Letter From CES Las Vegas

You can't miss Microsoft's gigantic signs for Windows Vista. They're in your face the moment you step off the plane in Las Vegas, as loud and insistent as the jangle of the airport slot machines. You instantly get the message that billions of dollars are at stake in Sin City.

And yet, Bill Gates' 10th annual keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Sunday night was anything but in-your-face.

Despite having plenty to show off, including the upcoming Jan. 30 launch of the uber-experiential Windows Vista, to some, the speech lacked that elusive element insider audiences at CES crave: buzz.

But while the crowd was busy speculating about what Steve Jobs is going to announce at MacWorld, a good chunk of them were likely missing a major take-away from Bill's speech: Microsoft was sounding like an honest to goodness consumer products company.

In fact, with all the consumer-speak I was hearing Sunday night, I could have closed my eyes and easily imagined that I was at Kraft or Gillette. Oh I know, Microsoft has long talked a good consumer story. Still, it's no secret that the company's comfort level was always on the business side.



But Bill used words like "sharing" and "collaborating" and "communicating" and for a change, it didn't sound like he was secretly wishing he could sneak back to enterprise. Oh sure, every so often he mentioned business productivity, especially in tandem with the new Office 2007.

But the bulk of his address centered solidly on the consumer, especially the family, and "community."

He carefully laid out -- and even repeated -- statistics like "the 2 billion digital photos taken last year" or the "65% of us who have digital cameras"; the 40% of U.S. families that own multiple computers. He said "kids now spend more time on the PC than watching TV." He talked about "tools of creativity" and building parental controls into the Windows Vista system.

And the word "safer" came up repeatedly, a subliminal mantra in the social media landscape dominated by MySpace and YouTube.

The statistics Bill touted also match up nicely with an array of new products announced Sunday.

If you're taking a couple billion digital photos every year, your family is going to need one of the terabyte-big Home Server devices powered by Windows Server Software to back up and store those treasured pictures, videos and music. The Home Server can link up with information stored on everything from a PC to an XBox to a Zune and can even be accessed remotely. Xbox, now positioned as a giant gaming community, gets a cool upgrade, too. Soon new software will allow the Xbox 360 to act as a gateway to IPTV. Now the kiddies can get their TV and their PC.

Thankfully, Sunday was not Bill's swan song. Although his full-time stint at Microsoft ends in 2008, he said he would be back next year.

"After that I'm not sure they'll want to invite me because I might talk more about infectious diseases," he said, referring to his philanthropic work. "If they want me, fine."

We want you, Bill.

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