Those hoping for a big-bang product announcement from Microsoft were left sorely disappointed. Even though this was Bill Gates' last CES keynote before he steps down as chairman of Microsoft, he did little to garner the imagination of the gathered press.

Were it not for his comedy turn in a video entitled 'Bill's last day' featuring Bono, Steven Spielberg and George Clooney, the reaction from the press could have been apathetic. While a guy that gives away $37 billion couldn't deserve a bad reaction, this was surely an opportunity missed.

The spotlight on Gates is brighter than ever as he prepares to step down. It should have been the day for a killer announcement.

Slash made a guest appearance as Gates challenged president of the Entertainment and Devices division, Robbie Bach, to a Guitar Hero III game. But aside from this and the video, Microsoft delivered little else to shout about.


Windows still the key

Instead we had part retrospective musings, part back-patting, as Gates revealed that there are now 100 million Windows Vista licenses in the market place. "For more than 25 years, Windows has unlocked the power of personal computing," Gates said.

"Now we are expanding Windows to go where you want to go and do what you want to do on PCs, the web and mobile devices. The result is connected experiences that extend across people's lives, interests and communities, at home and at work." He called Windows the cornerstone of Microsoft's vision.

This was Gates' 11th CES opening keynote address; his first was back in 1994 - when "the internet was just starting," he recalled.

Today Gates looked back at the changes that have lead to the creation of the first true 'digital decade'. He talked about the increasing popularity of Windows-based PCs and broadband, as well as the spread of mobile phones (four mobiles are sold to every one PC) and the growth of portable digital media devices.

"Since I first started talking about the digital decade in 2001, the speed with which digital technology has become central to the way we work, learn and play has been amazing," Gates said.

"The first digital decade has been a great success" he continued. "Thousands of companies have worked together. This is just the beginning. There's nothing holding us back.

"The trend there is clear - all media and entertainment will be software driven.

"But in many ways, we are at the very beginning of the transformation that software will enable. During the next digital decade, technology will make our lives richer, more connected, more productive and more fulfilling in profound and exciting ways."


Natural user interfaces

As for the next digital decade, Gates talked about how natural user interfaces will shape the way we interact with devices (and yes, he mentioned the iPhone). He treated us to an impressive demo of Microsoft Surface in which he designed a snowboard using his fingers. There was also generous mention of how more services will be handled on the web - or "in the cloud" as Gates called it.

He added that HD content will make the difference, as will the increasing intelligence of devices and software. "All of these come together to create the experience."

If you take a picture, your device should automatically upload it to your photo-sharing service, rather than you having to instruct it to happen, he said. "Just picking up a device means you can access your information." Gates cited the example of owning a new phone, saying that it will be able to access and download your contacts automatically.

Talking of different ways to interact, Gates also gave a preview of Tellme, Microsoft's voice-and-visual mobile service. It enables you to use voice commands to say what you want, and displays the answer on your phone's screen. GPS is used to identify caller location. The technology will be used in a future version of Windows Mobile, according to Microsoft.


Zune to UK?


A good chunk of the keynote was actually from the mouth of Robbie Bach, who is clearly growing in influence within Microsoft. Bach took over around 25 per cent of the keynote and announced that he will be back next year. He is likely to take over this slot at CES 2009.

Bach introduced the media announcements at the end of the keynote, revealing Xbox Live partnerships with MGM, Disney and ABC. NBC is also in Microsoft's good books after choosing the corporation's Silverlight web media tech to deliver 3,600 hours of streamed content from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

There was a quick mention of Zune as well. We were given a demo of Zune Social which now has 1.5 million users. It actually looks good! Of course, since we don't have Zune in the UK, this is the first we've seen of it. But might we soon? Bach announced that Zune is soon to be sold in Canada, with other territories to follow.

 

BT Vision on Xbox 360

Microsoft also announced that its Mediaroom tech is now running on 1 million set-top boxes worldwide. It unveiled a new offering called DVR Anywhere, giving customers the flexibility to watch their recorded programs on multiple TVs in the home. What's more, Bach announced that BT Vision will be available on the Xbox 360. BT remains a major partner with Microsoft over its service.

As for Media Center, Samsung and HP are set to create Windows Media Center Extenders, though whether this will reach the UK remains to be seen. British extender availability has so far been non-existent.

But that was it.

President of the CEA, Gary Shapiro, had begun by saying that "clearly Bill Gates has changed the world". Shame he couldn't have saved something for today.