During the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week, Microsoft will be highlighting a number of initiatives, including the launching of certain flagship products on which its future revenues at least partially depend.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer plans on giving a keynote address on the evening of Jan. 6, along with Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's Entertainment & Devices Division. The always-avuncular Ballmer will likely touch on early sales of Windows 7, which since its Oct. 22 release has allegedly been outselling previous Windows operating system by a ratio of 2-to-1. Ballmer and company will doubtlessly highlight a variety of PCs that run Windows 7.
The day before Ballmer's speech, Microsoft announced that Office 2010, due for release in June, will be made available in four versions: Office Home and Business, Office Professional, Office Home and Student, and Office Professional Academic. Those who unlock the pre-loaded version of Office on newly purchased machines, via a product key card, are eligible for a discount; by doing so, Microsoft seems to be encouraging users to purchase products from its hardware partners, a natural move considering how Redmond has emphasized in the past how its own financial fortunes will be tied to rising PC sales in 2010.
Office Home and Student will retail for $149 as a boxed product, and for $119 with a product key card. Office Home and Business will retail for $279 as a boxed product, and $199 with a product key card. Office Professional will retail for $499 as a boxed product, and $349 with a product key card. The Office Professional Academic version will retail for $99 as a boxed product, and evidently not be available for unlocking on a pre-loaded machine.
As with Windows 7, Microsoft has opened Office 2010 to a general public beta, presumably in order to ferret out as many bugs and other issues as possible before the release. "In just seven weeks, more than two million people around the world have downloaded and are using the Office 2010 beta," Rachel Bondi, general manager of Microsoft Office, wrote in a Jan. 5 posting on the official Microsoft Office 2010 Engineering blog. "To get a better appreciation for that number, it's a rate of more than 40,000 downloads per day."
But in the coming year, Microsoft will see its position in the productivity-suite space challenged by the rise of cloud-based applications such as Google Apps, which could begin to eat away at its market-share. In order to counter that threat, Microsoft has announced it will offer free, stripped-down versions of Word, OneNote, Excel and PowerPoint to Microsoft Live subscribers, but the complete range of tools will only be available to those who purchase the full version of Office 2010. Microsoft may also face issues from users with a "good enough" mentality towards their current version of Office, and therefore be reluctant to upgrade.
Microsoft could use CES to either drop hints about, or even formally demonstrate, Windows Mobile 7. Details of the next version of the company's mobile operating system has been kept tightly under wraps, but all indications point to a release sometime in 2010-and the sooner the better, at least according to some within Microsoft. During the company's Venture Capital Summit on Sept. 24, Steve Ballmer reportedly suggested that the company had "screwed up" on Windows Mobile and publicly wished that Mobile 7 had already been launched.
The broad platform of CES could give Microsoft the opportunity to announce that launch in a highly public way. That might help the company seize a little mind-share from Google, which has dominated the news in the recent days with its well-publicized rollout of the Nexus One smartphone, but more drastic steps will be needed in coming months if Microsoft wants to revive its sagging fortunes in the mobile space; according to a recent Gartner report, Windows Mobile's market share fell to 7.9 percent in the third quarter of 2009, down from 11.1 percent the same quarter last year.
Meanwhile, the stakes for mobile operating systems are higher than ever. According to a research note published by Nielsen on the eve of CES, the estimated smartphone user base in the United States will climb to around 150 million users by mid-2011. An estimated 120 million people will use mobile Web, while 90 million will watch mobile video. Smartphones totaled around 18 percent of the U.S. mobile device market by the end of 2009, up from 13 percent in 2008, and are expected to comprise some 40-50 percent of all mobile devices sold in 2010.
The BlackBerry 8300 Curve had the highest percentage of smartphone users, added the research note, with 17 percent of the market; followed by the Apple iPhone 3G with 15 percent, the Apple iPhone 3G S with 12 percent, the BlackBerry 9530 Storm with 6 percent, and the BlackBerry 8100 Pearl with 5 percent.
Ballmer and other Microsoft executives have suggested that they want the company to remain a player in the mobile operating system game. CES will likely give an idea of their plans to make that happen, including the much-rumored integration of Windows Mobile with Xbox Live network functionality.
During the Windows 7 launch in October, Microsoft heavily promoted the operating system's compatibility with its manufacturing partners' touch-screen computers, and will likely do so again at CES.
Indeed, tablet PCs may dominate the event. HTC will reportedly display such a device, running Google Android, to select customers; Freescale Semiconductor will debut a 7-inch touch screen; and a number of other companies will announce a variety of tablets and e-readers.
Microsoft and Ford collaborated on Sync, an in-car connectivity system that made its original debut at the Detroit Auto Show on Jan. 8. Ford is slated to roll out the second generation of Sync sometime in 2010, and considering that Ford president and CEO Alan Mulally is scheduled to deliver a keynote at CES on Jan. 7, chances are good the system will be on display at the event.
To activate the second-generation Sync, a driver or passenger can insert a USB mobile broadband modem into a USB port, creating a secure wireless connection and allowing users to sync with Bluetooth-capable phones, Zune, and Apple's iPod; access their contact lists; and play music from USB thumb drives.