CES 2006: Day Two

Is Larry Page the worst keynote presenter ever to step on a stage? Yes… yes he is. But after two days of glitz and glam, of C-level execs cavorting awkwardly with Hollywood celebs during what amounted to a series of infomercials, the sight of an actual geek at today’s CES wrap-up keynote was positively thrilling.

Google's unassuming co-founder and President of Products rode onstage on the back bumper of Stanford University’s robotic Volkswagen Touareg, ''Stanley,'' which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. (Stanford is Page’s alma mater.) Dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, and white Google Labs coat, and speaking in that slow, Ray Romano baritone, Page read most of his presentation from a paper script that he flipped through noisily as he walked around the sparsely appointed stage. At one point he just sort of had the audience hang on for a sec while he ran across the stage to grab a bottle of water.

So he’s not David Letterman, but I loved this keynote, and I think the standing-room-only crowd packed into the Hilton Hotel Auditorium did, too. Page’s obvious lack of stage experience was genuinely endearing, and the fact that he had something serious to say was, sadly, downright surprising.

Not that he didn’t flog a few products. Page announced the Google Pack beta, a free, downloadable software bundle that includes: Mozilla Firefox, Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE, Norton AntiVirus, the Adobe Reader, Google Earth, Picasa, Google Desktop, the Google Toolbar, Google Talk, and RealNetworks’ RealPlayer. He also demoed an upgraded version of Google Earth, and introduced the Google Video store, a new online video service that will sell television programming from CBS and others. CBS chief Les Moonves joined him onstage to talk about that deal.

And not that his keynote was celebrity-free. In the game of celeb oneupsmanship the CES keynote program has become, Google’s co-founder scored big with the able assist of actor/comedian Robin Williams. Williams donned a goofy helmet to play a ''Google brain integration prototype,'' riffed wildly on the notion of a human-computer interface, and merrily tormented questioners from the audience. (''Speak slowly, Larry, he’s Australian.'') The crowd laughed its collective butt off. Also, NBA star Kenny Williams came to the stage to joke about pro basketball games that will be available from the Google Video store. And Page and Williams acknowledged San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome, who stood at his seat in the audience for some applause, for his efforts to bring free Wi-Fi to the City by the Bay. Google has already provided free Wi-Fi for its hometown of Mountain View, CA, and it's vying for a chance to do the same in SF.

But at the heart of Page's presentation was a serious plea for standards in the consumer electronics industry, for everything from power supplies to data transfer technologies. At a time when keynotes have devolved from provocative speeches by industry thought leaders into slick vendor pitches from conference-savvy execs, Page’s almost naïve call to arms on standards was a breath of fresh air. He cited the success of the Internet, with its academic origins and open-standards-based underpinnings. And he pointed to Stanford's Stanley as an example of just what vision, talent, and technology can achieve.

Page also addressed an issue that once grabbed regular headlines; something once called the digital divide. He illustrated the increasing technological gap between developed countries and developing countries with a Google map showing the African continent all but devoid of connections. Only about 15 percent of the world has Internet access, Page told his audience, and companies and governments have a responsibility to help bridge this gap. You could call it a self-serving admonition; after all, making sure that everyone, everywhere has access to the Internet serves Google's interests. But really, whose interests doesn't it serve?

For its part, Google is supporting MIT's $100 laptop initiative . The hand-crank-powered, Linux-based, Wi-Fi enabled laptops, not yet in production, are intended to help educate the third world's children, network its communities, and link them both to the wider world. Page encouraged other companies to support the effort and to find their own creative ways to bridge the gap.

And did I mention that he took questions from the audience? He turned up the freakin’ houselights and directed attendees to a couple of mikes in the aisles and answered their unscripted inquired for about 45 minutes. This is something you just don't see many execs doing these days. He called Williams back onstage for this Q&A, which led to some of the best lines of the show. (More on this tomorrow.)

Now that's a keynote worthy of the name.

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About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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