Gates says farewell to CES

Times Staff Writer

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates on Sunday used his final keynote address at the tech industry’s top trade show to tout some of the same futuristic technologies he ballyhooed at his first more than a decade ago.

Gates, who plans to stop working full time at Microsoft this summer to focus on philanthropy, used his 11th International Consumer Electronics Show keynote here to predict that more Microsoft programs would come pre-installed in cars, more entertainment would be delivered via computer and personal computers would get easier to use.

Those ideas aren’t as outlandish as when Gates aired them during his first CES speech in 1994. At least the first two are demonstrably true.


But Gates also made his typical CES entry into more exotic territory, portraying a world in which commands spoken into a smart phone can find the closest showing of a movie and buy tickets to it. Look Ma, no hands.

Gates said the world had completed its first “digital decade,” one in which innovation had centered on the keyboard and the mouse.

“The second digital decade will be more focused on connecting people,” he said. He predicted it also would feature progress in training machines to react as people do, with “natural user interfaces” that respond to speech and touch.

Yet even some of the far-out felt familiar. Gates said intelligent mobile devices would serve as guides to everyday tasks, which is pretty much what he said in 2003. That’s when Gates previewed “smart personal objects technology,” or SPOT, which allowed watches to suck personalized news out of the air. It was a commercial flop.

Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, said in an interview Friday that the track record of the substance of Gates’ predictions was “quite good -- though you can quibble with the track record of the timing.”

“Microsoft does not give up on these things,” said Bach, who shared the stage with Gates on Sunday and is expected to take over the keynote slot in the years to come. “We’re very persistent.”

When Gates gave his first talk at CES, computers were in a minority of homes and were essentially isolated there because Web browsers hadn’t made the Internet an easy place to roam.

The intervening years saw Microsoft rise to become one of the most powerful companies on the planet. Although revenue and profit have continued to grow alongside computer sales and Microsoft is the third-largest U.S. company by stock market value, it has in the last few years lost the aura of invincibility.

Google Inc. and other more Internet-focused companies have stolen some of the spotlight and top engineering talent, while Gates’ successor as chief executive, Steve Ballmer, has labored to establish Microsoft as a powerhouse in areas beyond PC operating systems and office productivity software.

Gates and Bach used CES to boast of progress on that score, telling tens of thousands in attendance about a slew of deals with entertainment companies and others. Capping that was an agreement to provide NBC Universal with the technology to deliver dozens of simultaneous live Internet streams and 3,000 hours of free on-demand Web video from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Microsoft will steer visitors at its MSN Web portal to the action at and collect an undisclosed portion of advertising revenue at the NBC site. The potential traffic is enormous, with 30 times the amount of video that was available from the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, said NBC Sports Senior Vice President Perkins Miller.

Microsoft also announced deals for movies from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and shows from Walt Disney Co.'s TV networks, including ABC and Disney Channel, to distribute on its MSN and Xbox 360 video services.

As for the prediction of widespread, voice-activated software in cars, it evidently will be fulfilled next year. That’s when Ford Motor Co. said it would make Microsoft programs available standard or as an option in all Ford, Mercury and Lincoln vehicles.

Apple Inc. dominates sales of digital music. But digital video is still up for grabs, said analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

In what might be called the fight over the last hundredth of a mile -- the connection between the study and the living room -- an Apple product that relays computer video to the television screen has done poorly. Microsoft’s bestselling Xbox 360 gaming console can do that now, and Bach said Hewlett-Packard Co., Samsung Group and Sony Corp. would sell TVs this year that enabled access to content on PCs through an included Windows interface.

“That, to me, fundamentally changes the way things work,” Bach said. In the mid-'90s, Gates & Co. underestimated such hurdles as slow broadband adoption. Current hurdles include search technology that lags behind Google’s and the inability to provide video entertainment that moves easily from device to device.

Gates soon won’t have to worry as much about such matters. In July, the 52-year-old co-founder will become Microsoft’s part-time chairman and spend most of his time at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the charity that is distributing tens of billions of dollars of his wealth.

Acknowledging that the keynote would be his last, Gates said the transition to new leaders inside Microsoft was going smoothly and that he would keep working on special projects, such as adapting software to address world health concerns.

“Gates is leaving at the moment when the industry is becoming a lot muddier and more competitive,” Kay said. “Microsoft will never again be as dominant as it was during the 1990s.”

But Microsoft’s unmatched war chest will provide it with the ability to invest patiently until such technologies as those perennially unveiled at CES -- at least some of them -- enter the real world.