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Gates: Curtain call for crystal ball

In what could be his final CES keynote for a while, Gates shows off gadgets and touts deal with NBC to jointly run Olympic site. Photos: Gates' last call? Video: Gates' keynote at CES

LAS VEGAS--Bill Gates may be stepping away from full-time work later this year, but he still has a few things he wants to show off.

In his annual Consumer Electronics Show address, the Microsoft chairman demonstrated a slew of fashionable PCs, and touted the role of computing interfaces like speech and touch, as well as announced a partnership with NBC to jointly run the site for the Olympics.

"This is my last (CES) keynote," Gates told the audience, noting that this is the first time since he was 17 that he doesn't have a full-time job at Microsoft. "What do you do on your last day?" he asked.

Gates, who is at Microsoft later this year, also used the speech to note that his software company has now shipped 100 million copies of Windows Vista.

He said that getting so many Vista PCs out will make the platform more attractive. "That's a very significant milestone for application development and specialized hardware work."

In a deal finalized just before the keynote, meanwhile, Microsoft has signed on BT Group as the first company to use the Xbox 360 as an IPTV set-top box. Gates announced plans for the game console to act as a set-top box at last year's CES.

BT Vision, which combines gaming and Microsoft's Mediaroom IPTV service, will be available to customers in the middle of 2008, Microsoft said.

Gates' CES address has become an annual tradition, a sort of tech industry State of the Union, though this may well be his last year for some time.

The annual event is Microsoft's opportunity to lay out its vision of where technology is headed and make the case for its approach, as contrasted with that of rivals such as Apple and Sony.

Not all of the products touted by Gates, however, have become smash hits. Past keynote addresses have introduced Tablet PCs and various digital household objects that have yet to become mainstream.

Last year, Gates used his appearance to show, among other things, Windows Home Server.

This year, Gates' most notable gadget is a "mobile navigator" that can be used to point at a person or place, and get more information. The software powering the technology exists within Microsoft's research labs, but Gates doesn't see this device coming to market as a standalone product. Rather, some of these capabilities are likely to find their way into other gadgets, such as cameras and phones.

In the more near-term realm, Microsoft said Samsung will start offering an adapter that lets its flat-screen TVs act as Media Center extenders. That lets the TVs show videos, pictures, and music stored on a Vista PC in another room.

As for PCs, Microsoft plans to show off a new Lamborghini laptop from Asus, as well as consumer laptop line, which includes a model that uses flash memory rather than a hard drive for storage.

Bill Gates and Slash
Credit: Corinne Schulze/CNET News.com
Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash plays the part
of Gates' Guitar Hero ringer.

Gates also showed off the role that speech and touch will play in the future. Microsoft has a new concept application for its Surface computer that shows how the product can tie into Windows Live services and other devices.

Gates used the tabletop Surface PC to design a custom snowboard and then send the design to his Windows mobile phone. His design included "Bill!" on the underside.

"I've got something that looks pretty good," Gates said.

Ever the fan of speech recognition technology, Gates demonstrated how mobile search can be improved by combining GPS (Global Positioning System) data with Tellme's speech recognition technology.

Entertainment and Devices unit head Robbie Bach joined Gates on stage to talk Xbox and Zune, among other things. On the Xbox front, Microsoft touted a number of statistics, including the fact that it has sold more than 17.7 million consoles, as well as the fact that the Xbox 360 has generated far more sales of games and accessories than rival consoles. Microsoft also has 10 million subscribers to its Xbox Live service.

Microsoft is also touting sales of two recent game releases. , has sold more than 8.1 million copies since its September launch, while Mass Effect has sold 1.6 million copies in the six weeks since its launch.

Microsoft also noted the company's progress in IPTV--digital television delivered over Internet Protocol as opposed to traditional cable or satellite.

Microsoft now has about 1 million set-top boxes in commercial use with its Mediaroom software, and its partners add two subscribers every minute, according to the company. AT&T, the largest U.S. customer, plans to have 1 million users itself by the end of the year.

Video:
Microsoft's chairman discusses the outgoing and incoming digital decades.

Bach showed a number of custom applications designed for its Mediaroom IPTV service, including one developed by TNT for covering live Nascar events.

"I can pick car No. 35, or I can go into the pits and watch car No. 22," Bach said.

Bach said the company is serious about the TV effort.

"It's not a 'hobby' for Microsoft," he said, a jab at the fact that Apple CEO Steve Jobs once called Apple TV a "hobby."

On the Olympics front, Microsoft and NBC are teaming up on a more than 3,000 hours of live and on-demand video of Olympic events. It will be ad-supported, with the two companies divvying up the revenue.

It's not the first time Microsoft and the General Electric division have partnered to cover the Olympics--they also did so for the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Gates said the ability to watch the events you want, either live or on-demand, is why Internet-based TV is so much better than standard fare.

"Events like this in the broadcast format just aren't as satisfying, as great as we'll make the Olympics," Gates said.

Microsoft also announced deals to offer movies from MGM and TV shows from Disney for download via the Xbox 360. The Disney deal will bring to the Xbox more than 500 hours of programming in both standard and high-definition formats, including shows such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Grey's Anatomy, plus Disney shows such as Hannah Montana.

On the music front, Microsoft isn't giving exact sales figures for the Zune, but it is noting that there are now 1.5 million active users in Zune Social, the social-networking site that ties into the music service and player.

Microsoft is also committing to offer the Zune in Canada by the spring. The product had originally been expected to expand into other countries sooner, but Microsoft has thus far kept its focus on the U.S. market.

In automotive news, Gates will tout the fact that Ford Motor has sold 30,000 cars equipped with the Sync in-car entertainment system that Microsoft co-developed with the carmaker. Ford expects to sell 1 million Sync-enabled cars by 2009.