Microsoft's Ballmer: Windows 7 is nearly final

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Microsoft Corp.'s next version of the Windows operating system is almost ready for prime time.

That's one message Chief Executive Steve Ballmer was delivering on the eve of the official opening of the International Consumer Electronics Show.

The world's largest software maker was also announcing deals to make its Live Search programs the default search engines on more personal computers and mobile phones. And it showed off a new version of its Ford Sync in-car technology that folds in the voice-operated directory service TellMe, which Microsoft bought in 2007.

For years, the opening keynote at CES belonged to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, whose status as industry pioneer justified the sweeping visions of the future he'd build into his speech. Gates passed the mantle on when he stepped down from day-to-day operations at Microsoft last summer, and Wednesday marked Ballmer's first time making the high-profile address.

Ballmer was due to announce that a nearly final "beta" test version of Windows 7 is ready for regular PC users to download and tinker with.

The new operating system - which could be available for purchase on PCs within a year - uses much of the same underlying technology as its predecessor, the much-maligned Vista. But Windows 7 aims to resolve many problems PC users had with Vista. For instance, Microsoft pledges to make it easier to install peripheral devices and to have the software pump out fewer annoying warnings and notifications.

Ballmer is hoping to boost the number of people using Microsoft's Live Search engine, which ranks well behind Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. in popularity, through a deal with PC maker Dell Inc. Dell will put a special Live Search browser toolbar and Windows Live programs, including Microsoft's instant-messaging application, on PCs that it sells. That deal replaces a relationship between Dell and Google.

Microsoft also has formed a partnership with Verizon Wireless that calls for the Live Search tools to be added to all Verizon cell phones in the U.S. that can access the Internet.

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