Bill Gates’ technology keynote could be his last

By Christoph Dernbach, IANS

Las Vegas : The first time Bill Gates addressed a technology trade show at Las Vegas, his dad came along to help.

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Back in 1983, Microsoft co-founder Gates was unveiling a previously-unheard-of product named Windows at the Comdex computing expo. As he spoke, William H. Gates Sr. manned the overhead projector, placing each transparency carefully on the screen. Computer projectors and presentation software like PowerPoint had not been invented yet.

Fast-forward a quarter century later, to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) commencing from Sunday to Jan 10 in Las Vegas and its whizz-bang laptops, fancy TVs and amazing mobile electronics and that old projector looks as quaint as a horse and buggy.

So maybe it’s fitting that this could be the last keynote address by Gates, who has opened the exhibition for over a decade. The 52-year-old billionaire is to give up his leadership role at Microsoft during the course of the year and devote himself to philanthropy at his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Glitzy Vegas in the desert of Nevada has often been the stage where Gates announced major software advances. There the historic unveiling of Windows 1.0, and his Nov 12, 1994 speech at the Aladdin Hotel when the software tycoon outlined his vision for the future of “information at your fingertips.”

He backed it up with a little mystery film shown on a giant screen in the Aladdin Theatre, demonstrating how the personal computer would permanently alter our home and working lives. The enormous success of Windows 95 and its successors proved him right.

In 2001, Gates’ projected a “digital decade” where computer technology would “change every part of our lives” and satisfy the promise of a truly secure and truly personal computer.

Certainly his predictions were right on. But ironically, it has been other companies like rivals Google and Apple that pushed to the front in creating the digital lifestyle.

Microsoft missed the boat on some major trends such as online advertising and iPod culture.

As Gates gets ready for his valedictory in Vegas on Sunday, Microsoft faces several new challenges.

Sales of its Windows Vista operating system have not fulfilled Gates’ own high hopes. Business users especially have remained stubbornly attached to its predecessor, the tried and true Windows XP.

Microsoft is also being challenged by the “software as a service” business model, which is being pushed by firms such as Users do not need to install this software. They just access it through their browser over the Internet.

The Redmond, Washington, company’s answer has been a campaign with the slogan “software plus service” and a slow but steady migration of its products to a similar model.

Nor is business going Microsoft’s way in smart-phone software. Apple’s iPhone already is the most popular smart-phone in the US. Gates did not believe Google would enter this sector, but several weeks ago the search giant did exactly that, unveiling a phone software framework named “Android.”

This could put the brakes on Microsoft’s own Windows Mobile.

Gates will not be overseeing Microsoft’s counter-attack.

In January 2000, he turned over the Microsoft chief executive post to long-time colleague Steve Ballmer and he plans to disengage almost completely from his remaining duties as chairman and by summer 2008.

The two techies are set to fill the huge gap he leaves behind him: Craig Mundie and Ray Ozzie.

Mundie, a Microsoft veteran, takes over the post of chief research and strategy officer.

Ozzie, the man whose inventions include Lotus Notes, did not join Microsoft till 2005 when it took over his company Groove Networks. His future title will be chief software architect.

So far it is not clear which of the two men will take on the public role of the brains of Microsoft.

Neither has ventured out of Gates’ long shadow in recent months, but next year’s CES in Las Vegas is going to need a new keynote speaker if Gates is not around.

Gates made ironic reference to that time at the last CES, joking that he was not sure the organizers would want to invite him after 2008 “because I might talk a lot more about infectious diseases than great software.” He was referring to his charitable work on health.

“So if they want me, fine, but they’ve been warned what they would hear about,” he said.