Ballmer reacquaints Microsoft with its PC past
Windows without risk
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.
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.
Reinforcing Microsoft's position was Ballmer's video of 10 or so partner OEMs. The list was dominated by the familiar names of desktop and laptop companies, with just a trio - Sony (Xperia ), Samsung (Omnia ), and HTC  - coming from the mobile market.
When it came to the PC and Windows 7, Ballmer and his demonstration assistant Charlotte Jones missed the point. They pretty much glossed over what's arguably one of the most interesting features for this kind of crowd and that's been something of an open secret in Windows 7: touch. Windows 7 has been engineered so that many of the mouse and key-based commands can be executed by putting finger to screen. Sure, that's a niche market but it's got the cool factor, and cool is important in a demanding and fashion-driven market like consumer electronics.
Instead, Ballmer gave an overall introduction to Windows 7, while announcing the first beta like this was some kind of Microsoft developer conference, where people actually care about betas.
There were few frills, and many Windows 7 capabilities we've known about since last October's Professional Developer Conference (PDC). New icons, easy navigation, faster start times and performance, and fewer of those annoying alerts. Also, easier home networking - that at least drew a CES reaction.
It was a telling indication of what the CES crowd was really after, by the response given to the news around Xbox and Xbox Live. Microsoft's president of entertainment and devices Robbie Bach did what Ballmer didn't - demonstrated the really shiny goodies, provided roadmap details, and presented an appealing combination of Windows, device, and online service that got people excited.
Steady does it
To whoops and applause, Bach announced a strategy version of its run-away Halo game that's coming on February 28, with a preview on February 25. He announced the next installment in the Halo library, Halo 3 ODST, that's coming in the fall. Also, appealing was Xbox Live Primetime, a service that lets you - the gamer - enter an online quiz show and pit yourself against other contestants on Xbox Live.
But maybe there was a method to Ballmer's dullness. By introducing Windows 7 and taking partners through the solid but unremarkable features, Ballmer was reassuring OEMs it's safe to trust Microsoft and Windows.
And that was important. Windows Vista saw many burned by Microsoft's empty promises of technical capabilities and market adoption. Ballmer's presentation came at a time when OEMs are investigating alternatives to Windows, such as Linux, for those new markets Ballmer believes in. Ballmer needed a no-nonsense presentation to at least convince partners that Windows on the PC is a safe bet once more.
Maybe he delivered. ®