Microsoft's appearance at this year's Consumer Electronics Show came with a little bit more than the usual drama. By the time CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage Jan. 9 to deliver his opening keynote address, it'd been known for several weeks that Microsoft was pulling out of the massive show 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 that framed it as a unilateral one on Microsoft's part. Ballmer onstage didn't acknowledge the issue, choosing instead to launch into his presentation with a brisk, "Let's get started."
Every year at CES, Microsoft has used that opening keynote to unveil new products and tout its progress in various areas. This year was little different, with Ballmer focusing on the Metro design aesthetic that increasingly united Microsoft's various properties, referring to it as a "star attraction" across "all the user experiences" offered by his company.
The Metro aesthetic is present not only in the company's Windows Phone platform, but also its upcoming Windows 8. Microsoft used CES to reveal still more about the latter, which is expected to arrive sometime in the second half of 2012.
"People don't want to compromise on what they have today," Ballmer told the audience during his keynote, referring to Windows 8 and its ability to run on tablets in addition to traditional PCs. "They want the best of what they have, and the best of what they want."
Despite Windows' overwhelming market share on PCs, Windows 8 will face some significant challenges in the tablet arena, where it faces Apple's best-selling iPad in addition to a variety of touch-screens running Google Android. Those rivals will surely battle to prevent Windows from gaining traction among tablet users.
Microsoft also used CES to promote Windows Phone. "I'm really excited and upbeat about where we are," Ballmer said about the platform-an inevitable pronouncement, given his position. But Windows Phone is also struggling for adoption in the face of significant competition from Google Android and Apple's iPhone. Nokia, which decided early in 2011 to abandon its homegrown operating systems in favor of Windows Phone, launched a set of new devices at CES as part of its attempt to gain a toehold in the U.S. smartphone market. However, it's an open question as to whether the Finnish phone maker's latest hardware will attract the necessary droves of customers to make that happen.
Microsoft pushed the ultrabook, ubiquitous at this year's CES. Intel and manufacturers such as Toshiba are offering the super-slim laptops as the next big thing, but whether they resonate with consumers remains to be seen. Microsoft claims that PC sales will go soft in the fourth quarter because of supply issues related to the recent floods in Thailand-creating more pressure on the industry to produce devices that excite businesses and consumers, and reignite sales in 2012.
The company also used CES to announce that Kinect for Windows will arrive in February. "We love the innovation we have seen built using Kinect for Xbox 360-this has been a source of inspiration and delight for us and compelled us to create a team dedicated to serving this opportunity," Craig Eisler, general manager of Kinect for Windows, wrote in a Jan. 9 posting on the Kinect for Windows Blog. "With Kinect for Windows, we are investing in creating a platform that is optimized for scenarios beyond the living room."
In other words, between Windows 8 and the new Windows Phone push and Kinect, it'd be an understatement to say that Microsoft has a big year ahead.