CES, The Pre-Show: Letter to an Angry Attendee

Dear Red-Faced Guy Bellowing at the Unflappable Usher Outside the Bill Gates CES Pre-Show Keynote:

I’m with you, dude. It must have been miserable to have to stand in that line for two hours, only to be told you needed a ''voucher'' to get in. I’ve been there; I’ve got the fallen arches and the bogus KISS tickets to prove it. And yes, Singapore is one hell of a long way from Las Vegas. And, gosh, it does sound like you spend a lot of money on Microsoft products. (Who doesn’t? Am I right?) And I suppose you had a point: Mr. Gates probably should be grateful-damned-grateful. Maybe he should devote the second half of his life to curing diseases in Africa or something. And ''first come, first served'' might well have been a better way to decide who gets into the conference keynotes—but hey, hindsight is always twenty-twenty.

So the bad news is, screaming like a five year old at a Las Vegas events usher who's heard it all before didn't get you into the traditional Bill Gates pre-conference keynote; the good news is, you didn't miss much.

Gates has been doing the Pre Key at CES for 10 years now. I haven't seen them all, but I've seen Mr. Gates on stage often enough to know when the guy is phoning it in. I guess he's focused on other things these days, and I can't fault him for that. He's definitely put in his time in front of CES audiences. On this, the 40th anniversary of this massive event, we were treated to a retrospective of Gates clips from past shows. Gates doing a send up of Austin Powers. Gates as Neo from the Matrix to Ballmer's Morpheus. Gates mugging beside Napoleon Dynamite. Gates and Ballmer as the disco boys from Saturday Night Live. Gates with Conan. Gates with Leno. Funny stuff that a guy with more money than God really didn't have to put himself through.

But last night was nothing special—and after all the rigmarole around getting into that event, I expected more. Gates got a big round of applause when he told the 4,000 attendees crowded into a ballroom at the Venetian that he'd be back next year. ''The CES people might be disappointed,'' he said. ''I might just talk about diseases.'' He was referring, of course, to the ongoing work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to which he is poised to commit, full-time. Then he talked about how his company is delivering on the promise of the ''Connected Experience.'' He called Vista ''the most important release of Windows ever.'' And he continued to do his best to convince us that his operating system is still relevant.

To be fair, there was plenty of wow in the Vista demos. All the cabs are sporting ''The Wow is Now'' ads, and I'd have to say the new OS delivers, at least aesthetically. From its slicker 'n' snot photo retouching capabilities to its animated desktop wallpaper feature (the ''Dream Scene'' available in Vista Ultimate), Vista sure is pretty. We also got a look at its intuitive search capabilities, which kind of made me drool a little, and new Microsoft Local Live features that allow for 3D rendering of maps and satellite imagery, which caused me to drop my jaw more than a little.

During this demo, Gates tapped into Virtual Earth 3D technology and flew us over a real-time, 3D rendering of Vegas almost at street level. Gates wrapped up his presentation with demos of the ''Microsoft Home of the Future,'' and I was momentarily transported to the Future House at the Iowa State Fair. He showed us a child’s bedroom wall that was actually a massive display panel on which you could play games, set backgrounds, and receive reminders. He also showed off a computerized kitchen counter that responded to packaged ingredients set upon it with projections of recipes and menu-planning advice. The bags and boxes came with RFID tags. All cool, but hardly new.

It was all part of the ''digital decade'' message the folks in Redmond have been sending for a while now. This year, it looks like Microsoft might be delivering on its promise of a seamless computing and entertainment environment that encompasses the home, mobile devices, and even the car.

But I wouldn't beat up an usher to hear about it.

This years CES is a bit more contained, which I appreciate very much. But it's still the Godzilla of trade shows. There are about 2,700 exhibitors distributed between at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo, according to conference organizers. We're witnessing debuts of the latest technologies and consumer electronics gadgets, from GPS products to digital imaging, audio tech to smart-home systems, humungo TVs to wheelbarrows full of cell phones—and there are even a few robots.

Why should all this consumer stuff matter to enterprise codederos? I'll hold forth on that topic later.

Meanwhile, I have a suggestion for the conference organizers on how best to sort out who gets into the keynotes next year: First, rent Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Then consider: Two men enter; one man leaves.

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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