It is a guarantee at these things that some major glitch or computer crash will occur during Microsoft keynotes. YouTube is filled with such fun clips. Wednesday's keynote was no exception as the major problem occurred just 10 minutes before the thing was supposed to start.
I sat in the press section -- the best seats in the house, in the first seven rows right in the middle of the Las Vegas Hilton Center -- as all the lights in the house suddenly shut down, leaving us in darkness for a few moments before the emergency power kicked in. When we saw that the dozen Microsoft monitors were still dark, we knew we were in for an unwanted adventure.
It was interesting to watch the world's largest Black Screen of Death.
About the time the keynote was scheduled to start, an announcement came over the loudspeaker: A "small power problem" has occurred and we would be starting in "about five minutes." Then technicians rushed the stage frantically trying to bring life back to the still powerless PCs on the stage.
"About five minutes" turned into 30, and it was obvious that some of the PCs were still having difficulty being restored to their former health. Microsoft finally gave in and started the show anyway.
What followed could only be adequately described as "Amateur Hour." I'm sure it resembled the old Homebrew Computer Club demonstrations of the mid-1970s more than what passes for modern keynote deliveries of the 21st Century.
Steve Jobs of Apple has set the standard on the modern keynote address, with his simple graphics and well-rehearsed deliveries. It's rare that a glitch occurs in his keynotes, and when they do, he always manages to pass it off with a funny line and gets on with it.
Steve Ballmer's keynote couldn't have been more different. He fumbled over his words during some rocky moments and when it came time for humor, it was obvious that it was scripted. You coud tell he was about to make a joke because he would raise the volume of his voice in order to let all of us know that he was about to make a joke.
Ballmer's hit the road during 2009 making a lot of speeches about just how crappy Microsoft's products have been. He's apologized on different occasions about the Xbox red rings problem, the worthlessness of Windows Mobile 6.5 and just how much everybody hated Windows Vista. He offered no such apologies in Wednesday's keynote. In fact, he acted as if Microsoft didn't have any problems at all.
For example, as the media was being seated before the show, we were all instructed to turn off "our cell phones and Windows Mobile devices." Well, practically anybody in the press corps who might have owned a Windows Mobile device had turned it off a long time ago. It was probably sitting in a shoebox at home.
But Ballmer, talking about Windows Mobile 6.5, acted as if it was the industry's leading mobile phone OS, with marketshare expected to be growing into the next year (and probably throughout the millenium to come). The media folks rolled their collective eyes.
It was a rambling presentation, with a lot of empty words being spoken about a lot of equally empty products. Ballmer didn't offer anything new. After talking about Windows Mobile, Windows 7 and a new cellphone designed to run WiMo, he finally got the media excited when he revealed some examples of some new "slate" computers that were being developed. Ahhh, here's the Apple-killer everyone wanted to see. But when he admitted that it was just a concept, everyone slumped down in their seats again. Alas, Microsoft's patened FUD (fear-uncertainty-doubt) struck again.
Finally, Ballmer relinquished the stage to Microsoft's Entertainment head, who presented some genuinely interesting -- and actual -- products, such as the next version of Halo and some more details about the gamer-is-the-controller concept they call Project Natal. He even promised that Project Natal would actualy be available during 2010.
But by that time, Steve Ballmer was already gone, not to return to the stage. With the keynote being at the Las Vegas Hilton, Elvis Presley's old hangout, I expected an announcement along the lines of "Steve Ballmer has left the building," but it didn't happen.
Instead, he rode out in the same silence that will undoubtedly surround most of Microsoft's big ventures of 2010.