LAS VEGAS--Steve Ballmer’s delivery of the last Microsoft CES keynote, 17 years after Bill Gates first took to the stage in 1995 with a CES workshop, signified the end of an era, and the beginning of a new stage in Microsoft’s story, a stage in which it emerges fully from behind the WinTel duopoly and competes toe to toe in the smartphone, entertainment and mobile computing arenas, a competition defined as much by ecosystems as it is by technology.
Introduced by Gary Shapiro, president of the CEA and who first introduced Gates to the show, Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, tore enthusiastically into a litany of recent and new innovations, starting with a demo of Windows Phones 7 operating system, which he defines as a ‘people hub’-- putting people first -- versus the ‘sea of icons’ on Android and Apple devices. In the process, he announced that Nokia’s Lumia 710, with Windows OS, will be available in the U.S. on Wednesday, via T-Mobile. That little tidbit came on the heels of Nokia’s own announcement earlier in the day of its new high-end Lumia 900 smartphones on AT&T’s 4G LTE network, also running Windows Phones 7, which Ballmer also alluded to.
While the OS looks interesting, it can’t go unsaid that a quick demo of the social-networking aspects of the device, which integrates Twitter, Facebook and other media, didn’t quite work, a classic Microsoft demo moment, which the audience appreciated.
CES auditorium after CEO Steve Ballmer gave Microsoft's last CES keynote, symbolizing the end of an era for CES, the WinTel duopoly, Intel and Microsoft itself as it moves headlong into a new phase of toe-to-toe competition for the hearts and minds of the consumer.
Windows Phones 7 was followed by an overview of Windows, which developers first got a look at back in September 2011. Tami Reller, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer, calling Windows 8 “a new way of thinking about PCs: it’s a no-compromise experience.”
What Reller was referring to was the all-out push to take the best of tablets and PCs and integrate into a single OS that is architecture agnostic, in that it can run across either Intel or ARM processors, a major break from the Intel-Windows duopoly against which developers, users, media and governments have railed, despite its success in making PCs ubiquitous and creating a whole new industry.
To ram home the point about architecture agnosticism, Reller pointed out that the demo of Windows 8 was performed on an nVidia Tegra 3, a quad-core ARM Cortex A9 processor.
Features Reller highlighted included a redesigned Start homepage, tiles, the integration of apps all the way to the datacenter and swiping, as well as new features that will add to the technological lexicon, including semantic zoom, charms, and of course the Metro user interface, a major highlight of the new OS.
Reller finished with a review of ultra-portable laptops running the OS, including the HP MV 14 Spectra and the ultra-slim Samsung Series 9: 13 mm thin, 2.5 lb and with a 15-in screen. Dell too will be making a major announcement at CES.
Xbox or bust
It was with the Xbox that Ballmer got particularly animated, and for good reason. With 40 million Xbox Live users and 18 million Kinects already shipped, it’s been a boon to the company. However, for the keynote, he had Craig Davison, senior director of Xbox, give a demo of Bing integrated with the Xbox, combined with Kinect-based voice control. Using only voice commands and instructions, he was able to search movies and even search, find and show the Alabama vs LSU game, live.
Davison did warn the audience not to look if they didn’t want to see the score, but of course the audience was transfixed, and even cheered, but it wasn’t clear if they were cheering because of the score (Alabama was in the process of trouncing LSU, 21 to 0), or because of the demo itself.
The new voice control capabilities came with a heads up that MS has partnered with content providers such as Comcast (Infinity), as well as New Corp, including its Fox channels and the Wall St. Journal.
The demonstration of interactive TV was the coup de grace for the keynote, and foretells a new TV experience that may well overshadow 3-D TV. The demo required a partnership with Sesame Street TV and used the Kinect. In the demo, perennial favorite ‘Grover’ was teaching the audience to count to four (the number of the day).
However, instead of counting four potatoes already in a box, he asked the viewer to throw four potatoes into the box. That changes everything. Aynsley, a young girl brought on to do the demo, stood up and swung like she was throwing a potato and sure enough, it appeared on the screen and landed in the box.
To prove the interactivity, the demonstrators sat down again, and despite Grover’s entreaties, refused to throw a potato. Instead, Cookie Monster threw a rock, which landed in the box and sent Grover to the ground. Next time, Aynsley stood up, made the throwing motion, and the potato once again appeared on the screen and landed on target.
Sesame St. has changed forever, and so has TV viewing in general.
So what’s next for Microsoft?
Fittingly, Ballmer answered the question with “Metro! Metro! Metro!” and “Windows! Windows! Windows!”
Those are the last words we’ll hear from Microsoft as CES keynoter. Or are they?