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

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.

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