By Eric Auchard
Google Inc. said on Friday the company is expanding into two new fields with an online video store and a computer maintenance service, moves that mark stepped-up challenges to its biggest computer and media rivals, including Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo.
Google Co-founder and President Larry Page said the video marketplace would offer free programming, low-cost rentals and outright purchases of premium entertainment and sports shows ranging from episodes of Star Trek to every National Basketball Association league game online, for the first time ever.
Page also introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a plan to offer any user of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP-powered PCs basic software, security and Web features on both new and existing machines.
With the product, called Google Pack, the company is promising to help most users set up and maintain their machines in a matter of minutes rather than the hours that many computer users require to get going on a new PC.
"Google Pack is quite exciting," said Page during his keynote address at the show, "It's as easy as going to the Google home page."
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates used his own keynote speech here earlier this week to take the covers off many new consumer features of the next upgrade of the Windows desktop, known as Vista, due out later this year.
"This is a direct action to challenge Microsoft: Google is saying we can manage the browser and other elements of the computer desktop experience better than what you get now," Forrester media and Internet analyst Josh Bernoff said.
Specifically, Google said it will rent and sell television programs from CBS Corp. and the NBA. CBS plans to offer three current programs, including "Crime Scene Investigation," for rental a day after they originally air, priced at $1.99.
'STAR TREK' DOWNLOADS
Another 300 "classic" CBS shows such as "I Love Lucy," "The Brady Bunch" and "Star Trek" will be offered for download and outright ownership for the same $1.99 fee. Other partners include the historical video archive of Britain's ITN and selected Sony BMG videos. Time Warner is expected to eventually participate in the video store as part of a recently expanded search and advertising deal, Google CEO Eric Schmidt added.
The significance of the video store is that it marks one of the first moves by Google to begin charging users of its services beyond search-based advertising sales, which drives 99 percent of company revenues.
Executives said the company would not announce plans to enter the computer business, denying rumors that Google would launch at the show a machine costing as little as $100.
In its most overt slap at Microsoft, Google has named a set of preferred software, security and Web service providers that will be part of its recommended PC set-up.
Preferred software vendors include Symantec Corp., Adobe Systems Inc. and RealNetworks Inc.
Highlighting the potential greater scope of Google's plan, Page told reporters after this speech that Google considered including OpenOffice, a free suite of applications supported by Sun Microsystems Inc. that would compete directly with Microsoft's Office software suite. Instead, Google elected to keep the first package of software small, Page said.
Invoking parallels to a decade-old battle that pitted Microsoft versus Web browser pioneer Netscape Communications, Google plans to automatically install for customers who accept its offer the Mozilla/Firefox browser, a challenge to Microsoft's far more widely used Internet Explorer browser.
The most basic measure of the Google-Microsoft competition is the growing percentage of time computer users spend on Google products rather than Microsoft, Bernoff said.
Initially, Google offered only Web search. That has expanded to include desktop search, communications, video and an ever broader array of software offerings, he said.
A version of new Google video store for Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac line of computers is coming, Page said.
"We have a version of video for Mac that is not downloadable yet," Page said. "Hopefully that will come out soon."
Roughly four-fifths of U.S. households in a survey of consumer Internet trends released this week by brokerage SG Cowen use Microsoft Windows XP as their operating system software.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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