Microsoft at CES 2009: Keynote Highlights
After a few minutes of beatboxing and a seemingly enthusiastic Gary Shapiro introducing Steve Ballmer on to the stage, Microsoft's keynote was under way. This was Ballmer's first keynote at CES since taking over from Bill Gates, who delivered it for the first time almost 15 years ago and has traditionally done so up until last year. The question on everyone's mind was whether this keynote would be as memorable as the last. In a time when the very word, "recession", strikes fear into both consumers and businesses, would Microsoft have enough up its sleeve to turn 2009 into a year of ambition, innovation, and prosperity?
Ballmer kicked things off with some light humour. He had apparently received a deluge of messages and words of advice leading up to CES.
- One from Bill Gates: "There are always two conventions going on during CES - make sure you go to the right one." Apple fans know the other.
- And another from Jerry Yang: "Steve, why do you keep ignoring my Facebook requests?" Ouch.
From there, Ballmer adopted a more serious tone and stressed that Microsoft had delivered many positive outcomes in the industry, helped lift many families to the middle class, and would continue to drive innovation and make a difference. He made clear that as the recession ripples across the globe, reduced expectations were a natural response and there would be a temptation to temper optimism and scale back ambition. Yet despite all that, he still believed that our digital lives would only get richer, and Microsoft would be there every step of the way. Just last year alone, the company channeled more than eight billion dollars into R&D.
But just how rich can our digital lives become?
The original vision was to have a PC on every desk and in every home. However, Ballmer recognized that today, only a billion or so have a PC. The aim now was to make computing more accessible and more affordable for the next billion or so people, which we are currently witnessing in the booming netbook market and OLPC initiative.
Another vision centered on convergence - an amalgamation of displays, the phone, and the PC to deliver a seamless ecosystem for this idea of "anytime, anywhere" computing. Over one billion mobile phones are sold each year. Ballmer noted that in emerging markets, it is the phone that is often people's first experience with computing, and that smartphones will soon be ubiquitous to the point that they will make up over 50% of the mobile phone market. In the world of TVs, while resolutions have improved, capabilities have largely remained the same. Ballmer anticipated that TVs will soon become more sophisticated and connected, and that the boundary between the PC and TV will eventually dissolve.
Ballmer then went on to discuss our interaction with computers and other devices. He believed that it would evolve in more natural ways. Natural user interfaces such as speech, gestures, and handwriting would become mainstream, although the keyboard and mouse would still have its uses. We're currently seeing examples of this in the upcoming Windows 7, Surface, and touch-enabled smartphones.
Microsoft's last area of opportunity - at least in the short-term - would be in connected experiences. Until recently, we've been largely disconnected when moving from one device to another. But these barriers are slowly crumbling, thanks to the cloud. Ballmer believes that nailing this would deliver a huge breakthrough in computing.
To help realize these visions and areas of opportunity, there is Windows, which Ballmer tagged as a linchpin and the centre of people's technological solar system. What was once simply a PC operating system for the masses would soon become a phone platform and cloud platform for the masses, but it would not be possible without the cooperation of hardware manufacturers. Ballmer recognized their efforts in delivering innovative hardware for Windows to run on.
It was time for a video. Microsoft was ready to show off the latest and greatest desktops, laptops, and phones running Windows and Windows Mobile.
The Samsung X360, Dell Studio Hybrid, Toshiba Portégé R600, Toshiba Qosimo X305, Moneaul Minew S10, Acer Aspire 8930G, Sony VAIO TT, ASUS U6V Bamboo, Lenovo IdeaPad Y650, Lenovo ThinkPad W700DS, HP Firebird, and HP TouchSmart PC all made an appearance.
The Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1, Samsung Omnia, HTC Touch Pro, and HTC Touch HD also dropped in to say hello.
