Microsoft’s Ballmer Touts Windows 8 at Final CES Keynote

Las Vegas — Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s recurring theme through the company’s final keynote presentation at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show was Windows 8. Mr. Ballmer used the event to show off what’s in store for the next version of Windows on PCs, tablets and smartphones, and to indirectly show how the OS will compete with innovations from Apple’s own iOS and OS X operating systems.

Steve Ballmer speaking at CES 2012Steve Ballmer speaking at CES 2012

Like every Microsoft keynote presentation The Mac Observer has attended at CES, this one had the potential to be a powerhouse event, or a train wreck of epic proportions. The year’s farewell keynote, however, meandered more towards the eclectic and surreal.

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes CES every year, introduced the keynote presentation and addressed the fact that this was Microsoft’s last year keynoting or officially exhibiting. Without saying if Microsoft chose to leave, or if CES asked the company to move on, he said that the Windows maker would be around at some point in the future, and added, “I wish gratitude and goodwill towards Microsoft.”

Jumping into the actual presentation, hosted by Ryan Seacrest of American Idol fame, Mr. Ballmer said, “We have the chance to really raise our game over the next year.”

Ryan Seacrest "interviews" Steve BallmerRyan Seacrest “interviews” Steve Ballmer

In a jab at the iPhone and Android-based phones, Mr. Ballmer said that the Windows 8’s Metro interface is easier to use, and is the first “unique and beneficial user experience.”

“Other phones have a sea of icons,” he said. “Windows phone is the first phone that puts people first.”

Derek Snyder from the Windows Phone team said Metro focuses on “Celebrating all the relationships in your life.” The feature ties together information that relates to the currently selected contact, which makes it surprisingly easy to see conversations and meetings with that person. Users can also start a conversation through one service, such as Facebook, then later jump that conversation to a different service, like text messaging, without breaking the chat thread — a feature that would be nice to see on the iPhone.

Mr. Ballmer added, “I think with the Windows Phone we’re clearly on the right track.”

Looking at PCs, Mr. Ballmer offered the pithy gem, “People want the best of what they have, and the best of what they want.”

Microsoft is positioning Windows 8 as a single OS for computers and tablets, as opposed to Apple’s current iOS for mobile devices and OS X for desktop and laptop computers. The idea is that Windows users will be able to use a touch interface or keyboard and mouse on PCs and mobile devices, blurring the line between mobile and traditional computers.

While the Windows 8 Metro interface seems to work well on mobile devices, it doesn’t hold up as well on PCs. The sea of icons Mr. Ballmer used to bag on the iPhone was clearly visible during the company’s PC presentation, and even seemed cumbersome for the presenter, Windows Chief Marketing Officer Tami Reller.

Microsoft's own "sea of icons" on Windows 8Microsoft’s own “sea of icons” on Windows 8

Mr. Ballmer’s biggest win for the night turned out to be Xbox’s Kinect with voice control.  Microsoft is bringing Kinect to Windows on February 1, and the voice and motion control features it offers may leave Apple playing catchup in the user interaction game.

Microsoft’s lead in bringing cable and TV content to its Xbox gaming console means Apple will need to bring a long list of providers on board if it plans to take the Apple Television from rumor to shipping product. Assuming Apple’s TV plans include content deals, Microsoft has already set the bar.

Big Redmond also announced plans to bring two-way interactive TV programming to the Xbox, and the results look promising. Choosing to demo the features, available later this year, by leaving several hundred technology journalists watching Sesame Street, however, might have been better thought out.

The company was apparently so proud of the tweets attendees were posting that it brought what it called the Twitter Choir on stage to sing select tweets. Imagine a talented gospel choir singing individual messages verbatim, including “hash tag CES.”

Moving away from the surreal, Mr. Ballmer said, “There’s nothing more important at Microsoft than Windows,” and considering the company’s plans for Windows 8, it’s clear he meant what he said.