The Annual Gates Speech at CES
LAS VEGAS-- For years Microsoft has been talking about all the advantages consumers can get from being connected--linking your computers, cellphones, TVs and digital cameras. This year the company is trying to make that connection more personal, driving technology to be smarter about who you are, what you want and where you're trying to go.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave his 12th and final keynote address here at the Venetian hotel in a packed, 3,500-seat ballroom, marking the end of what has become a staple of the Consumer Electronics Show. He is stepping down from his full-time responsibilities at the company to run his philanthropic foundation. Since his first speech in 1994, Gates has used the event as a launching pad for some of the company's most popular technologies, such as the Windows operating system and the Xbox 360 game console.
This year, he pushed the idea of connecting in context, or using "intelligent" data to get directions, meet friends and check calendars regardless of whether you're using a computer or mobile phone. Gates hopes to use new platforms to make the personal computer the center of home entertainment.
His biggest announcements were partnerships with major media companies that will enable Microsoft to deliver exclusive content to Web audiences, in part to help it better compete with dominant content distributors such as Apple's iTunes. Tonight Gates announced a deal with NBC Universal in which msn.com will host this summer's Olympic games from Beijing. Online viewers will have access to more than 3,600 hours of live coverage. Microsoft will also provide additional footage that viewers can watch on demand, using its free, ad-supported Silverlight program that lets Web sites handle more sophisticated graphics and video.
"Let us illustrate why TV is going to be very different," he said. "Events like this in broadcast form just aren't as great as this experience."
ABC, MGM Studios and Showtime have also agreed to provide content for Microsoft's Xbox Live service, which now has 10 million users, and msn.com. Turner Broadcasting's TNT and CNN have also partnered with Microsoft to let consumers customize their viewing experience. During a Nascar race, for example, viewers can choose camera views inside the race car or listen to a driver's conversation with his crew.
The announcements follow last month's news that Microsoft formed an alliance with media giant Viacom to share entertainment content and advertising revenue.
Throughout the speech, Gates touted the continued importance of software in delivering the type of entertainment and features consumers have come to enjoy on multiple screens, including personal computers, TV sets and wireless devices.
But his emphasis was less on the computer-based software that has been Microsoft's bread and butter. Instead he focused on "cloud-computing," or Internet- and wireless-based applications that, he said, will enable more mobility and sharing within social networks. Microsoft's dominance in desktop computing has been eroded by companies like Google introducing products that run over the Internet rather than a hard drive.
The company's most recent software release, the long-delayed Windows Vista operating system, met a lukewarm reception from consumers. Still, Gates said the operating system has sold more than 100 million licenses.
Robbie Bach, president of the company's entertainment and devices division, showcased new features for the Zune mp3 player, which he said "has become the clear alternative to the iPod.
He introduced Zune Social, a new platform now in beta version that "tracks everything you're doing , whether you're on your Zune or PC," by keeping tabs on users' favorite songs and bands.
Following Gates' theme of personal connectivity, Bach demonstrated an improved mobile search program with voice recognition software that allows you to say a command to your phone to look up, say, movie showtimes at a local theatre (which it locates by using GPS to recognize your location), and then letting you purchase tickets from your phone.
Then, a trailer for another movie may be delivered to your phone--a feature, Bach said, that will help Microsoft position itself to take advantage of the fledgling mobile advertising industry.
Gates said the company is working on visual recognition software that can recognize a landmark and remind you of its relevance to you. If you point your cellphone toward a coffee shop, for instance, it may be able to sync to your calendar and remind you that you are supposed to meet a friend there the next day.
The next "digital decade will be more focused on connecting people, on being more user centric," he said. "Those applications won't just run on the PC, but on the Internet, on the phone and in the car."
His final speech ended with a Guitar Hero 3 showdown between Gates and Bach. While Bach brought game champ Kelly Lyon on stage to show off her riffing skills, Gates unveiled on last CES surprise. Slash, of Velvet Revolver, came onstage with, well, a real guitar.
Gates, it seems, went out on top.
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