Bill, we hardly knew ye

Matthew JC. Powell
9 January, 2008
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Bill Gates walked off the stage at the CES in Las Vegas having given the crowd exactly what they wanted: a glimpse of the Microsoft-infused future, and a giggle at his expense. it was the tenth time Gates had given the CES keynote, and the tenth time he had given the crowd exactly the same thing: a glimpse of the Microsoft-infused future, and a giggle at his expense.

It must be said that, for all his Bond-villain wealth and megalomania, Bill Gates has a sense of humour and always has done. He’s also always managed to keep his enormous wealth in perspective, and it’s that simple humanity that will dominate his future endeavours as the world’s biggest philanthropist. It’s a humanity that was rarely on show when he was crushing competitors and allies alike in the pursuit of Microsoft’s dreams.

But that wasn’t what the CES talk was about. There it was all about the portable devices linked by mobile networks and intelligent, context-aware programs that will make our lives so much easier and better. Any day now. He’s given much the same talk, with different devices inserted at the appropriate junctures, for the past decade.

I’ve always kind of wondered why Bill Gates gave the keynote address at CES, given that it’s a consumer electronics show (indeed, THE Consumer Electronics Show) and Microsoft is an IT company. Indeed, it’s a software company. You could argue that the XBox is a consumer electronic device, but it has only been on the scene fairly recently — and I don’t recall it ever being featured particularly prominently in a CES keynote. Same with Zune. Don’t even try to tell me that the mice and keyboards Microsoft has manufactured for decades make it a CE company — they hardly justify the keynote address every year for a decade.

No, Bill Gates’s keynote addresses have invariably involved hardware manufactured by companies other than Microsoft, often using software developed by companies other than Microsoft. Microsoft’s contribution is the "Windows DNA" linking it all together. Microsoft’s promise, year after year, is that it will work its way into our lives more and more, in subtle ways we have not yet imagined. (There was a wristwatch a few years ago that connected wirelessly to a network time server connected to an atomic clock, so it was always accurate without ever needing to be reset — Microsoft or no Microsoft, I’ll have one of those. Still waiting …)

In truth few, if any, of the devices that are shown off in Bill’s CES keynotes have ever come to pass — at least in the form in which we saw them in Las Vegas. That’s a key difference between a Gates keynote and the Jobs keynote that almost invariably overshadows it: the Jobs keynote is about stuff you’ll actually be able to buy within a few months at most, while the Gates keynote is mostly "hey, won’t it be cool when you can do this neat thing? Whenever."

And in some ways that’s the beauty of it. Freed from the responsibility of actually having to deliver the hardware, Bill Gates is free to dream, to show us his grand vision of a world in which all information is no more than a click away on your Microsoft-powered doodad, and everything you need to know about everything is always at hand. When it doesn’t happen, no-one blames Bill. There are no angry shareholders, or would-be customers flooding the rumour sites.

Ironically, the type of technology required for the grand vision Bill has been laying out for us over the past decade is finally happening: fast mobile networks, Bluetooth that really works, online mass storage, web applications and thin clients. Ironically, it could all become real, right after Bill has departed the stage.

He never copped the blame for his grand vision not becoming reality, but he won’t be around to take the credit when it does. In a few months he will have no formal role at Microsoft, and won’t be called upon again to deliver a CES keynote. He’ll be off, instead, using the money he has earned spreading "Windows DNA" to immunise children, prevent diseases and, with luck, wipe out malaria.

I guess that will have to do.

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