Gates At CES: Some Schtick, Some Substance

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Remember when IT pundits were dreamily envisioning a day when we could watch TV, buy goods directly from the programs themselves, communicate with each other, share photos and music, and do it all how we wanted, when we wanted, with just the touch of a button? In a perfect world, the next sentence would read: "Those days have arrived."

Well, as we know, this world is a little shy of perfect. We now can do all kinds of things technologically that we couldn't do a few years ago, and it certainly seems like the pace of newly arriving bells and whistles has been ramping up lately. But when Bill Gates himself tells you that the truly converged world of IT, media, entertainment and commerce is still a short way off, it pays to listen.

On Wednesday, Gates delivered what has become his annual keynote address to kick off the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Unlike last year, when Jay Leno delivered some opening remarks before ceding the stage to Gates and his colleagues, this year's speech took a full-on talk-show format, this time with Conan O'Brien as the wisecracking host and emcee.

As talk-show guests go, well, Gates makes a great CEO. O'Brien scored numerous laughs from the crowd, but some of his banter -- old stand-bys relating to how easy it is to download porn these days, and one-liners about the ability all this new technology gives you to have a virtual relationship with your loved ones -- broke Gates' rhythm and made him seem ill at ease, maybe even a little irritated. O'Brien's tongue-in-cheek point about technology overwhelming human interaction was legit, but perhaps better left to the social theorists; at least Gates appeared to think so. He has always believed that this stuff sells itself, and his patience for skeptics is thin, so to be kidded on his own stage seemed to be slightly off-putting.

But after Gates' fourth or fifth mention of what a "great year" Microsoft had in 2004 with its consumer products, it was easy to begin to wonder if even he truly believed it. Yes, sales of media center PCs doubled in the past year, and the converged world that Gates and his partners are preparing us for is a matter of when, not if.

Yet even with all the recent technological developments, the proliferation of bandwidth, the decreasing cost of plasma TVs and other devices, the demand for more full-featured handheld devices and amped-up games, and the long-awaited arrival of services such as video-on-demand, it's difficult to escape the feeling that the prospect of having all these doodads under your own roof, under your own control, is simply daunting. There are some undeniably cool features available today, including on-screen browsing of programs and other content, picture-in-picture and the ability to use a Passport account to remotely program your digital video recorder. But Gates talked a lot about the end of the decade as a target and hinted that even his legendary home isn't fully wired up yet. ("If only you had the dough," O'Brien quipped.)

There's no question that the future Gates and his allies are trying to achieve will eventually arrive in a living room near you -- and make no mistake, buying products solely from Microsoft and its partners will make that day happen much sooner. Until then, best to take it one gizmo at a time.

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