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Gates gets rock star treatment for final CES keynote

Thousands line up for four hours to see Bill Gates address the Consumer Electronics show for the last time before his imminent retirement.

Bill Gates would never have guessed way back when he dropped out of Harvard to start a software company that he might wind up his career with the status of a rock star.

But that was precisely the atmosphere in Las Vegas tonight as he both opened this year's CES conference and closed a final chapter of his career.

Thousands of journalists and technologists queued for some four hours in snake-like lines that wound around several floors of the Venetian Hotel and Casino to hear him give his tenth and final CES keynote.

In just under six months, Gates will retire from full-time work with the software company to devote his time and energy to his philanthropic project The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which aims for global equity in healthcare and education. As several Microsoft devotees said during the long wait to see the show, Gates' last CES keynote is a significant event. This was the man that revolutionised desktop computing and in the process influenced the career opportunities for millions of IT support workers around the globe. And for the very dedicated few among the 140,000 people in Las Vegas for this year's CES, it is likely to be the last time they will see him talk.

Gates isn't a dazzling stage-performer by any stretch. His squeak of a voice has nothing of the immediacy or intensity of some of his peers (Cisco's Chambers comes to mind), and he hardly appears the rock n' roll type with his daggy blue sweater and slacks.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates adrresses CES 2008 CES

Thankfully there were plenty of stars at hand to liven up the event.

Early in the address, Gates was treated to a pre-recorded tongue-in-cheek send-off that included appearances by presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, former vice president Al Gore, U2's Bono, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and actor George Clooney, all joking at Gates' expense as to what he might get up to upon retirement.

Among the frivolity, there was the business. Gates discussed the next "digital decade" as being one in which high definition content will be pushed to all manner of devices. He then touted the further development of the natural/human user interface - making an example of Microsoft's touch-based 'Surface' Table Computer, but not mentioning the Nintendo Wii or the Apple iPhone, both pioneers in the field.

Gates predicted that PCs will again grow this year at double digit growth rates, and announced that Microsoft's latest Vista operating system now has some 100 million users. He also announced that broadcaster NBC will be offering some 3,000 hours of footage from the Beijing Olympic Games online using Microsoft's Silverlight and Live software technologies.

In gaming, Gates' colleagues announced that the company has shipped some 17.7 million X-Box games consoles, claiming that more cash is spent on XBox games than games for both Nintendo Wii and Sony Playstation put together.

The company also showcased new innovations in the digital home and for the portable music player Zune and demonstrated ways in which Microsoft technology can be used to improve the communications and entertainment experience while driving in a car.

There would be no major product announcements, nor any emotional farewell.

Instead his keynote closed, as perhaps the long wait to see Gates speak deserved, with some real rock n' roll royalty - a live Guitar Hero jam-off with Guns N Roses guitarist Slash.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates summons Slash for a Guitar Hero duel CES

Then Gates, unassumingly, walked off the CES stage for the last time.