A CES institution came to an end this week, as Microsoft founder Bil Gates gave his last keynote speech before stepping down later this year to concentrate on the running of his charitable foundation.

And Gates used the occasion to look back over the way the digital world has changed since his first speech, in 1994, and explore some ways it's going to develop in the near future.

Gates said that "the trend is now clear - all media and entertainment will be software-driven.

"People for the first time realise they can build content that's unique - a news show where you see only what you're interested in, or taking complex events like elections and letting people navigate them in new ways."

Remembering that in 1994 "Windows 1995 was just coming together, and the interet was just getting started," Gates then introduced a toe-curling video showing what might happen on his last day in the office. Cue Bono taking a call - "Bill, I can't just replace Edge because you got a high score on Guitar Hero" -, Spielberg and George Clooney turning down his acting ideas, and even Hillary Clinton: "I haven't declared a running mate, but I'm not sure politics is for you".

Then, having looked back over the first 'digital decade', Gates turned his attention to the future: "there's nothing holding us back from going much further and much faster."

He outlined the three key elements of this future:

  • High-definition displays, "not just on TVs but via projection: wherever you want it, it will be there"
  • Service connection of all devices: no more need to connect devices together - "Just pick up a device and authenticate who your are, and your information will be there."
  • A natural user interface: "Touch, as on the iPhone, or voice or gesture control - the industry will build this into platforms, so software developers don't have to."

Then Gates introduced Robbi Bach, President of Microsoft's entertainment division, who kicked off his presentation with an overview of the XBox, with 17.7m consoles shipped to date.

And game sales are said the be way ahead of the leading rivals: up to November, sales in 2007 were $3.5bn, greater than those of games for the wii and PS3 put together.

The XBox Live service is adding content from ABC, Disney and MGM in the States, and things are looking good on the Windows Media Center front, too.

Companies such as HP and Samsung are already adding Media Center connectivity, and now Microsoft is signing deals with telecoms suppliers to allow create its Mediaroom service. This uses the XBox360 as a set-top box for TV reception via IPTV services.

Britain's BT is, Bach said, about to roll out this service, and as well as Germany's Deutsche Telekom, 17 other telecoms companies are working on services, which will also allow users to customise the way they watch TV, controlling angles of view, for example, or the information available.

More after the break

 

Gates bows out, Guitar Hero-style, with Slash (left) and Microsoft's Robbie Bach