Bill Gates Kicks Off CES

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).

There's also some showmanship, within the bounds of Gates's somewhat stiff public persona. (One on one and in small groups he's much more charismatic.) Toward the beginning there's an elaborately concocted comic video, often a parody of some current cultural phenomenon and typically including some celebrity whose slickness contrasts with Gates's geeky personality. And you can expect a surprise in-person celebrity appearance onstage to close things out. (Guests in past years have included Conan O'Brien and the Rock.)

This year's keynote, held in a giant ballroom at the Venetian hotel, closely followed the pattern. Though Gates needs no introduction, he got one anyway, from Consumer Electronics Association head Gary Shapiro. Then he strolled out wearing a Gatesian outfit: a sweater (in a weird shade of lavender) and dress pants. This year, though, the huge screens behind him didn't display typical PowerPoint slides but showed larger photographic backdrops that made it seem as if he were acting against a blue screen.

This year's big theme was that a "New Digital Decade" was at hand—even though there was no clear thematic demarcation between that and the supposedly just completed first digital decade. The three things that defined this era, he said, were high-definition, connected services, and natural interfaces, such as touch and voice recognition. All of those things, of course, have been in progress for some time (Gates has been raving about voice recognition for at least 20 years). In any case, the conceit gave him a reason to bring out a couple of Microsoft functionaries to perform this year's demos, most of them of previously announced products, such as the Synch technology in Ford cars, multiple calendars on Windows Live, and features on the revamped Zune audio player. The most interesting piece of news was the announcement that NBC had chosen MSN as its partner for Internet video of the 2008 Olympics, with a plan to allow viewers to stream every single event.

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.