Bill Gates says an uninspiring farewell to CES

By Chad Sapieha, Special to CBCNews.ca

LAS VEGAS - The almost impossibly long line for Bill Gates’ 11th and final Consumer Electronics Show keynote speech snaked around several lobbies, hallways, escalators, and floors in the Venetian Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas before feeding into a massive room that contained several thousand analysts, industry keeners, and members of the press. It was a queue worthy of a Radiohead concert, taking a good half-hour of shuffling to negotiate.

Was it worth the bother?

The entertainment portion of the evening was. Gates is stepping down from his position as head of Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, in July this year, and he had some fun with his final CES keynote. A self-deprecating teleplay featured some of the world’s biggest celebrities — including Bono, Steven Spielberg, George Clooney, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — fielding calls from the famously nasal computer nerd on his last day of work as he looked for a new hobby to occupy his time. It had many members of the audience laughing so hard they were gasping for breath.

The rest of the presentation? Not so much.

We saw Microsoft’s now famous tabletop computer and were shown how our mobile devices would soon understand our context and location whenever we hop online to search for information.

Gates elaborated on "simpler ways to interface," including touch, voice, and visual recognition.

He announced that Microsoft’s operating system Windows Vista had reached the 100 million users milestone, and that 420 million people now use Windows Live services such as Photo Gallery and Messenger.

We were told about Microsoft’s online television offering called Silverlight, how Samsung and Hewlett Packard are about to bring to market new Windows Media Center Extender technologies, and shown minor innovations made to the existing Ford SYNC voice-activated automobile software. And the Xbox 360 was hailed as the reigning champion of the console gaming scene (based on Microsoft’s claim that it raked in more money in software sales than Wii and PlayStation 3 games combined during the holiday shopping frenzy).

In other words, it was all old news.

Or at least most of it was. Gates’ colleague Robbie Bach announced that Canada would be the first market outside the U.S. to see a release of the Zune — Microsoft’s portable media player and online music service designed to compete with Apple’s ubiquitous iPod players — and that it would likely arrive sometime this spring. (Only 18 months after its U.S. launch. Still, better late than never.)

And not long after Bach’s spiel, Gates came back on stage carrying a chunky black box with a camera inside that had the ability to quickly identify people and buildings simply by focusing on them. (It also provides useful information about the subject it identifies — Bach apparently owes Gates $20 due to a holiday Guitar Hero wager). Gates said that we can expect to see this undeniably neat bit of functionality built into mobile phones in the near future.

Still, underwhelming seems an apt descriptor.

(Chad Sapieha is a Toronto-based freelance writer)