The video ended and Ballmer moved on to discuss Windows. He looked back and raised three points that he felt made Windows and the PC successful: the first was a solid and diverse range of applications that worked together, the second was greater choice in hardware, and the third was a Windows-enabled experience that brought all of it together. He then went on to say that the future of Windows is, as Microsoft advertises heavily, a "life without walls", and that the PC operating system would play a critical role. Ballmer talked about Windows 7. He was excited about its progress and stated that Microsoft was on track to deliver the best version of Windows ever and one with all the right ingredients: simplicity, reliability, and speed. He then delivered the first major announcement in today's keynote: the availability of Windows 7 Beta. If you're an MSDN or TechNet subscriber, it's available right now. If you're not, you only have to wait until Friday to download it from Microsoft's web site.
Windows Live was next on the agenda, and Ballmer had three announcements to make:
- The worldwide availability of the new and improved Windows Live Essentials, which includes Messenger, Mail, and Photo Gallery;
- A partnership with Facebook, which will see content and status updates shared between the two services; and
- A partnership with Dell, which will see Windows Live Essentials and Windows Live Search pre-installed on all consumer and small business PCs worldwide. Great out-of-the-box experience, or more bloatware for you to uninstall? You decide.
Ballmer moved on to Windows Mobile, and discussed the success of the platform. Last year, eleven devices each sold over a million units, and thirty new devices were released to market. Microsoft's partners have sold more than twenty million phones in the past twelve months. Unfortunately, there were no major announcements here other than a new long-term partnership with Verizon Wireless, which will soon see Live Search pre-installed on all of its phones.
Ballmer wrapped up his spiel on Windows and passed it on to Charlotte Jones for a demonstration of Windows 7, Windows Live, and Windows Mobile.
Jones demonstrated a few tricks in Windows 7, such as peeking through windows, tiling windows, and Jump Lists. She also demonstrated homegroups and Play To by setting up a home network and sending a media file to an Xbox 360 for playback.
Next up, a touch demo! Jones used her finger as a replacement for the mouse to drag-and-drop a few files. She then opened an application called Surface Globe - think Live Search/Virtual Earth, but touch-capable. One finger to move around, a two-finger spread to zoom in - it was like watching a fullscreen version of Google Maps on the iPhone, but it wasn't long before she showed off some unique ways to control the map. With two fingers, she was able to tilt the orientation of the map and zoom right in to see three-dimensional representations of the buildings in Manhattan.
Jones moved on to Windows Mobile to announce that the new Internet Explorer would soon come pre-installed on new Windows Mobile phones, which most of us knew about, anyway. She demonstrated it on a Palm Treo Pro for a brief moment. Scrolling seemed a little choppy, which may end up being enough to keep you glued to your third-party browser of choice.
There was also a brief demonstration of panoramic shots on the Samsung Omnia, and how simple it is to upload that content to Windows Live.
It was on that note that Jones decided to demonstrate some of the new and improved features in Windows Live. First, she touched on the new home.live.com, which went live (excuse the pun) late last year. She showed off a one-click Silverlight slideshow, integration with Twitter, Flickr, and Yelp, and an accelerator box, which helped her translate a Russian phrase to English. Other than that, there wasn't much else to wow the crowd.
Next up was a look at Microsoft's efforts in adding a social and search aspect to Hotmail. Jones demonstrated a Quick Add pane, which took the hard work out of looking up a business address and pasting it into the body of an e-mail. No word on a release date for said pane, other than "coming soon".
Jones' stage time ended with a look at Messenger. Having used the application myself, I can say that it's a lot cleaner and faster than previous versions of Messenger. However, none of that was covered in the demo. Instead, Jones decided to touch on what some would argue as a trivial feature known as video tiles or dynamic display pictures, where said tiles/pictures animate according to emoticons used in a conversation. If you want happy, sad, or a wink, it's there. If you want "Kissy Lips" (in Jones' own words), it's there, too.
Australian musical comedy act, Tripod, took the stage as an intermission prior to Robbie Bach's appearance.
Bach commenced with a spiel on connected entertainment, stressing that it wasn't just about connecting devices, but connecting friends and family, too. In other words, delivering a great social experience, which we're seeing now in Xbox Live and the Zune Social.
