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LAS VEGAS—The Consumer Electronics Show here is a zoo, a madhouse, an absolute mob scene; it’s also the place to go to see the latest in electronics and computer gadgetry available now and in the future.

I had to leave a very good NFL football wild-card playoff game to go see Microsoft’s Bill Gates kick off the conference with his “visionary” keynote.

Attending a CES keynote, particularly a Gates show-opening keynote, is a lesson in preparation—even for a member of the press who gets to enter the venue an hour earlier than most others.

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First off, CES is one of the most press-heavy events for the technology industry, so thousands of press members are on hand. You have to jump through a series of hoops to even get a pass. So I had to leave my hotel around 3:30 p.m. to head over to the Sands Expo center to get in line for a press pass that would let me get in another line to enter the ballroom where Gates would deliver his keynote. You had to get your pass by 5 p.m. and then ascend a series of escalators, where you had to line up among thousands of VIP and press attendees. To make the time pass more pleasantly, Microsoft plied the “special” guests with an unlimited supply of beer and wine.

Aside from being a logistics challenge in itself, the press and VIP line also represented something of a great equalizer, ensuring that representatives from mighty, oft-favored news outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek were granted the same access as those from the lowly trades. Indeed, a group of bloggers on hand for a weekend of immersion into the innards of Microsoft’s Windows Vista were granted reserved seating near the front of the hall.

Attendees granted early access to the keynote were entertained by harlequin clowns, troubadours, jugglers and other suited-up clowns on stilts. One person seemed to be dressed similarly to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters.” I kept my distance.

Around 6:30 p.m., just about on time, Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, introduced Gates as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time.”

And while that is no doubt absolutely true, this year’s CES keynote—which will possibly be Gates’ next to last—did not do a lot to prove that fact. Gates talked up Vista, Office, Windows Live, Xbox and Zune among other technologies, and peppered his talk with demos.

However, one new development that begged for a demo went without one. Gates spoke of Microsoft’s new partnership with the Ford Motor Co. to help bring Ford automobiles into the overall connected experience Microsoft is trying to foster in the workplace, in the home and in personal entertainment. Despite bringing a high-level Ford executive onstage, Gates offered no demo. Of course, it would have been difficult to get a Ford Focus onto the fourth level of the hotel convention hall, but probably not impossible.

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While Gates’ demo of the futuristic smart, wirelessly, seamlessly connected home was interesting, it also was cloudy in terms of prospective delivery dates.

In his initial comments, Gates quipped about the frenzied environment of CES, which is expected to attract up to 150,000 attendees, 4,000 of which were in the vast ballroom to hear his keynote, with many others in overflow rooms, along with masses watching it via Webcasts.

Said Gates of keynoting at CES: “I’ve always loved coming back from Christmas vacation. You’re nice and relaxed, and you come right into the most manic environment ever.”

Of the many technologies discussed and previewed at show, one of the things that Microsoft announced that most intrigued me—and could help satisfy my jones for football—is the SportsLounge technology that the company developed with

Justin Hutchinson, a Microsoft group product manager, called SportsLounge “a dream if you’re a sports fan.”

Indeed, said Hutchinson in part of his demo: “Here I’m watching a live HD feed of a football game. Up top I’m getting real-time information, and real-time scores for every sports program in my channel lineup. And across the bottom here, I’m getting real-time alerts about my favorite players, about my favorite teams. … SportsLounge tells me what’s on later, and I can queue it up to record programs. So I know I’m going to work during the BCS title game tomorrow night. Media Center will record it for me automatically.

“I can get in-depth scores for games that are in my channel lineup, or not in my channel lineup. And if you love fantasy sports, you’re going to really dig this one: I can set SportsLounge up to track all my fantasy teams.”

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Microsoft also showed some cool capabilities of Vista such as Shadow Copy (which helps restore documents like never before) and possible Vista Ultimate Extras features like GroupShot (which enables users to meld photos). There was also interesting stuff around Windows Live and Xbox Live.

But overall, geeks in the know said they were not impressed with the keynote. I guess there just were not enough cool gadgets or new stuff that hadn’t been leaked or preannounced.

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