Bill Gates has left the building. The Microsoft co-founder and chairman delivered his last keynote at the annual Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas, which was chock full of tecchie news, though somewhat different in content from his past addresses in that it was bereft of his PC-centric software announcements and instead focused on IT improvements in connectivity and the way people to interact with software by sound, touch and gesture.
This is my last keynote, Gates told a packed audience of tecchies and technocrats, some of whom had queued up for up to four hours to hear his last major speech at the event.
It was the eighth year in a row that the CES darling delivered the opening keynote for the high-tech extravaganza. It’s now be his last and another big step towards his full retirement from the IT industry. Last year Gates had announced his intention to wind down his day-to-day activities at Microsoft by this summer so he can focus on his philanthropic initiatives with wife Melinda.
Gates, underdressed as ever – he was decked out in geekish light purple sweater and matching checked shirt – didn’t talk much about this last day as Chief Software Architect at Microsoft, sometime this July. But he did have mixed feelings about his pending retirement: This will be first time since I was 17 that I haven’t had my full time job at Microsoft, he said pensively.
In his keynote Gates outlined his vision for the future of consumer IT and highlighted advances in areas like connectivity, user interface design and high-definition media formats, which he said will be the primary driving forces for the IT industry over the next decade.
The first digital decade has been a great success, he said. This is just the beginning. The second digital decade will be more focused on connecting people. It will be more user-centric.
The word everywhere figured greatly in Gates connected experience vision, which he said will see applications will run everywhere – not just on the PC desktops and corporate servers – and which will incorporate alternative inputs like voice and touch.
Also figuring into his vision was high-definition media and improved 3-D environments which he said would serve to enhance the Web experience for users. It will require high-quality video and audio. And every one of the devices will be connected.
Gates added: Organizing memories and files will be a necessity. Devices will know your content and location.
Gates also expects that new natural user interfaces, characterized by touch screen and voice command technologies, will start to pervade in more and more electronic devices, even, shockingly, plugging the new innovations introduced in longtime uber-rival’s Apple iPhone wireless device.
This is the area that people underestimate the most, he said of natural-user interface. But the reaction to these natural interfaces has been very strong.
Gates touted Microsoft’s Windows, unsurprisingly, as the key enabler for this everywhere and connected experience. He expects Microsoft to expand into more platforms and interfaces than ever before — including cars, Internet-based TV networks, gaming consoles and household living rooms.
Perhaps making up (or disguising) the lack of new product announcements, Gates chose to emphasize newly forged partnerships with companies as diverse as Ford motor company to television networks like NBC and ABC.
Gates highlighted how its Synch speech recognizing technology, which was introduced at CES 2007, will allow users to synch contacts from phones in automobiles and use voice commands to play music, should be in all 2009 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln vehicle models. Microsoft expects to sell 1 million cars with the Sync technology this year.
In addition to Synch, Microsoft plans to soon upgrade the voice-activated information searches available through its subsidiary Tellme. It also will augment the system underlying Surface, which is Microsoft’s computer in a table that responds to users’ touches and gestures. Gates touted Surface as a virtual concierge in hotels, but he believes it will soon be used in retail settings, for example, helping customer to customize products they want to buy.
Gates clearly believes that Xbox is Microsoft’s best ticket into consumer living rooms and is the reason why he gave the video gaming console so much early airtime in his keynote. He, along with side-kick Robbie Bach, who heads Microsoft’s entertainment division, also announced an expansion of the high-definition movies and TV shows that can be downloaded through the Xbox video game console’s online service.
Gates said that the company is working to make a library of TV programs from ABC, including popular shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives, available over its Xbox Live online gaming and entertainment network. Microsoft has also announced a similar content deal with movie studio MGM.
Gates also announced that British Telecom will be the first company to allow customers to use an Xbox 360 as a media extender with its Mediaroom IPTV software. Gates said that Mediaroom is now running on 1 million set-top boxes worldwide and that the company has also launched a new service called DVR Anywhere, allowing users to watch their recorded programs on multiple TVs in the home.
He also said the company is working with NBC to deliver online broadcast of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. The planned nbcolympics.com site will use Microsoft’s Silverlight video technology to power all the live and on-demand video.
On a lighter note the Gates, in self-deprecating fashion, also found time to air a farewell tribute video that showed how a multi-billionaire might fill his time after leaving Microsoft. Rib tickling sketches included Gates auditioning for a Steven Spielberg movie, pleading for a guitar spot on Bon’s U2 rock band and lobbying presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
It’s notable that Gates address didn’t feature many high-profile Microsoft product launches as in the past – like Windows Vista and Xbox. This could be calculated as Vista has had a lukewarm reception from users. Moreover Web-based applications are loosening Microsoft’s traditional stranglehold on desktop computing. It’s also no surprise that Gates identified Windows as the cornerstone of his connected vision. But that’s interesting because user interface design has never really been Microsoft’s strong point. Sure there are 100 million people using Vista (according to Gates at least). But how many of those are happy is another matter.
But these matters are perhaps too serious and mundane to discuss at a show like CES, which is really all about fun, excitement and looking to the future with a sense of wonder and awe. This was Gates’ chance to say goodbye to the industry on a positive and optimistic note. Few would begrudge him that opportunity.