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CES: Something missing from Microsoft's keynote?

Microsoft Corp. is pleased to announce a bold new partnership with ... never mind.

At companies as large as Microsoft, few events elicit as much careful preparation as a keynote speech by the top executives. Sunday night, that was Bill Gates at CES.

The speechwriting and much-rehearsed demonstrations are just the visible part of what approximates a State of the Union address. Underlying those are the efforts by: strategists to establish broad themes, executives to hash through which projects most deserve (or most badly need) championing, and deal makers to lobby for public salutes to allies at other corporations.

Given all that labor and the need for a seamless multimedia performance, last-minute changes are strongly discouraged.

So it came as a surprise when one of the keynote deals Microsoft explained in advance to the press Friday -- an agreement by Sony Corp. to manufacture television sets capable of displaying a Windows-powered computer’s content without extra gear -- was excised from Sunday's speech. Similar TV deals were announced with only Hewlett-Packard Co. and Samsung Corp.

Let's see, did anything else happen Friday? Oh yes, Blu-ray, which is the next-generation DVD format backed furiously by Sony, converted Warner Bros. to its cause and won what several analysts predicted would be the decisive blow against the HD DVD format championed by Microsoft.

Microsoft said the change in Gates' speech was a coincidence, one that it declined to explain further.

A Sony spokesman also discouraged any link to the format war, saying that negotiations over the new TVs probably hadn't gotten close enough to completion for an announcement -- apparently someone jumped the gun.

Sony and Microsoft compete on several fronts but cooperate on others. In fact, some of the demonstrations during Gates’ keynotes were on Sony Vaio laptops running Windows Vista. That long-term partnership is too valuable for both sides to be abandoned over one or two fits of pique, be they real or imagined.

-- Joseph Menn

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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