Bach revisited some of the major announcements and milestones of 2008. He touched on Ford Sync, which will receive an update later this year, along with a new version of Tellme. Sadly, there was no cars on stage to see any of it in action. He also touched on the excellent performance of the Zune platform. By the end of last year, there were two million in the Zune Social, and more people are currently embracing the concept of subscriptions, especially now that Microsoft is offering monthly credits of ten songs to Zune Pass subscribers.
There were more statistics to be discussed as Bach moved on to TV. He noted that it was a great year for Media Center, with over ten million unique users accessing content, and the average session time being ninety minutes. Microsoft's IPTV solution, Mediaroom, grew 250% to nearly two-and-a-half million people worldwide. Later this year, Microsoft and Singtel will launch Mediaroom Anytime, enabling viewers to access previously aired shows without the need for recording.
Xbox enjoyed another great year - in fact, the best holiday season and best year ever to date. Over twenty-eight million consoles have been sold in thirty-six countries, and the Xbox 360 currently has an industry-leading attach rate. Xbox Live is currently composed of seventeen million users worldwide, which represents a growth rate of 70% in 2008. Just the last three months alone saw three million people join the service.
Bach then moved on to the year ahead and kicked it off with a look at upcoming releases in the Halo franchise. Halo Wars will hit shelves on February 28, with a demo expected on Xbox Live on February 5. Halo 3: ODST will ship in the fourth quarter. Both are for the Xbox 360.
Update: Microsoft has just announced new release dates for Halo Wars. For Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other parts of the Asia-Pacific, expect it on February 26. For Europe, expect it on February 27. The US, Canada, Mexico, and South America will have to wait until March 3.
Sometime in the second quarter, Microsoft will launch its live, social, and interactive channel, Primetime. You'll be able to team up with your friends, and participate in and experience live events such as the 1 vs. 100 game show.
After a couple of problems with a wireless controller, Bach demonstrated real-time streaming of 30 Rock via Netflix. Later in the year, Microsoft will release a Netflix application for Windows Mobile, allowing you to manage your Netflix queues quickly and easily.
The Community Games channel will launch later in the year, offering a medium for developers to develop and sell their own games. Kids won't be left out either, with the Kodu Game Creator set to teach kids programming concepts and enable them to create and distribute their creations.
Bach introduced Sparrow, a twelve-year old girl, on to the stage to demonstrate Kodu. What followed was a wild demo of complex workflows being created and managed at a pace that not even the crowd could keep up with. In just a few minutes, Bach and Sparrow were battling it out in her newly-created world. All in all, a very impressive effort by the girl.
Ballmer took the stage once again to discuss the future of computing. He stressed that it was one that would focus heavily on improved processing power, cheaper high-definition displays, and cross-platform applications that would learn your habits, understand your preferences, and predict your needs.
Janet Galore joined Ballmer on stage to demonstrate prototypes that will hopefully enhance the quality of education in the future. The first prototype was a tablet displaying an interactive anatomical map of the human body. But that wasn't all that it was capable of. The device was able to anticipate what resources she might be interested in as a student, and semantically analyze said resources with Microsoft Research algorithms to deliver information relevant to her studies. Add in automatic translation and timelines and you have a device that is probably an absolute boon to medical students.
Galore then briefly demonstrated the Surface's ability to interact with the tablet, a smartphone (an HTC Touch Diamond, maybe), and a plastic model of the human brain. And after a quick look at a flexible colour display, the keynote was over.
If you had high expectations coming into this keynote, there's a good chance you're reading this now feeling sorely disappointed. This year's keynote focused heavily on the achievements of 2008 and less on the technological advancements expected in 2009. Other than some major Windows 7 and Windows Live announcements, it was a rather dry keynote, especially for Windows Mobile, Xbox, and Zune. But there's always next time.
To Ballmer's credit, he certainly filled Gates' shoes very well, or as Shapiro put it, filled Gates' sweater very well.
Darius Wey is a software and web developer based in Perth, Australia, with an avid interest in photography, music, mobile devices, and the Xbox 360. He never seems able to come up with a witty remark to end his bio. Maybe you can help him.
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