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Ballmer reacquaints Microsoft with its PC past

Windows without risk

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Comment Steve Ballmer's inaugural Consumer Electronics Show (CES) opener - taking over from Bill Gates - was important for its emphasis and what was missing.

Ballmer opened with the proposition that the PC revolution has been good, but should have been better. There remain billions of people out there still untouched by either the PC or Windows.

With the market for computing, web surfing, and entertainment going beyond Microsoft's core market of the PC and wrapping in ever newer devices - TVs, media devices, phones and netbooks - Ballmer's keynote was notable for saying Microsoft had to go beyond "just" the PC.

It's a testament to the power and the pain of the company's predicament that it's taken around 30 years for one billion PCs to be sold worldwide, but considerably less time for the mobile market to hit four billion units.

Unsurprisingly, Ballmer believes Windows will unite the plethora of new computing devices. "Windows will remain at the center of people's technological solar system," he said.

In the amphitheater of the consumer and electronics gods, though, Ballmer delivered a squarely PC-centric message that failed to address the needs of the new. There were few new facts or glitzy demos typically used by companies in the consumer market to convince potential partners they have a roadmap or products to believe in. What Ballmer did was offer a better version of Windows for the PC - better than Windows Vista, at least.

Take mobile phones.

Ballmer acknowledged growth in the smart-phone market and the importance of the mobile phone. Sounding like Sun's chief executive, he noted the phone is the first experience many people have in developing economies of computing or getting online.

We were primed for a major Windows on mobile announcement, statement of direction, and - importantly for this kind of crowd - demos with friendly partners running Windows on mobile.

Or, at least, something that backed up the "Windows without walls" advertising we've seen on posters, sides of buses, and on TV.

Surprisingly, though, mobile got a few brief moments during Ballmer's hour plus talk.

There was no Zune phone, as many had unrealistically hoped. For all Ballmer's talk of Windows 7, there was no discussion of interoperability or design cross overs between Windows mobile and desktops, laptops, or netbooks that presumably will run Windows 7.

Instead, Ballmer offered stats to prove Windows-on-mobile is a viable market and partners can make a safe bet building phones and applications that use Windows mobile.

Search this

There was the Verizon mobile search deal. Sure it's big and impressive given Verizon's size. It's America's largest wireless provider. On paper, it guarantees a potential market for Microsoft's search - if not actual end users. Microsoft can now claim its mobile search has 63 million wireless subscribers.

Whether they are actual users will be open to question. Microsoft is not known for search - that's Google - and in an era of consumer choice, this deal comes from the PC-and-telco-industry archives of partners tying users into products and services they feel the customers ought to be using.

Further, and without having read the deal's fine print - the companies are not releasing details - there's every chance Verizon can also deal with Google, while Verizon users can configure their phones to not use Microsoft.

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