In an era when the vanguard of technology is creating smart devices for entertainment and communications, Bill Gates, the outgoing chairman of Microsoft, had little that was interesting or innovative to show off in his last annual keynote at CES in Las Vegas on Sunday.
The headline from the speech was a series of partnerships to bring some movies and television programming both to Xbox and to MSN. At best, this is more of the same. Xbox and MSN already offer video content. And the studios in the announcement — Disney, NBC Universal and MGM — already distribute their content digitally on other services. At best, this is a footnote completing a deal that was obvious. Apple, by contrast, regularly announces deals with Hollywood that offer new content and new terms for users (think 99-cent songs, and then music without copy protection.)
It's hard to remember a time when it seemed weird for Bill Gates to be speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show. But when he started doing keynotes in the early '90s, Microsoft was known as a software company, not a CES stalwart that made DVD players, TVs and car audio. Gates's taking center stage was then a sign that the PC was broadening its horizons into people's lifestyles, and Microsoft was positioning itself to lead the charge. Now, of course, after 11 appearances—eight on the eve of the show's formal opening—the Bill Gates keynote is a fixture here. Someone was quoted last week as saying that he's like the pope of the industry—which would make his regular Sunday-night presentation the benediction that blesses the orgy of commerce to follow. But this year's appearance marks an ending. Gates is leaving his full-time work at Microsoft this summer, and 2008 will be the last time he kicks off CES.
Not that I expected a weepy departure. Gates is unsentimental about stuff like this. For him a speech is all about the logistics of which Microsoft goodies to include, and the standard hope that the demos won't crash. This year's version was clearly in keeping with his tradition, a heaping helping of high-tech comfort food.
Over the years Gates keynotes have developed a reliable template. The speech is built around some overarching theme, usually some catch phrase that celebrates the wonderful things technology is going to do for us in the near future. In contrast to a Steve Jobs keynote, Gates's intent is not to unleash some unexpected new marvel on the world but to illustrate how Microsoft's direction in general is producing marvels. He does this by bringing on some of his employees to demo relatively new stuff. In recent years he has turned over a part of the talk to Robbie Bach, a Microsoft executive in charge of the parts of Microsoft that are most squarely in the consumer electronics realm (Xbox, Zune, video).
Amazingly, all the demos worked, so Gates will get to quit CES while he's ahead.
Gates did explicitly acknowledge that this was the last time he'd be keynoting, and that served to introduce his video, one of the strongest yet. It was a mockumentary of his upcoming last day at Microsoft. The continuing joke was that Gates will have unlimited time to kill. After playing with "Star Wars" figures, bulking up with Matthew McConaughey as a personal trainer and honing his "Guitar Hero" skills, Gates decides to branch out into a new career. This allows for a cavalcade of celebrities trying to gracefully let Gates know that he couldn't cut it in their world. Bono has to tell him that he couldn't replace the Edge in U2. Jay-Z breaks the news to Gates that he isn't a rocker. Spielberg turns him down for the movies. And both Hillary and Obama nix him as a running mate. The audience, many of whom had waited in line as long as four hours for the keynote, loved it.
Next year, no lines. But maybe CES officials can convince him to do another video.