Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer spent his possibly last Consumer Electronics Show keynote playing up Windows Phone and the upcoming Windows 8.
LAS VEGAS-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
took the stage here Jan. 9 for what could very well be his last keynote address
at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). As predicted by many in the tech media,
his talk focused primarily on Windows Phone, Microsoft's designs on living-room
entertainment and the upcoming Windows 8.
But most of all, Ballmer wanted to talk
about the "Metro" design aesthetic that increasingly unites Microsoft's
properties, referring to it as a "star attraction" across "all
the user experiences" offered by his company.
"I think people will be kind of
impressed by how it lights everything up," he told television host Ryan
Seacrest, who acted as a host of sorts for the keynote, and the audience of
hundreds filling the ballroom of Vegas' Venetian hotel and casino.
Overshadowing the event was the
knowledge that this would be a Microsoft CEO's last CES keynote, at least for
the foreseeable future.
"We agreed to a pause," Gary
Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which
hosts CES, told the audience before Ballmer appeared. "I would be shocked
if a Microsoft leader didn't return to the stage in the next few years."
That made the pullout sound like a
mutual decision, despite an official Microsoft blog posting in December
framing it as
a unilateral one-on Microsoft's part. When Ballmer stepped onstage, he declined
to say much of anything about his company's decision, but moved on to the main
event with a brisk "Let's get started."
Soon enough, the giant screen behind
Ballmer and Seacrest was flashing images of the company's upcoming products,
and a rotating host of executives stepped onto one of the onstage podiums to
deliver a somewhat deeper dive into the various features.
"I'm really excited and upbeat
about where we are," Ballmer said about Microsoft's Windows Phone. "If
you take a look at it, the other phones all make the sea of icons, the sea of
applications ... what we've really done with Windows Phone is have a better way."
Microsoft and its partners are using
CES as a platform to essentially reintroduce Windows Phone to a broad audience.
Although the mobile software platform attracted some solid critical reviews
following its initial release in late 2010, by summer even Ballmer acknowledged
that Windows Phone devices were selling poorly.
Microsoft has released a major Windows
Phone software update, "Mango," with hundreds of tweaks and new
features. In addition, manufacturing partners such as Nokia and HTC have
committed to building a new generation of Windows Phones with specs matching
those of high-end rivals such as Apple's iPhone and the premium Android
Ballmer and company then moved on to
Windows 8. "People don't want to compromise on what they have today,"
he said, in a not-so-veiled allusion to tablets and their somewhat lightweight
functionality. "They want the best of what they have, and the best of what
they want." The upcoming operating system, he said, will operate on both
tablets and PCs without forcing users to compromise.
Despite the near-ubiquity of the
Windows brand on PCs, Windows 8 will face some significant challenges to
adoption when it enters the market in the second half of 2012. With a start
screen composed of large, colorful tiles linked to applications, the operating
system has indeed been designed to work on both traditional PCs and tablets; in
the latter case, however, it will face a segment dominated by Apple's iPad and
crowded with a variety of touch screens running Google Android. Those rivals
will surely battle fiercely to keep Windows from gaining traction among tablet
In addition, Windows 8 will arrive a
mere three years after Windows 7. That could make the operating system a hard
sell to customers and businesses that recently upgraded. Over the past few
months, Microsoft executives have taken pains to emphasize Windows 8's
enhancements and tweaks to the standard Windows features.
Ballmer and company also pushed the ultrabooks
that are ubiquitous at this year's CES. This isn't exactly a startling move on
Microsoft's part: Ballmer has long advocated selling ultrathin laptops with
more powerful specs than netbooks-small and cheap devices that flooded the
market a few years back. For Microsoft, the advantage is clear: More powerful
hardware can run a more expensive version of Windows, not to mention software
such as Office. Ultrabooks are also being pushed aggressively by Intel, which
is seeking a way to make its presence more deeply felt in the mobile
Ballmer spent the rest of his last CES
keynote discussing initiatives ranging from Xbox-whose dashboard recently
underwent a "Metro"-style makeover-to the cloud-based Office 365. But
he closed with a strong message about Microsoft's core focus. "Windows 8
is what's next," he told the audience. "There's nothing more
important at Microsoft than Windows."
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