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Monday, December 31, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Visions of Gates' keynote swan song

Seattle Times staff columnist

The line may already be forming in Las Vegas for the big event Sunday, the last performance of the Bill Gates roadshow before his role as chief visionary ends.

The Microsoft chairman will continue making speeches and drawing crowds at conferences, capitals and campuses around the world.

But there's nothing like the rock-star treatment of his annual opening-night keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

By starting the show with talks on the future of consumer technology, Gates set the forward-looking tone of a bazaar where retailers learn what they'll sell in the coming years.

The speeches are more like Vegas shows than lectures, with elaborate sets, videos and celebrity appearances jazzing up the talk about gadgets and industry trends.

Usually only a few thousand of the 150,000 or so attendees get in, so there's always a huge line snaking through the lobby, grumbling as VIPs and industry leaders are led past the barricades and police to seats in front.

Gates will not return for the 2009 keynote, after he cuts back on Microsoft work this summer and dedicates more time to philanthropy.

A spokesman said he may continue to attend the show, however, and there's always a possibility he'll return for a keynote farther down the road.

"I think it's fair to say the manner in which Bill has appeared at CES the last few years is now going to change, but I don't know I'd go so far as to say this is his last," spokesman Lou Gellos said.

My guess is Gates will pass the megaphone to Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's consumer-focused Entertainment and Devices Division.

Gates has an open invitation to return, according to show organizer Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association.

"Bill Gates is so much a part of CES, I hope it's not his last time. I don't want to get teary on stage," Shapiro said.

Shapiro, who decides who gets the marquee slots, has given Gates carte blanche since the Microsoft co-founder stepped in to help CES establish itself as a technology bazaar back when it was vying for attention with the now-defunct Comdex conference.

But Gates is also invited "because he's the No. 1 person around the world who is a draw for the media, frankly," Shapiro said. "He fills the room; he always has something compelling to say.

"He's kind of like the pope of our industry. And as the pope, he always draws a crowd and people follow every word he says. You either go to heaven or you don't, if you have the Microsoft blessing," Shapiro said. "It's a good thing for the show; it's a good thing for the industry."

Gates' prominent role also reflects the blending of the computer and consumer-electronics industries since he began speaking there in 1995. Sunday's speech will be his 11th appearance and his ninth consecutive one.

It helps that Gates likes CES. He usually takes a spin around the show floor to see what's new before resuming meetings with retailers, manufacturers and reporters.

For those who won't be in Vegas or can't wait to hear the speech, here are guesses about what Gates may discuss in his last CES keynote as Microsoft's chief software architect. They also highlight some trends to watch for in 2008.

Getting touchy

Gates respects Apple's iPhone, judging from the way he's been mentioning it in recent speeches, but he'll probably use the keynote to remind everyone Microsoft has been working on touch-screen technologies forever.

Consumers will also see a flood of touch-controlled gadgets in 2008, many powered by Microsoft software.

Expect Gates to show off the "Surface" computing table that will start appearing in hotel lobbies, mobile-phone stores and restaurants. Its glass top serves as a display and control surface for a Vista PC inside.

At T-Mobile stores, consumers can tap and slide the display to learn more about phones and service plans.

We were supposed to have heard more about the device by now, but it seems like Microsoft is holding its thunder until CES. Not only is the table an impressive demonstration, it's also being pitched to retailers (the CES core audience) as an interactive, self-service kiosk.

Gates may also show off the latest generation of tablet PCs, including new models from Dell and Toshiba that can be controlled by touching the screen, in addition to the usual stylus input.

But the Microsoft camp's best response to the iPhone may be the Toshiba Portege G920. It's a Windows-powered smartphone with a slide-out keyboard and touch-screen display coming to market in 2008, according to bits of information on gadget Web sites and regulatory filings.

The G920 is really a handheld computer, a category Microsoft has pushed with its Ultra-Mobile PC platform.

Early ultra-mobile platforms are clunky but they'll get more svelte next year, especially as Intel rolls out smaller chips and new penny-size, multigigabyte memory chips.

Another example of progress on the ultra-mobile front that Gates may show is the ASUs R50, a handheld computer with GPS, a TV tuner, built-in Webcam and 3.5G wireless connectivity. It's already been named one of the best products coming to CES.

Going mobile

There are more telecom-focused shows later in the year, but I'll bet Gates will mention Windows Mobile software and maybe even details about new versions under development.

With phone sales lapping the PC market and new competition from Apple and Google's phone-software platform, Microsoft is pushing hard to show device makers the capabilities of Windows Mobile.

