Zune isn’t the only Microsoft success rivaling the recently ubiquitous popularity of Apple. Forbes‘ most famous college drop out Bill Gates found himself in an importunate situation as he headed off this year’s CES International, held in Las Vegas, January 5th-10th.

As CES’s premier keynote speaker, Gates was not only the chosen celebrity face to head-off the year’s, and world’s, premier technology conference, but also the voice and authority of microsoft’s ‘apple resistance’: Those in the Vegas crowds to media desks afar, knew Gates faced the challenge of stealing the tech-world’s stoplight back from Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs, after Job’s ground-breaking iPhone announcement at last year’s Macworld Conference & Expo. With months still to go until Apple’s ’08 Q3 general release of a new, more affordable version of iPhone to US consumer markets, headline’s continue to hone-in on last year’s iPhone release and how it, “overshadowed everything at CES [last year] and has been as big a hit as everyone thought it would be.”

Directing attention away from consumer buzz and press coverage following a CES International show is a difficult feat at best. Macworld ’07’s success in overshadowing last year’s microsoft-centric CES releases not only meant good news for the Apple brand itself, but the brand’s momentum at the start of Q1 2007 also fueled predictions for a strong year of iPhone sales ahead. Will this be the case for Apple ’08?

Jobs not done… Adding to the Gate’s pressure is the fact that Steve Jobs lined up to speak again at this years Macworld, held January 14-18 in San Fransisco, and as IDG news reports, “rumors say Apple could reveal anything from its own ultramobile PC to an online movie rental service.” But let’s step back for a minute; as mentioned, the most pressing and obvious factor in the team “apple” vs. team “the rest of the consumer electronic industry”, (noting microsoft as the opposing industry ‘gorilla’) debate is that iPhone continues to be as big a hit as it was last year. Therefore, I argue that the tech-industry will remain at the current pro-Apple standstill: Any new, and perceivably groundbreaking announcements at next week’s Macworld will be like putting frosting on cheesecake.

How did Gates fair? Going back to my original point… Anticipation leading up to this year’s CES included ample speculation and rumors that Gates would announce various wish-list products, including a new Xbox 360 SKU that potentially contains HD-DVD playback and a 320GB hard drive. Addressing his audience at CES last Sunday, January 5th, Gates first and foremost chose to divert attention away from gaming hardware and software, an area where microsoft has been gaining increased consumer attention in the past months. He instead tried to be funny, and almost venerable to the masses, offering-up some economic rhetoric regarding a changing consumer electronics industry and the impact high definition has had on technology. He also formally announced his closing tenure as Microsoft boss, leaving more time to focus on his family, numerous charities, and clearly so he can finally beat Halo 3.

Finally, to directly address forbearing buzz that Apple out shined last year’s CES, for which Gate’s was also the top keynote speaker, Gates pulled out the big guns. He categorized Microsoft’s Zune as being, “the clear alternative to iPod”, and pointed out that Windows Mobile is outselling Blackberry and iPhone OS. Gates added more substance to his keynote by announcing a slew of new Microsoft products and partnerships. Apparently Windows Live now has 420 million users and Windows Mobile is currently the handheld platform of 20 million people. Gates described new social networking programs for Windows (that closely resembles MySpace), updates for both the Zune and Windows Mobile. Microsoft will be heading all internet video coverage for this year’s Beijing Olympics and has waged a strong partnership with Ford, launching the technology for products “Ford Sync” and “911 Assist”.

To address all the speculation surrounding famed Xbox, less than an hour into his speech Gate’s fetched Microsoft President of entertainment devices Robbie Bach. Bach laid all rumors that Xbox 360 will soon take over the world, if Arnold Schwarzenegger is unable to wipe out the resistance before Judgment Day, to rest. Bach ensured that, “Windows is far and away the largest gaming plaform in the world, and continues to grow,” and that they had passed a 10 million member milestone for Xbox Live. To further promote the Microsoft partnerships Bach announced that, “ABC and Disney will be bringing their TV shows to Xbox Live this month, [including] top rated shows like Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, and others,” adding that MGM will also eventually be supporting the gaming service.

All apples aside, Microsoft definitely appears to be heading in an expedient direction and Gates is strategically putting Microsoft’s gaming initiatives on the Bach-burner, leaving room for other, and perhaps more impacting, areas of focus for the corporation in coming years. In my opinion, all the industry’s microsoft vs. apple buzz will keep buzzing, and while it remains interesting to follow, the bottom-line is that Microsoft is starting seem like it really doesn’t care. Team Microsoft’s enthusiastic display of new products and video documentaries at this year’s CES were compelling–definitely my favorite keynote at this year’s show–although it was at times hard to see up to the stage with the bright glares coming from the audiences’ iPhones.

-By Tessa Rudd, Strategic Partnerships Coordinator – Advertising Media Division