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LAS VEGAS—Bill Gates, the co-founder and current chairman of software powerhouse Microsoft, has given a keynote lecture at the Consumer Electronics Show for eight years in a row, or 11 times in total. For his final turn at the lectern, he chose to emphasize his vision of what he referred to as "the second digital decade."
"My first keynote was in 1994—a long time ago," Gates said in his introductory remarks. "Windows 95 just coming together, the Internet was just getting started ... and we [soon after] entered the start of what we called 'the first digital decade.'"
In a star-studded address, which included video appearances by the likes of Sen. Hillary Clinton, Jon Stewart, Jay-Z and Bob Costas—not to mention an in-the-flesh cameo by former Guns 'n Roses guitarist Slash—Gates, bedecked in a purple V-neck sweater, pink shirt and black slacks, laid out a vision for the future of computing.
Among the tenets of the next digital decade will be ubiquitous high-definition experiences, seamless connection of data streams between different devices (like cellphones, PCs and TVs), and a more natural user interface, allowing people to execute commands with touch and voice.
"People are very interested in a simpler way of navigating information; all of these things come together with the other elements to create very new experiences," Gates said. "[This type of capability] is something the software industry will build into the platform."
Like the Apple iPhone and Microsoft's TellMe service, a prime example of this natural user interface is Microsoft's new tabletop computer Surface. (Click here to see the personal demo that Gates gave to Scientific American.) The computer, halfway between a coffee table and the Pac-Man games found in pizza parlors of the 1980s, is made up of a high-end PC with five cameras that allows a translucent top or monitor to function as a touch screen.
While documenting some of Microsoft's experiences of the last year (according to Gates, its Windows Mobile property gained 10 million new users, and 100 million people are using the company's new operating system, Windows Vista) the underlying theme of the speech dealt with Gates's post-Microsoft future.
"This is my last keynote," Gates announced to the thousands of attendees assembled in a ballroom at the Venetian Hotel and Casino. "This will be the first time since I was 17 that I won't have my full-time Microsoft job."
In the summer of 2006 Microsoft announced that this coming July, Gates would transition out of his day-to-day duties at the software giant and assume a more hands-on role in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a $37.6-billion organization that is dedicated global public health. The Microsoft chairman's role will be split between two colleagues: Co-chief technical officer Ray Ozzie will assume the role of chief software architect, shepherding product design and technical architecture. Craig Mundie, the other chief technical officer, will become chief research and strategy officer, leading the incubation and development pipeline.
To commemorate Gates's move, the keynote included a video montage from many of the chairman's famous friends—most of them fending off Gates' attempts to horn in on their projects. Presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama and Clinton couldn't offer him a position as a running mate; Bono couldn't find a spot in U2 for Gates's middling Guitar Hero skills and Jon Stewart was nonplussed at the idea of having the Microsoft co-founder as a regular guest on The Daily Show, (Fans will remember that Gates' appearance there last year ended with the mogul exiting the stage before the end of the interview, when the show cut to a commercial.) There was also a humorous scene where Gates was bulking up with Hollywood hunk Matthew McConaughey, doing bench presses and other exercises.
"Am I ready to take my shirt off?" Gates asks at one point. "Not yet," responds McConaughey, setting off a roar of laughter among the legions of geeks.
There were many announcements, specifically from Microsoft's entertainment division. The company is teaming with NBC to broadcast the entirety of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In a video played during the speech, Bob Costas called the project "the most ambitious and comprehensive broadband video coverage of any event ever." All told, Microsoft will offer over 3,000 hours of video on the Olympics. "Events like this in broadcast format just aren't as satisfying," Gates added.
Microsoft also announced partnerships with ABC and Disney that will allow consumers to use the live functionality on their Xbox 360s to download episodes of shows like Desperate Housewives and Hannah Montana for play on their TVs. A similar collaboration with MGM will allow access to movies like Terminator, Silence of the Lambs and Legally Blonde. Finally, an alliance with TNT will allow viewers to customize their experience while watching NASCAR races, enabling them to follow their favorite drivers, just as joining up with cable news network CNN will add a new dimension to election coverage.
Other topics discussed were Zune Social, a MySpace-like network centered around Microsoft's digital music player, the Zune. According to the company, the newest version of Zune has done well and the device "is becoming a clear alternative to the iPod."
Toward the end of the presentation, Gates, accompanied by Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, demonstrated a technology of the future called software camera acquisition that would enable a user with a cell phone to identify people in the vicinity, alert them to reservations at a restaurant and see what's going on in other locations simply by pointing the device at a target. In addition, using the same gadget, Gates was able to browse through video, image and document histories of his past keynote addresses. Based on the size of the device Gates was holding—it looked more like a shoe box than a cell phone—this technology, fresh out of the lab, is far from being realized.
To end, Bach challenged Gates to a Guitar Hero–duel, only to bring out Kelly Law-One, a certified expert at the video game, who rattled off a perfect interpretation of the Guns 'n Roses hit "Welcome to the Jungle." But, never to be outdone, Gates had a ringer of his own, as Slash, the original Guns 'n Roses guitarist materialized on stage to play the riffs he himself had written.
With the chairman declared the winner amidst a curtain of fog, the Gates era, at least as a CES keynote speaker, came to a close—and the second digital decade began.