Microsoft Offers Big Vision, Little News

Steve Ballmer gives his final CES keynote

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer kicked off this year's International Consumer Electronics Show on Monday night with characteristically high energy but not much in the way of big news.

Ballmer's speech was supposedly Microsoft's final keynote at the event, breaking a 15-year streak. That decision probably made a bigger splash than Ballmer's actual speech. Gary Shapiro, the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (which organizes CES), addressed some of the speculation in his introduction, claiming that the decision was mutual (rather than a unilateral withdrawal from Microsoft) and saying he would be "shocked" if another Microsoft executive doesn't take the stage at CES in coming years.

As for the keynote itself, Ballmer focused on highlighting products that Microsoft has already announced and demonstrated at other events. However, he and the other company representatives dribbled out a few small pieces of news—the biggest being a time line for the release of the first Windows Phones created in partnership with Nokia. In the United States, the Nokia 710 Lumia will be available on Wednesday, Ballmer said.

Even though Ballmer didn't have much new to share, he still trotted out many of Microsoft's existing products, all united by the company's new "Metro" interface. Metro lays the screen out in tiles that are personalizable and responsive to touchscreens, and Microsoft is using it in Windows Phones, the Xbox and in the upcoming Windows 8 operating system. On phones, Ballmer said Metro provides an alternative to the "sea of apps" approach taken by competitors.

On the Xbox, Metro is coupled with the Kinect interface, which allows users to interact with their game consoles using gestures and voice. Xbox has increasingly become an "entertainment hub for live TV, on demand, social" and more, Ballmer said. On the live TV front, the company announced that Xbox Live customers will be able to sign up for Xfinity cable from Comcast. Microsoft's Greg Davidson also said Xbox is working with "the world's best-known brands, creative artists and production companies" to create interactive TV experiences—for example, Microsoft demonstrated a version of Sesame Street (first unveiled last fall) where viewers can interact with characters from the show.

The biggest surprises on Monday night probably weren't the Microsoft products or announcements, but rather the choice of celebrity host for the event (American Idol's Ryan Seacrest) and the bold (if not particularly well-received) decision to bring a choir onstage to sing out selected comments about the keynote from Twitter.

At the end, Seacrest asked Ballmer to reveal, "What's next?" and the Microsoft CEO fell back on his existing themes: "Metro, metro, metro. And of course, Windows, Windows, Windows."