Microsoft’s Ballmer Focuses on Windows 8 in His Last CES Keynote

1/10/12Follow @jpruth

At his curtain call—for the moment anyway—at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer hyped his company’s efforts to innovate and compete across multiple platforms. Microsoft announced previously that after 2012 it will no longer give the keynote at CES. As they waited for seats Monday evening, some members of the press corps voiced doubts about the weight of Ballmer’s anticipated final keynote. But the Microsoft boss still drew a throng that came to see if the company had any new tricks up its sleeve.

CES, hosted by the Consumer Electronics Association, is an annual conference held in Las Vegas where device makers, software developers, and others in the consumer technology world present their newest offerings and give a glimpse of what is in the works. Though many hopes are raised at each CES, not every gadget or promised innovation arrives on schedule or meets expectations.

For the past 14 years, Microsoft has delivered the keynote address that gets the week-long conference under way. But even though Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro said that Microsoft would “take a break” from the keynote stage, he added that the association would continue its relationship with the company. “I would be shocked if a Microsoft leader does not return to the stage in the next few years,” Shapiro said.

Ballmer, with some help from “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, chatted about the development of the upcoming Windows 8 operating system and ways Microsoft wants to compete across phones, televisions, PCs, and other devices. “Nothing better than good competition,” Ballmer said.

Perhaps in an effort to shake up the stodgy feel and look of the Windows desktop, Microsoft is taking a new approach in its next version of the platform. “The Windows PC has constantly changed and reinvented and spurred other technology innovations,” Ballmer said. While he talked up the ubiquity of Windows among computers, he noted that users want new features and options. “With Windows 8, we’ve reimagined Windows from the chipset to the user experience,” he said.

Much of that change is being borrowed from the mobile world. It is called the Metro user interface, which originated on the Windows Phone 7 platform, and it is being worked into the Windows 8 platform. Through Metro, a user controls the desktop much like a smartphone, with swipe commands from a mouse, keyboard, and, where applicable, touchscreen. That will give users of Windows 8 mobile-style functions for managing their software, communications, social connections, and content. Users will also be able to use apps downloaded from the Windows Store, which is scheduled to open in late February when the Windows 8 beta is expected. The Metro interface is also being incorporated into Internet Explorer and the Xbox media device.

It may be no surprise that Microsoft is tying its mobile efforts closer to its desktop roots to make both segments more competitive. Fighting for market share has been challenging for the Windows Phone platform, with Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS largely dominating consumer mobile devices. Microsoft tries to differentiate itself from such rivals with Windows Phone’s tile-like interface for organizing apps, messaging, and content. Handset makers such as Samsung, HTC, and LG produce phones that use the platform. Thus far, Nokia has made Windows Phones for customers outside the United States.

However, during the keynote, Ballmer announced the first U.S.-released Nokia phone to run the Windows Phone platform, the Lumia 710, will be available Wednesday for T-Mobile customers.

“The thing I’m really pumped up about,” Ballmer said, “is the work that’s going on moving to 4G LTE networks.” Wireless providers across the industry are currently in a race to deliver this growing class of high-speed connectivity to their customers. Ballmer unveiled during the keynote another Nokia phone, the Lumia 900, which will run on AT&T’s network and use the Windows Phone platform when the smartphone becomes available “in the next few months,” he said. The keynote, like many live events, was not without its hiccups; a demonstration of a voice-to-text feature for Windows Phone did not completely transcribe a simple two-word audible response.

Microsoft won back a few points with the audience when it showed how a Lumia 900 phone running Windows Phone can be used to control the Xbox 360 console via voice commands. The console can also be controlled with voice commands through the Kinect device rather than the smartphone. Kinect interprets physical and audible responses from users as commands for games, movies, music, and other content. For example, users can tell the device to search for videos available in the Xbox catalog as well as search for information with the Bing search engine. “You say it and Xbox can find it,” Ballmer said.

He wrapped with some of Microsoft’s expectations for Windows 8 as well as Kinect’s future beyond entertainment use. “We’ll see [Kinect] revolutionize other industries,” he said. “Education, health care, and many more.” Starting February 1, Kinect will function with Windows computers, Ballmer said. “We’re already working with more than 200 companies on unique Kinect for Windows applications.”

His closing remarks centered on the company’s traditional bread and butter: Windows. “The next milestone is late February and on with the shipment of Windows 8,” Ballmer said. “There’s nothing more important about Microsoft than Windows.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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