while its search capability would be a standard feature on cellphones from U.S. provider Verizon.

'"We're all feeling it [the economic downturn], and its impact will likely be with us for some time. But the ability to change people's lives through technology has not diminished.'—Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

The company also announced the availability of a pair of new Halo games for the Xbox 360 — Halo Wars has a release date of Feb. 25 and Halo 3 ODST will ship later this year. A new feature that will let Xbox 360 owners create and share their own games will be released in March.

Ballmer hit many of the same notes in his speech as his predecessor Bill Gates did in his many CES keynotes. He opened with a joke, saying that Gates gave him lots of advice on his first CES speech, including a warning to avoid accidentally going to the "other" convention in Las Vegas, the Adult Entertainment Expo that always runs concurrently.

Ballmer also urged the technology industry to continue innovating during the economic crisis.

"We're all feeling it, and its impact will likely be with us for some time," he said. "But the ability to change people's lives through technology has not diminished."

Focus on TVs

Ballmer's speech closed out a day jam-packed with press conferences held by the biggest consumer electronics companies. For the most part, manufacturers touted the latest versions of their bread and butter, flat-panel television sets — which the Microsoft CEO said are finally starting to evolve after 60 years — with a number of trends emerging for 2009.

While in previous years the fight between TV makers has been over who could make the biggest screen and then the thinnest, the coming year may see a battle erupt over smaller screens.

The United States is shutting down over-the-air analog broadcasting and going all digital next month, to be followed by Canada in 2011, which means that consumers who own old CRT televisions will either have to buy a set-top box to make their set compatible or upgrade to a flat-screen LCD or plasma. Television sets connected to cable or satellite, however, will be unaffected.

While many households have already invested in a large flat-screen as their main television in the living room, smaller secondary sets in bedrooms or kitchens — often old-style CRT tube televisions — will need to be upgraded or replaced. That's a lucrative market for TV makers.

"This could spur an uptake in smaller screen sizes," said Mike Troetti, Sharp Electronics president of marketing, during his company's press conference on Wednesday.

Sharp said that while LCD sales in the United States alone are expected to fall 16 per cent to $64 billion US in 2009 from $76 billion last year because of the worsening economy, actual unit shipments are expected to grow by 10 per cent to reflect this trend.

TV makers are also going to be throwing new features at consumers in 2009 in the hopes that they'll continue buying LCD and plasma. Sharp, for one, will in January and February introduce a line of Aquos LCD televisions with built-in Blu-ray DVD players.

LG Electronics, for its part, will introduce televisions that can play movies in 3D, with all of the major film studios planning to release compatible content over the coming year.

Internet connectivity is also shaping up to be a major trend in 2009 as manufacturers race to sign deals with content providers. Samsung, LG and Toshiba all announced they are bringing Yahoo "widgets" to their televisions, which will allow viewers to check live stock prices, weather updates and sport scores.

Sharp is adding mapping technology from Navteq, which will allow viewers to see live traffic maps on their televisions, while LG is adding a direct connection to U.S. movie rental service Netflix.

One television trend that doesn't look like it will emerge in 2009 is the coming of Organic Light-Emitting Diode screens. Seen as the successor to LCD and plasma, OLED offers better resolution and power efficiency than current flat panels. Sony introduced an 11-inch OLED screen at last year's CES, but none of the major manufacturers have announced immediate plans for the technology.

Sharp chief executive officer Doug Koshima said OLED is not yet ready for prime time.

"LCD remains the best technology for consumers today and in the near future," he said.