A Brief History of Microsoft Vegas Keynotes (Now That They’re Going Away)

By  |  Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 12:31 pm

The Rock and Bill Gates introduce the original Xbox.

The Rock and Bill Gates introduce the original Xbox at CES in 2001.

Microsoft has announced that next month’s Steve Ballmer keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas will be its last, and that it won’t have its own booth at the show. The move is unquestionably reminiscent of Apple’s 2008 decision to pull out of Macworld Expo, although Microsoft will still be a part of the show in other ways. It’s just ending its traditional, high-profile presence.

And what a long tradition it’s been. It started, of course, not with Ballmer but with Bill Gates. And it didn’t begin with CES. For years, a Gates keynote kicked off the now-defunct COMDEX show: He did them in Vegas in November and sometimes at Spring COMDEX in other cities.

(I’m not sure when Gates did his first COMDEX keynote, but he was doing them as early as 1983, and they became a ritual in the 1990s.)

I’ve always wondered just how much Microsoft benefited from all these keynotes. It’s used them as an opportunity to present its perspective on the future of computing. But as I wrote back in 2008, an awful lot of the things it unveiled at COMDEX and CES never amounted to much, including the Tablet PC, Windows Smart Displays, the Smart Watch, and the amazingly short-lived Urge music service. Unlike Apple, Microsoft rarely if ever saved up a big announcement until a keynote, so the PR bump wasn’t remotely in the same league as Apple’s Macworld events. And the copious use of uncomfortable-looking celebrity guest stars usually didn’t help matters.

I’ve been going to COMDEX and/or CES every year since 1991. For years, I had a contrarian tradition of not attending Microsoft’s keynotes; I’m not sure if I saw any of Gates’ in person, although in recent years I’ve attended and liveblogged Ballmer’s. (We all know that Steve is capable of being, well, exuberant on stage, but to me, he always felt miscast at a CES keynoter–and usually didn’t look like he was enjoying himself that much.)

Anyhow, now that Microsoft Vegas keynotes are going away–starting in 2013–I’m feeling nostalgic. Herewith, courtesy of YouTube, a few highlights from the past twenty-two years of them.

At Comdex 1990, a youthful Bill Gates speaks–very briefly, in this clip–about the futuristic notion of “information at your fingertips.”

Here’s part of Gates’ unusually ambitious 1994 COMDEX keynote, which included a lengthy movie set in the Seattle of 2005:

At COMDEX 1996, Gates presided over the launch of the original monochrome “Handheld PCs” based on Windows CE–the great-great-granddaddies of today’s Windows Phones. (If I recall correctly, this wasn’t a keynote–it was a separate Microsoft event held in the Cirque Du Soleil theater.)

In a snippet of the Comdex 1997 extravaganza, Gates and a friend demos a new device called the Net PC:

At Spring Comdex 1998, one of the most famous Windows blue screens of them all:

In 1998, Gates jokes about the Microsoft anti-trust investigation, predicts a future of devices connected through high-speed networking, and pals around with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:

Early digital-camera video clips of Gates introducing the Tablet PC at COMDEX 2000:

COMDEX 2000 featured a film with Gates dressed as Harry Potter and Steve Ballmer as Luke Skywalker (caution: it may make your eyeballs burn):

At CES 2001, Gates unveils the original Xbox with the help of the Rock, then known mostly as a wrestler:

The 2005 CES keynote involved a live Conan O’Brien show with Gates as a guest–and an Xbox demo gone bad. Here it is with helpful subtitles:

CES 2007’s keynote, I’m sorry to say, featured…Windows Vista:

When Gates left full-time work at Microsoft in 2008, his final CES keynote included a celeb-filled movie:

Part of CES 2009–Steve Ballmer’s first as the headliner–involved a demo of an iPad-like Tablet PC (a year before the iPad was announced) exchanging data with Microsoft’s Surface table-top computer.

At CES 2010, Ballmer introduces the ill-fated Windows-based “Slate PC,” a response to Apple’s iPad that appeared slightly before the iPad did. (I remember sitting in the audience and thinking to myself that even Steve didn’t seem that excited by them, even though he declared them to be “perfect–just perfect” for the Web and entertainment.)

I liked this CES 2011 appearance by an Xbox avatar Steve Ballmer:

What will Ballmer talk about next month? Ultrabooks, I assume. Windows 8, for sure. Probably Xbox developments, too. I plan to be there. And I wonder who CES will get to kick off the conference in 2013?

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4 Comments For This Post

  1. earlyhike Says:

    I'm curious if its more about these big companies needing to make big presentations on their own schedule. Technology is moving so fast that waiting for a yearly event to make some declaration about future technology that might be defunct before the event arrives seems problematic. Maybe yearly announcements are simply no longer efficient.

  2. Neil Says:

    Perhaps someone should send the Tablet PC video to Apple. They could sue for pre-crime, as it looks a bit like an iPad 🙂

  3. akismet-02040afbf766e2bef0851f90f890c869 Says:

    Haha, your comment made me lol Neil :).

    Muay Thai

  4. Steve Says:

    @Neil, you mean they could get sued by microsoft for IP theft just like apple is suing Samsung. P.S. Apple computers crash just as much as windows do.