Gates Highlights Content in CES Sendoff

In his 11th and final keynote speech at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Association Sunday night, Bill Gates said the second “digital decade” is about natural user interfaces. For Microsoft, however, content is also very much a part of its future, as Gates pointed out.

For one, NBC will use MSN to deliver content online during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing this summer. Online viewers will have access to more than 3,000 hours of live and on-demand content, Microsoft said. The video will be powered by Microsoft’s Silverlight cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in technology.

Gates later made room onstage for Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices division – Gates’ heir apparent for future CES keynotes.

Bach announced a deal with Disney-ABC Television Group that, starting later this month, will enable Xbox Live subscribers in the U.S. to access select TV shows and movies from the ABC Television Network, ABC Family, ABC News, Disney Channel and Toon Disney. He also announced a similar agreement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) to deliver the studio’s film library to Xbox Live customers, although he didn’t give a timeframe for that service.

“[With these deals], we will have twice as much high-definition content as any satellite or cable [provider],” Bach said.

In a statement, Microsoft also announced the company sold 17.7 million Xbox 360 consoles over the past holiday season. In addition, Bach said the company’s Mediaroom IPTV service is now running on a million set top boxes and will add a “DVR Anywhere” capability that will enable users to view a recorded video on multiple TVs.

In one demonstration, Bach showed off an upcoming version of Tellme, a voice search mobile service designed to let people use voice commands to say what they want and view answers on their phones’ screen. The service uses Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities in order to provide location aware results. Microsoft acquired the technology when it purchased Tellme Networks in March 2007.

One high point was a spoof video “roast,” showing Gates’ imagined careers after his pending retirement from Microsoft in July. In it, Gates was shown approaching a raft of celebrities who all nervously turned down his offers of partnering, including U2 singer Bono, actor George Clooney, Daily Show host Jon Stewart, and environmentalist/politician Al Gore. “Lose my number,” sports personality Bob Costas quipped.

Beyond the levity, however, Gates highlighted a handful of technology areas — all of them familiar — that he believes will be important in what he calls “the second digital decade.” Gates first referred to the “digital decade” in his 2001 CES keynote.

Among the most important technologies, he pointed out, are “natural” user interfaces like interactive voice response systems, such as Ford Motor Company’s use of Microsoft’s Sync technology in several of its vehicles it released in 2007. Ford also announced a coming update to its Sync-enabled vehicles called “911 Assist,” which will automatically call 911 if it senses a major problem — that the car’s airbags have deployed, for example.

Gates also predicted that high definition display devices will become ubiquitous – for instance, embedded in the wall or a worker’s desk. He cited Microsoft’s Surface computer and Apple’s iPhone as early examples.

Additionally, all intelligent devices will be “services connected,” with many of the services residing “in the cloud,” he said.

“You’ll take it for granted,” Gates added, in a clear pitch for the company’s emerging “software-plus-services” vision.

Gates also gave some updated status on Vista, saying that the company has now sold more than 100 million licenses of the operating system at retail. He also said that Microsoft has garnered 400 million Live ID users, which is viewed as the gateway to Microsoft’s free Live services. Additionally, he claimed there are now more than 10 million Windows Mobile devices in use and predicted that number would double in the next year.

Near the end of the keynote, Gates demonstrated a Microsoft Research project that used a device about the size of a 1990s cell phone and tethered by a large cable that could automatically recognize faces as well as Las Vegas landmarks, and correlate that information with calendaring functions. For instance, pointing it at one of the strip’s hotels, the device recognized that he had a reservation for dinner scheduled in one of the restaurants.

The keynote ended with Gates and Bach in a duel of the rock and roll game Guitar Hero. In the end, Gates brought on a ringer to compete for him. The surprise guest turned out to be Velvet Revolver lead guitarist Slash.

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