When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer takes the stage for his Jan. 9 keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show, he'll almost certainly whip the curtain back from a few company projects in development.
Chief among those will be Windows 8, the long-gestating operating system due to arrive sometime in the latter half of 2012. Microsoft's teams have tailored its interface for both tablets and traditional PCs, giving users the chance to flip seamlessly between a "regular" desktop and a start screen of colorful (and potentially touchable) tiles linked to applications.
Will Ballmer use his stage time in Las Vegas to reveal upcoming Windows 8 devices? In 2010, he spent a good part of his speech demonstrating a tablet PC from Hewlett-Packard. "Almost as portable as a phone, but powerful as a PC running Windows 7," he told the audience, while demonstrating the device's ability to display ebooks. "The emerging category of PCs should take advantage of the touch and portability capabilities."
But that tablet never hit the market, most likely because of HP's decision to use webOS as the software foundation for its first consumer tablet, and the next year Ballmer seemed more reluctant to use CES to show off products in development. Instead, he touted Kinect, the hands-free gaming controller for the Xbox, and repeated an earlier announcement that "the next version of Windows" would support system-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture. He also praised Windows Phone and promised the company would invest "aggressively" in the platform.
But 2012 could mark the return of a Ballmer more willing to flash new and upcoming products. Indeed, the need for Windows 8 to perform at Windows 7 levels on the open market-that is, hundreds of millions of copies sold-could compel Ballmer to show Microsoft's hardware partners as firmly behind the project, which means a substantial show of developing products at CES.
Ballmer will almost certainly plug the Xbox and Kinect, and how those products are helping Microsoft transform into a significant player in living-room entertainment. He will also promote Windows Phone and its growing circle of manufacturers, including Nokia, whose executives have already promised a significant CES presence. The only question surrounding the latter is which Windows Phone devices will make an appearance, and their capabilities.
This year's CES will reportedly be Microsoft's last; starting in 2013, it will decline to offer a keynote speech or booth at the show. Microsoft itself has painted this as a unilateral decision, stating that its product news announcements don't align with the show's January timeframe. However, executives at the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs CES, have suggested to the media that it was more of a mutual decision for Microsoft to pull out.
Whatever the case, Ballmer and crew can only hope that their work at this year's CES will provide momentum for those initiatives-in particular, Windows 8 and Windows Phone-they absolutely need to have succeed.