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The Odd Couple: Robin Williams and Google's Larry Page

Robin Williams couldn't have asked for a better straight man, during the closing keynote of the Consumer Electronics Show today, than Google co-founder Larry Page, or, as Williams called him, "Mensa boy."

Williams poked gentle fun at Page, even as he helped him handle a long series of questions from the audience. (Many of which focused on future Google products, like a cheap PC, and many of which Page dodged.)

Let me start at the very beginning, though. Page took the stage riding on the back bumper of a robotic SUV that had competed in last year's Darpa Grand Challenge, a race across the desert. (For liability reasons, the robotic SUV that crossed the stage at the Las Vegas Hilton needed a driver, a member of the Stanford University team that designed it.) Page was wearing jeans, hiking sneakers, a white t-shirt, and a white Google lab coat.

The first part of the presentation rambled, and it felt like a college course that had been taken over, in the professor's absence, by the teaching assistant. Page wondered about why it is that cell phones, cameras, and handheld computers can't communicate with one another, and why they all have different power adapters. He griped about why it was such a pain to download and install software.

Then he unveiled Google Pack (http://pack.google.com), a free bundle of software (including Google Desktop, Acrobat Reader, Norton AntiVirus, Mozilla Firefox, and several other goodies) that is easy to install in one fell swoop.

But things really got rolling when he unveiled the Google Video Store. I've posted here before about Google's plans to compete with Apple's iTunes Music Store, but this was the official announcement.

Google will sell, at $1.99 a download, TV shows from CBS, WGBH, HDNet, and the NBA. You can watch 30 seconds of a video for free, and the video can be watched on a PC, or downloaded to an iPod or PlayStation portable. Producing good video is expensive, Page said, and Google Video Store will allow anyone to pick a price they want to charge for their video, from 5 cents on up, whether you're a big studio or a small independent. Page said he wasn't wild about the idea of using advertising to support video on the Web: "I don't think the online experience of being forced to watch a commercial is a great experience."

Google's leveling of the playing field - letting anyone upload and charge for video - is a big deal. It potentially will help Google's video site surpass iTunes, since Apple's approach so far has been to go around doing individual deals with big media companies like Disney and NBC/Universal, while forcing small content producers to give away their stuff for free. I think Google has just created the video version of eBay.

Page trotted out Les Moonves of CBS to help herald the launch: "Each of us needs the other to take the next leap forward," Moonves said.

Then Williams came out to help Page manage the Q&A. (Most keynotes at CES don't allow questions from the audience; kudos to Page for bucking that boring trend.) God help the French fellow who stood up to ask Page about whether there would be French videos on the service... he wound up as cannon fodder for a Williams riff that mentioned the Maginault line, smoking, Euro Disney, and Minnie Mouse's armpit hair.

(Also: I posted some other quick impressions from CES earlier today on my blog, CinemaTech.)

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