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Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

CES 2012: Three Gems Hidden in Microsoft's Boring Keynote

Microsoft’s final CES keynote was mostly dull but had its highlights.

  • January 10, 2012

Audience expectations were high when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage last night to give the opening keynote of the Consumer Electronics Show last night. His company has provided the opening keynote for 15 years, but had decided (or maybe been told) that 2012 would be its last.

Hands off: Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer won’t appear at CES next year. Credit: Technology Review

Surely, thought the collective mind, Ballmer would want to go out on a high.

He didn’t. Ballmer didn’t even give a speech. Instead he had a scripted conversation with TV host Ryan Seacrest that—in a meandering, fragmented way—enabled Ballmer to say how well he thought things like Windows Phone were going, without giving any hard numbers to back it up.

Much of the time was taken up by Ballmer’s employees from various divisions of Microsoft, who gave cheerleading demonstrations of products we already knew about. Windows Phone 7, seen on various handsets already this week, and Windows 8, the subject of last year’s Keynote, featured prominently. Extra padding came in the form of a bizarre but fun autotuned musical mashup of previous Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer keynotes (watch it here). Further puzzling diversion came from a gospel group—complete with priest—called the Tweet Choir. They sang Twitter messages made by the audience during the keynote (see that for yourself here).

Yet Ballmer didn’t manage to slink away without saying a few things of interest. Three in fact. Here they are:

Microsoft is dabbling with TV
A child actor took the stage to demonstrate how TV shows can be made interactive with the aid of the Kinect motion controller. Microsoft collaborated with the makers of Sesame Street to make a version where a character (for the record, furry blue monster Grover) asked viewers to make gestures to help out, and could respond when they did.

When viewers motioned to throw coconuts into a box (it’s a long story), real coconuts appeared in the show right on cue. If viewers sat back and refused, the story took a different turn. The demo also showed how TV shows can merge seamlessly into more traditional games, when the character Elmo invited viewers to join him on screen, and they could, thanks to the Kinect’s body-tracking abilities. It may seem like a gimmick, but the large and growing number of Kinects out there and Microsoft’s partnerships with cable providers Comcast and Verizon give this real potential. Interactive TV ads would be particularly lucrative.

Storefront: The Windows app store, shown here on a Windows 8 tablet, is launching in less than two months.

The Windows app store is opening for business late in February
Microsoft’s OS was the original demonstration that providing a platform that enables others to do the hard work of coming up with new ideas is smart business, well before Steve Jobs refreshed that model with the iPhone app store. Now Microsoft will complete the circle, launching an Apple style app store for Windows PCs, and it’s coming soon.

Kinect is coming to Windows on February 1
The PC is set to get a whole new interface, one that recognizes arm, hand, and body movements. That should change the applications we already have and make many new ones possible. Gaming is one obvious area that will benefit, but there are many more.

“Just as Kinect revolutionised entertainment, we’ll see it revolutionize many other industries,” said Ballmer. “Education, health care, and many more.” Microsoft is already working with more than 200 companies on Kinect for Windows, he said, including United Health Group, Toyota, and American Express. Quite what they’re doing he didn’t say, but the variety in that short list hints at the breadth of the opportunity. A brief concept video showed Kinect being used to create invisible cellos, to control bomb-defusing robots, and to allow physiotherapy patients to see their bones as they exercised.

How Microsoft will deliver future major product announcements without CES is, as yet, unknown. My guess is that they’ll follow the prevailing practice of companies like Apple and Google, which call special announcements whenever something is ready. The launch of Kinect for Windows on February 1 will be our first chance to find out.

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