LAS VEGAS-Long before Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stepped onstage to give the opening keynote of the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), chatter among analysts and pundits focused on a handful of key show themes: ultrabooks, Windows 8 and Nokia's attempt to emerge as a significant player in the U.S. smartphone market.
Ballmer's keynote-very likely the final one by any Microsoft CEO for the foreseeable future, as the company intends to make CES 2012 its last-contained no surprises and did nothing to counter those emerging themes. He praised the "Metro" design aesthetic, which is helping unite the company's various products into a unified ecosystem, as a "star attraction" that "lights everything up." He touted Windows Phone and the upcoming Windows 8, and a brief video flashed the ultrabooks created by Microsoft's hardware partners.
Ultrabooks are lightweight, slim laptops backed by powerful hardware. Some 60 different types will reportedly hit the market in 2012. For Intel, a chief backer of the form factor, ultrabooks represent a chance to own a more substantial piece of the mobility market; for manufacturers, it represents a chance to capitalize on the same trend that made Apple's MacBook Air a hit. However, some analysts feel ultrabook manufacturers have a hard battle ahead if they want their latest devices to seize the imaginations of PC buyers.
"The prices, mostly in the $1,000 price range, are much more reasonable than they used to be for comparable PCs, but they're still not affordable for every PC buyer," Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research, wrote in a Jan. 6 posting on her corporate blog. In a September survey her firm conducted of 5,130 online consumers, about 22 percent signaled interest in ultrabooks at the $1,000 price point.
The ultrabooks' lightweight bodies alone won't sway consumers, analyst Jack Gold told eWEEK: "If ultrabooks are only thin, light Mac Air knockoffs, they won't be very successful."
During his keynote, Ballmer also touted a new line of Windows Phones from various manufacturers. Along with hardware partners such as HTC and Nokia, Microsoft is using CES as a platform to relaunch Windows Phone, which has attracted critical praise but relatively few sales.
Perhaps no company has more riding on Windows Phone's success than Nokia, which abandoned its homegrown operating systems in favor of Microsoft's. As part of its push at CES, Nokia announced a new high-end smartphone running the Windows Phone OS: the Lumia 900.
But Microsoft has more to worry about than Windows Phone-or whether audiences will gravitate toward ultrabooks. Ballmer used his speech to promote Windows 8, the company's upcoming operating system designed to work on both traditional PCs and tablets.
Windows 8 carries risks for Microsoft. It arrives a mere three years after Windows 7, which has sold more than 500 million copies. That might make a new version a hard sell to customers that recently upgraded.
Also, Windows 8 on tablets will enter a segment dominated by Apple's iPad and crowded with a variety of Google Android tablets.
This CES kicks off what surely will be the driving stories for 2012: the rise of ultrabooks, Nokia's attempted comeback, and Microsoft and partners gearing up for Windows 8.