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 smartphones.
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 users.
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 segment.
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."