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Bill Gates touts Xbox at its worldwide launch


NEW YORK (AP)_ Microsoft Corp. revved up its publicity machine to unveil its anticipated Xbox Thursday, whetting the public's appetite for the new device amid what may be the fiercest competition for the home video game market in years.

Within the confines of Toys R Us' flagship store in Times Square, company chairman Bill Gates touted the Xbox as a gameplayer's dream.

``We were going out and talking to the gamers about what they want,'' Gates said, to a roomful of buyers who waited in line _ some all night _ to be the first to get their hands on one of the 1,000 consoles shipped to the store, which doesn't officially open until Saturday.

Jimmy Keethe, a teen-ager from Clifford, N.J., said the Xbox is what he wants.

``It's got great graphics. You can actually see the football players sweat,'' he said, referring to ``NFL Fever 2002,'' which is one of 15 games available for the Xbox.

Gates said as many as 30 games will be available for the holiday season, but conceded the demand for the consoles may outpace the supply.

``Tonight we think we brought a lot of Xboxes here and tonight is probably the only night for a long, long time where everyone can get an Xbox,'' he said.

Microsoft expects to make and sell 1.5 million consoles by the end of the year, but Gates said ``we expect to be in pretty short supply'' because of consumer demand.

The $299 console, which is the only one with a built-in hard drive and a plug for high-speed Internet access, officially goes on sale Thursday morning at 10,000 retailers nationwide.

``They are definitely getting maximum exposure,'' said P.J. McNealy, senior analyst at Gartner G2.

As for Gates' appearance, McNealy noted, the company is ``trying to extract only the good qualities of Microsoft. This is the only Microsoft-ish move I've seen them make.'' In its advertising and packaging of Xbox, Microsoft has downplayed references to the company name in an effort to create a unique brand.

Xbox will be battling it out this holiday with Nintendo's $199 GameCube, which is due out in stores on Sunday. The hot entries, their near simultaneous launch a first for the $20 billion video game industry, enter a free-for all competition with the reigning leader Sony's Corp.'s year-old PlayStation2.

Still, the hysteria surrounding Xbox and GameCube will be more subdued than last year, McNealy said. Sony ended up halving its original PlayStation2 allotment, leaving many stores that had pre-sold to the original figures in a public relations nightmare. Most PlayStation2 fans went home angry _ and empty-handed on the launch date.

In a time of increased security in Manhattan, Microsoft is making sure it controls the crowds. The company has 5,000 consoles available for the store opening, but you won't be seeing lines form on the street until 9:30 p.m., according to Microsoft officials.

``I can't believe I got one,'' said Christian Santana, 19, who took the subway from Brooklyn early this afternoon to get a wristband, after hearing promotions about the midnight launch on radio. Santana, a hardcore gamer, said that last year he had to wait until January _ three months after the launch date _ to get his hands on PlayStation2.

Electronics Boutique is among a few other chains that are offering midnight launches. The chain is putting consoles on sale at midnight at its EBX store in Redmond, Wash., and San Francisco.

The company's San Francisco store will be open until 2 a.m. EST, and feature pizza and sodas for would-be Xbox buyers.

The store will remain open until the last units are sold, according to Electronics Boutique spokeswoman Liz O'Sullivan.

``It's a frenzy, it really is. Customers are really jazzed about this,'' she said.

In Columbus, Ohio, independent video game store Video Game & Music Exchange ordered 200 Xboxes, but was told they would receive none.

``I'm a bitter, bitter man,'' said store owner Chad Boyles.

Boyles had a list of about 200 people who had pre-ordered the system and he was informing them as calls came in that he would not have any systems available.

``At least PlayStation was more informative,'' Boyles said. ``Xbox is leaving everyone in the dark.''
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