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Hardly a Page turner

So there we have it. The speech from Larry Page, Google's co-founder, widely tipped to reveal something as dynamic and extraordinary as the $200 PC, ended up delivering something far more fundamental: charging consumers for accessing online content.

The reason that a company which launched its shares less than 18 months ago at $85 a piece and which is now to trading those stocks at approaching $600 is because it continues to launch new products and services. Page's speech late of Friday at the CES conference in Las Vegas continued that trend.

According to the speech, the company is expanding into two new fields with an online video store and a computer maintenance service, which if the latter were to work effectively, would surely be welcomed by every non-geek on the planet.

In his speech, Mr 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 NBA basketball game online, a most significant development in the delivery of sports content.

Considering the latest security alerts involving the ubiquitous Windows software of Google's rivals, Microsoft, Mr Page showed some commercial savvy when he also announced a plan to offer any user ofXP-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," Mr Page said, according to Reuters, during his keynote address at the show, "It's as easy as going to the Google home page."

Analysts saw the announcement as a direct challenge to Microsoft. "Google is saying we can manage the browser and other elements of the computer desktop experience better than what you get now," Josh Bernoff, a Forrester media and Internet analyst, said.

Specifically, Google said it will rent and sell television programmes from CBS and the NBA.

Some 300 "classic" CBS shows such as I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch and Star Trek will be offered for download and outright ownership for a $1.99 fee - about £1 a time. Other partners include ITN and Sony BMG. Time Warner is expected to eventually participate in the video store as part of a recently expanded search and advertising deal.

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 per cent of company revenues.

And while it continued to deny rumours of a link-up with Wal-Mart for a budget $200 PC in the US, which would be loaded with non-Microsoft software, 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, Adobe Systems and RealNetworks.

Highlighting the potential greater scope of Google's plan, Mr Page told reporters after this speech that Google considered including OpenOffice, a free suite of applications supported by Sun Microsystems, 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 against browser pioneer Netscape, Google plans to install for customers who accept its offer the Mozilla/Firefox browser, a challenge to Microsoft's far more widely used Internet Explorer browser.

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