By John Bugailiskis
LAS VEGAS - Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s swan song address at the International Consumer Electronics Show was short on news and long on talk of the future, but given that it was his last keynote at CES, that should come as little surprise.
If anything, the discussion and analysis served to demonstrate that Microsoft’s decision to pull out of CES because it is not scheduled at a time when Microsoft has much to showcase was indeed the right decision. Microsoft’s current project is the Windows 8 OS, but it won’t likely be out until the end of the year, so there’s not a lot Ballmer could say that we don’t already know. In fact, Ballmer didn't even announce a specific date for Windows 8's mass-market release.
Windows 8 will be the first version of the operating system to run on processors designed by ARM. ARM-based processors are the dominant chips in smartphones and tablets and Microsoft's move to make Windows run on them is viewed as an ongoing attempt to develop Windows tablets that will better compete with Apple's iPad.
Instead, most of the 90-minute presentation was a rehash of how the software giant is working with its key partners such as Nokia to be a bigger player in the burgeoning smartphone and computer tablet markets. The bulk of the keynote took the form of a scripted, seated onstage interview with "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest. Ballmer took the opportunity to speak about Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 OS and the new Metro interface, and its Windows Phone software, but there was little new information about either product.
Among the few nuggets of new information is that Microsoft’s Kinect is coming to Windows PCs on Feb. 1. Amazon is already allowing customers to pre-order the device, which will cost $250. "Just as Kinect revolutionized gaming, we'll see it revolutionize other industries, like entertainment, healthcare and more," Ballmer told the CES crowd, gathered at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. Microsoft Kinect has been offered so far only for the Xbox, allowing people to control what happens on screen by moving their arms and legs. The company reports it has shipped 18 million Kinect sensors since the technology started shipping about a year ago.
Ballmer also announced that Nokia’s Lumia 900 and HTC Titan II phones using Windows Phones software will be offered later this year on AT&T’s 4G LTE network. Nokia’s Lumia 710, using the Windows Phones software, will be available Wednesday to T-Mobile USA customers and in February in Canada to Rogers customers.
The Lumia 900 will have many of the advanced features found in smartphones, including a 1.4 GHz processor, 4.3-inch AMOLED clear black display, rear-facing camera with Carl Zeiss optics and wide aperture, and a front-facing camera.
With wide screens that recognize voice and touch, the Windows smartphones are focused on contact lists and allow users to organize contacts into groups. Then the phone creates threads of communication with those people integrating Facebook messaging, Windows Messenger, Twitter in one place, without having to fire up separate apps. The Lumia and other Windows phones will also connect to other Microsoft products such as the XBox game console. Ballmer demonstrated how the phones feature tiles for each friends and family member on its start screen in a way that “puts people first.”
While Ballmer remains adamant that Windows Mobile Home is the superior application it’s becoming exceedingly difficult to turn around consumer interest in the iPhone and Google’s Android phones say analysts. For example more than 80% of smartphone buyers recently polled say they will buy an iPhone or Android device in the next six months. Only 9% say they will buy a Windows Mobile phone, says Katie Lewis, an analyst at Yankee Group.
"We've got a lot of room to go for selling Windows Phone," Ballmer conceded during the Nokia event. But he said "this third ecosystem" would be good for developers and operators as well as for Nokia and Microsoft.
Ballmer announced that Nokia's Lumia 800 Windows Phone will go on sale at Microsoft's retail stores in the U.S. in the next few months, however, the company hasn't signed a contract with a wireless carrier to offer it so the phone will be sold unlocked. In Canada though, Telus has announced it will “soon” have the Lumia 800.
Ballmer also announced a partnership with Fox that will bring "Glee", "Family Guy", and "Bones" to the Xbox, and with Comcast for its Xfinity TV service.
Cartt.ca consumer electronics editor John Bugailiskis is in Las Vegas this week covering the Consumer Electronics Show.