If Gates needs a prop, there's T-Mobile's new "Shadow" phone that shows how the software can be customized with the sort of ion-based interface the iPhone has popularized.

Another trend in phones is the bundling of multiple radios, so they can connect via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the latest cell networks.

Gates could show Windows Mobile's capability with new models from inmate-Mate, a Dubai company using the software to build touch-screen phones with Wi-Fi, 3.5G wireless, Bluetooth 2.0 and GPS with location-based services.

Home front

A bigger focus of CES is home entertainment, especially now that consumers are transitioning to high-definition video and looking for better solutions to play, manage and store their digital-media collections.

Gates will likely mention progress on Microsoft's effort to supply phone and cable companies with set-top box software.

To highlight Windows Vista, Gates will probably at least mention a new remote control from Ricavision that finally takes advantage of Vista's "Sideshow" software. The $349 "Vave" remote going on sale in early 2008 displays the Vista Media Center menu on a color display, so you can remotely select and play music and video stored on the PC.

Gates may also preview new Media Center software that's expected to go on sale in PCs by the next holiday season. It will refresh Vista premium editions for home users, giving retailers and hardware vendors a new selling point midway through the Vista cycle.

The Media Center update is likely to be a cornerstone of Microsoft's "connected home" strategy that has been pretty low-profile since Vista launched.

Hints of a new emphasis have been dropping recently, and Gates' CES speech is the logical place for its debut.

A few weeks ago Microsoft abruptly changed its "PlaysForSure" media-compatibility program, replacing it with a Certified for Windows Vista program that suggests it's trying to assert Vista's importance in the digital home.

Before that, in November, Media Center Program Manager Charlie Owen used his blog to solicit suggestions for improvements to Microsoft's digital home lineup.

Owen said he was heading up "an effort between the Media Center, Xbox and Zune teams to give you a set of resources which help you put our products together and begin to realize the 'Connected Home' dream."

For Microsoft, that dream is to have Windows systems be the central repository of digital media in the home.

Windows Media Center is one way to do this. Another is the new Windows Home Server file and media-storage and -distribution system that Gates may also highlight.

Stream it

Expect to hear a lot in 2008 about new technology for streaming content around the house.

Gadgets that do this have been shown for several years, but they're approaching mainstream now that speeds and quality are improving where they can handle video.

Microsoft's play here is software for "extender" devices, such as new models from Netgear and Linksys that pull media stored on a Windows system to televisions and stereos around the house.

Gates will probably highlight those and a new television from Hewlett-Packard that has extender technology built in, so it can stream content from a Media Center or home server wirelessly.

To Zune or not

There may be Zune talk, but this is a mixed bag for Microsoft. Although the digital-media players are the quintessential CES product — especially since they're at the vanguard with wireless features and a complementary social-networking service — the company isn't likely to let competitors know about its holiday 2008 plans.

Zune is also a touchy subject because it put Microsoft into competition with consumer-electronics companies it's courting on other fronts, especially big Asian companies such as Samsung that are trying to make a splash at CES with their own digital-media products.

Auto focus

Gates may also provide an update on partnerships with carmakers who are putting Microsoft software into their vehicles, giving them features such as voice control and phone synchronization.

Gates talked up a deal with Ford at last year's CES. Shapiro said that's partly why General Motors Chief Executive Rick Wagoner is presenting a keynote at the show Jan. 8.

Xboxing

With video games becoming one of the biggest forms of entertainment and a focal point of consumer electronics and the digital home, Gates will probably share the stage with Bach, the Microsoft executive in charge of the Xbox business.

They're likely to remind the retail crowd the Xbox 360 is holding its own, and the number of games sold per console is much higher than it is for Sony's PlayStation 3 or Nintendo's Wii.

Saving the best for last, Gates could end his CES run with a bang by making a blockbuster Xbox announcement.

I've speculated on my blog that Microsoft may be preparing to license the Xbox gaming platform to consumer-electronics companies.

In particular, Microsoft could work with Toshiba to develop a digital video recorder with a hard-drive, high-definition HD-DVD drive and Xbox gaming capabilities. They're already allied against Sony and other backers of the Blu-ray DVD format, and Toshiba could help Xbox finally penetrate the Japanese market.

Microsoft could also make a splash by announcing plans to give the Xbox 360 an internal HD-DVD drive, putting it on par with Sony's PlayStation 3 that has a built-in Blu-ray drive.

But then again, Gates may want to keep everyone in suspense about the next Xbox, in case he decides to return to CES after all.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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