Bill Gates' Final CES Rings In The Next Digital Decade

The retiring founder and chairman proudly announced a slew of digital content deals for Xbox and Silverlight and showed off Microsoft's vision for the future of technology.

J. Nicholas Hoover, Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

January 7, 2008

5 Min Read

Love the company or hate it, Microsoft knows how to attract a crowd.

Two hours before Bill Gates walked onstage in his trademark sweater for what is likely his last keynote as a full-time Microsoft employee, a security-cordoned line wound around corner after corner of the fifth floor of Las Vegas' Sands Expo. And that was only the press line.

Gates' soon-to-be diminished role doesn't mean he's about to stop predicting the future. During his address Sunday to a packed crowd of thousands, Gates lay to rest what he called the "first digital decade" and laid out his vision for the next decade. Gates predicted that the next ten years will be characterized by high-definition everywhere, constant connection to one another and the Internet, and the onset of more natural user interfaces like gestures and visual recognition.

"This is just the beginning," he said. "The trend here is clear. All media and entertainment will be software driven. The second digital decade will be more focused on connecting people. It will be more focused on being user-centric."

A Microsoft Research-developed visual recognition technology demonstrated during the keynote represents perhaps Microsoft's best example of this vision. The phone software, which Gates said would someday be included in Windows Mobile devices, recognizes people, for example telling Gates that his co-star on stage, Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, owed Gates $20. Pointing the device at a theater in Las Vegas allowed Gates to buy a ticket to a show, and the phone used a three-dimensional visualization to guide Gates toward a restaurant where he had reservations.

The keynote was punctuated by a star-studded, comedic look at future job prospects for Gates, with celebrities from Bono to Jon Stewart to Barack Obama turning down Gates' hopeless pursuit of being rock star, late night host and Vice President. Gates said that after he steps down from his full time job at Microsoft, he'll still stay on for some pet projects including educational and health-care technology.

Just because Gates' speech was reflective on the one hand and long on vision on the other doesn't mean the company was short on real announcements. Digital content stole the show, and the company's gaming division made what may turn out to be the most significant announcements. Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, announced that Xbox Live is becoming a movie and television content rental platform as well as a set-top IPTV box.

Movie studios like MGM will soon offer high definition movies on the gaming network. ABC and Disney will be making shows and specials available for download. "Xbox Live, when we're done integrating this content, will offer more than twice as much digital content as any cable or satellite provider," Bach said.

Additionally, cable providers, starting with British Telecom, will soon be able to use Xbox 360 as a set-top cable box. The company's gaming unit has had its fair share of problems recently, owning up to Xbox Live performance problems over the holidays and going as far as even offering Xbox Live users a free game last week due to poor performance. Microsoft's bet on HD-DVD with Xbox 360 also isn't turning out the way Microsoft had hoped, as Warner Brothers last week joined a growing list of studios who have eschewed HD-DVD in favor of the competing Blu-ray format.

Nonetheless, Microsoft rattled off some impressive Xbox statistics. Bach said Microsoft has sold more than 17.7 million Xbox 360 consoles and expects 10 million Xbox Live subscribers by this summer.

The Xbox wasn't the end of Microsoft's digital content announcements. Gates announced Microsoft will be NBC's exclusive online content partner for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and the two will be offering 3,000 hours of live and on-demand content at at MSN later this year with Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in. Microsoft has a long way to go to compete with Adobe Flash for multimedia content online, but deals like this will bring Silverlight to a significant number of computers.

Additionally, Microsoft's IPTV software, Mediaroom, now in more than a million homes, will also get its fair share of new content from cable networks Showtime and Turner Broadcasting, including boxing and NASCAR. Microsoft announced that it was developing an application to allow NASCAR viewers to pick their camera angle and create their own view of the race.

Microsoft also announced a number of new and extended hardware partnerships, saying that Samsung and Hewlett-Packard are pushing further into the digital living room by offering Windows Media Center Extenders.

Though it's only been out for about a year, Microsoft expects its Sync automotive software to be on the road in almost one million new Ford vehicles in 2009. Microsoft unveiled a new upgrade to Sync, 911 Assist, which will make emergency calls for drivers in the case of an accident or medical emergency.

Microsoft didn't exactly show off the next version of Windows Mobile during its CES keynote presentation, but Bach did announce some new technology from Tellme, a recent Microsoft acquisition. Tellme's voice recognition software today offers services like free voice activated directory assistance, but it will soon offer a new voice recognition service called "see and say" that guides users through purchases and content sharing, such as finding, buying and sharing a movie ticket and time with someone.

Of course, no Microsoft keynote goes without its laundry list of statistics to show off the company's "momentum." Microsoft announced that it has now sold more than 100 million licenses for Windows Vista. You didn't expect Gates to go off into the sunset without mentioning Windows, did you?

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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