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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

January 13, 2014 at 9:14 PM

CES 2014: Ghosts of Microsoft past

LAS VEGAS — It’s no wonder Bill Gates stopped going to the Consumer Electronics Show.

It may hurt too much to see all the product concepts he floated years ago at the show finally coming to fruition — in the booths of other companies.

Pick one of the hot product categories at this year’s gadget extravaganza — wearable “smart” gadgets, interactive video projectors or computerized cars — and you’ll see an idea Gates presented at CES sometime in the past decade.

Perhaps Microsoft shared too much or moved too early when it saw new opportunities in consumer technology. Or maybe it fumbled chances or gave up too soon.

Either way, it makes you wonder about how the company’s new “devices and services” strategy will pan out, and whether it will make the most of the global device manufacturing and distribution capabilities it’s acquiring from Nokia this year.

It’s more evidence that although vision and innovation get all the attention, timing is just as important.

Gates delivered his final CES keynote address in 2008 and Steve Ballmer stopped presenting in 2012.

Officially, Microsoft says it pulled out of CES because the show doesn’t track with the company’s product-release schedule. This year, it also would have been unclear whom it would put forward, with Ballmer’s CEO chair up for grabs.

The company still does comes to Vegas to schmooze behind the scenes. It rented space this year in the convention’s back 40 to hold private meetings. In one of its rooms, it displayed a few dozen PCs and phones, plus a couch facing a wall of displays to show visitors how Windows phones, PCs and the Xbox One share a common interface and services.

Microsoft no doubt brought newer gadgets from Redmond but kept them hidden, offering early peeks only to wireless carriers, big retailers and other key partners.

When I asked employees in the meeting rooms and elsewhere about the company’s lack of presence and how it no longer uses the CES podium to show its vision and industry leadership, they redirected the conversation to its new “One Microsoft” strategy.

Yet they had to see the same ghosts of Microsoft’s past that I saw out on the show floor.

One of the most dazzling products this year was Sony’s upcoming video-projector system, which converts flat surfaces into huge, realistic displays, turning blank walls into virtual windows.

A video-projector system was also a highlight of a futuristic, concept kitchen in Whirlpool’s exhibit, where recipes were beamed onto kitchen counters.

Gates told the CES crowd in 2007 that this was coming.

“Screen technology — projecting onto walls, onto surfaces — is going to be quite inexpensive, and so it will be very pervasive,” he said back then, while demonstrating how recipes could be displayed on countertops. “So this surface, although it’s just a normal surface, we can project onto it. We can use voice to drive this.”

Later during that same presentation, Gates and automaker Ford announced “Sync,” a voice-controlled dashboard computer system for cars.

Gates stepped down as Microsoft CEO a year later, but Sync lived on and is now used in 3.4 million vehicles.

Ford, part of the big presence of carmakers at CES this year, talked up the latest version of Sync last week, as well as plans for a Sync app-developer conference. But Microsoft wasn’t mentioned in its announcements.

The list goes on.

In 2006 Gates showed a mirrorlike interactive display that had messages and online information, just like the prototype “smart mirrors” Toshiba presented this year.

In 2005 Gates demonstrated a bleeding-edge TV — a 46-inch flat panel that played music and videos from online stores.

Even more painful was a review of the 2003 keynote speech when Gates shared his vision for “smart personal objects” such as watches that display information they receive wirelessly.

Smart objects were a dime a dozen at CES this year, and the category is expected to finally take off over the next few years. Some expect it will go into overdrive later this year if Apple releases its own smart watch.

It’s a little surprising Microsoft doesn’t take credit for some of these things.

Maybe it’s too dignified to say “I told you so.” Or maybe the company doesn’t want to call attention to the fact it doesn’t always make the best use of its crystal ball.



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