CES: Gates to Deliver His Final Vision

It’s all over after Sunday night. That’s when Bill Gates, Microsoft’s legendary chairman and chief visionary, gives his final keynote speech at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in glitzy Las Vegas.

However, don’t expect Gates to provide a lot of previously undisclosed information. Instead, since it’s his last appearance at the show, Gates is expected to highlight themes from past CES speeches and to prognosticate about the future.

Although declining to provide details due to non-disclosure agreements, several industry observers who have been pre-briefed said Gates’ audience shouldn’t plan on seeing many surprises during his final CES performance.

“For a number of years, Bill has been moving toward ’emeritus’ status, so this is his valedictory speech [about] where [consumer technology] has been and where it’s going,” said one analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“There’s not going to be any big news from Microsoft at the show,” said another analyst who had been pre-briefed about Gates’ speech. “Lots of momentum and some very minor feature additions to existing products, but no product or major partnership announcements as far as I know.”

Gates, they said, is expected to emphasize technologies such as Windows Home Server, which debuted at last year’s CES, and Windows Vista, which is set to receive its first major service pack update later this quarter.

He’ll likely also describe the continued momentum behind the Xbox 360 gaming console and the company’s Zune music players.

Familiar themes will include his evolving vision of the so-called “connected home,” which embraces those products and how they can be networked into a cohesive domestic information and entertainment experience.

Gates is also expected to talk up the company’s efforts to move its technologies and products into the automotive world, including momentum behind moves such as its Sync technology, which was introduced at last year’s CES and is currently shipping in several Ford Motor Company vehicles.

Sync provides voice-controlled access to Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones and Zune music players, among other features.

“You want the same kind of entertainment in the car, and the same things you have everywhere else,” Gates said in last year’s CES keynote. “But the car is special. If you want to deliver [functionality] to the driver, you have to think of incredibly simple commands.”

Gates will also likely talk up Microsoft’s burgeoning Windows Live services initiative – Microsoft’s version of software-as-services, which the company refers to as “software-plus-services.”

Toward the end of last year, Microsoft rolled out several new “Live” services and announced the pending arrival of several more. Those services include free e-mail, photo editing and sharing, events planning, calendaring functions and other consumer-oriented services, along with online storage “in the cloud.”

Not to be forgotten, Microsoft’s Silverlight cross-platform, cross-browser streaming media plug-in technology is also likely to receive a plug from Gates.

The company is hoping that Silverlight eventually displaces Adobe’s Flash. Microsoft first showed off Silverlight in April and began shipping a 1.0 version in summer.

Human interface technologies, another hot topic with Gates, are also probably on the menu. For instance, Microsoft may show further evolutions of its “Surface” computer — a multi-touch computing display built into a tabletop. Microsoft first debuted the offering in May.

Although aimed initially at commercial applications such as restaurants, hotels, and retail stores, the primary users of the Microsoft Surface are intended to be consumers.

Among rumored surprises that may or may not surface during the speech, the blogosphere has been rampant this week with talk of a new Xbox console — perhaps sporting a built-in HD-DVD drive — or new add-ons for existing models.

The event will also be the point at which Gates passes the CES baton to Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices division. Bach will share the stage with Gates during the keynote, Microsoft has said.

In July, Gates is scheduled to retire from full-time work for the company he co-founded 32 years ago to focus on the charity that he and his wife oversee — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

While Gates hasn’t sworn off future speaking engagements, he is not expected to continue his long-term role as technological figurehead for the tech giant either. That means no CES keynote from him in 2009.

Of course, the company does plan a few surprises to spice up Gates’ final CES appearance. According to Microsoft’s Web site, that will include special guests and a product announcement or two.

However, those are being kept under wraps for now.

“They’re going to try to have one big surprise,” agreed a third analyst, though he wouldn’t disclose what that might be.

While nobody seems to have been leaked any tidbits of who might be on that list, Gates and his wife did share Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” award in December 2005 with U2 lead singer, Bono. The three were celebrated for their philanthropic efforts.

Those not fortunate enough to be attending Gates’ final keynote in Las Vegas can access a live Webcast here.

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