Letter From Las Vegas

Consumer Electronic Show 

 

Monday evening… January 9th, 2012

 

The main hall at the Venetian in Las Vegas has been filling up for the last hour; folks have waited as much as four hours for a seat to hear Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft give the keynote speech tonight.  I am thanking my lucky stars that I have press credentials – I’ve found myself in one of the front rows for a close hand look at what is going to be the last Microsoft appearance at CES – at least for awhile, probably a reasonably long while.

 

Maybe because of the CES/Microsoft rift everyone seemed a bit forced.  Gary Shapiro, CEO of CES, seemed forced, as did Ballmer, through the whole program.  Back story:  apparently CES wanted to give the Microsoft Keynote slot to someone else next year [think Google] and Microsoft simply said, well, okay, in that case, we’ll take our toys and go home – for good.

 

Onto the stage bounced the perennial pixie of television, the inestimable Ryan Seacrest, who has a business relationship with Bing, the search engine extraordinaire from Microsoft.  His job was to host the evening and he and Ballmer began extolling the virtues of the Microsoft phone – soon to be on sale in the United States.

 

My colleague, Greg Nelson, leaned over and reminded me that a couple of days ago there was a brilliant review of the Microsoft phone in the NY Times. And, indeed, there is an elegance to the phone that deserves to be looked at more closely. The phone has a people hub, bringing together all the folks in your life and social networks.  It looks elegant and may well be one of the reasons that the New York Times gave it a good review, though in one moment of the demo it didn’t work on the voice feature.  Oops!

 

It’s a very visual phone.

 

Much is being made of the partnership with Nokia, which will eventually use Microsoft to power all their smartphones.  Some of the phones will be available soon.  HTC will be offering a Microsoft smartphone with a 16-megapixel camera. That’s a wow!

 

I was impressed by what I saw but not by the way it was presented.

 

Ballmer was loud, brash, an executive turned annoying cheerleader who would have been better served by being more genuine than so forced.  I found myself not wanting the phone just because of the person presenting the phone.

 

Moving forward, they began talking about Windows.  Currently Windows 7 is powering some elegant thin notebooks, many were highlighted – Samsung, Vaio, Acer, you name it, if runs on Windows there is a thin computer.  And Windows 7 is going to, they tell us, seamlessly transition to Windows 8 when it is released later this year.

 

Enter Tami Reller, Chief Marketing Officer of Microsoft to discuss W8.  “Charms” will connect the various features of the phone.  She showed off a Samsung tablet with “Metro” style apps that will be available in the Microsoft Windows Store. They are totally throwing themselves onto the HTML 5 bandwagon and demonstrated it with an app called CUT THE ROPE.

 

“Metro” apps are, as far as I could tell, much like apps you find in the iTunes store but with their own distinctive look and, one assumes, some distinctive functionality.  What that might be, I couldn’t quite tell from the demonstration other than they moved about easily on the desktop.

 

The Microsoft Online Store will be open in February, as will more brick and mortar Microsoft stores, selling Microsoft gadgets.

 

“Semantic Zoom” is an ability to enlarge or reduce the size of apps.  There seems to be a wonderful fluidity to the technology.  Tami was absolutely breathless in her enthusiasm.

 

In what was hoped would be an entertaining way of highlighting tweets from the presentation, Microsoft had the “Tweet Choir” come out, a local Gospel Choir, belting out the tweets [all of them as breathless as Ballmer, Seacrest, Tami and everyone else].

 

It was cringe worthy.

 

Ballmer and Seacrest moved onto the Xbox. And THIS is an area that Microsoft is leading in – they are looking for Kinect to help keep them at the forefront, which is where they are.  Here Microsoft is in front of the pack with Kinect translating physical movement to computer commands.

 

They made much of their integration of voice technology.  Which, unfortunately, even if they are ahead of the pack, it seemed liked they wanted to be seen as ahead of Siri, the voice technology from Apple powering the iPhone 4s. And this is one of the major challenges of Microsoft, they might be first but does anyone believe them?

 

There is also an app for the phone that will allow the phone to be the remote; Xbox wants to be the entertainment device for the living room. They are offering programming from some major suppliers via the Xbox and it’s impressive.  Gaming mixed with Netflix. 

 

They want to be at the forefront of two-way TV.  Working with Sesame Street they have done some 2 way shows.  Very interesting and should be great fun for pre-schoolers.  More interesting was the example that allowed the viewer to then be put into the screen and I found myself smiling at that and thinking what great fun that would have been when I was five.

 

Much noise was made about how Kinect is being integrated into Windows and that is big news.  Xbox and Kinect are two things where Microsoft is genuinely breaking ground these days.

 

Ballmer went on to cars and Office and Skype and how wonderful all the things are that they are doing on these fronts but they were thrown in at the end, more afterthoughts than primary points.

 

Truly, it was not a very good last performance.  I would give it a “C.” The amount of forced enthusiasm was depressing at the end, reeking of a kind of unnecessary desperation.  Microsoft has some good things going for it but the impression left behind was not very good – I came away feeling a bit like “poor Microsoft” which was not what Ballmer wanted, I’m sure.

 

But what does this mean for those of us who use their products?  It means that Microsoft is getting tools which are very interesting, with a promising technological fluidity for which Microsoft has never been particularly known.  The Kinect technology and the Xbox potential is amazing; the early stages of development of two-way programming is amazing even though one can tell it is in its nascent moments.  Here is where I see Microsoft being able to genuine take the field and create wins against their competitors, Apple and Google.

 

It will provide programmers incredible new opportunities with great potential innovation for story telling.  It will provide new dimensions to Transmedia, the term now being used to describe the integration of storytelling across platforms.

 

If – and I think it is a big IF – the Microsoft smartphone platform catches on, app developers will have to develop for that too.  Right now iOS and Android control the smartphone world and it may be that Microsoft is too late to the game though it will be interesting to watch.

 

All of this will be interesting to watch.  This was the first big salvo for CES, which will go on for days and I’m eager to make my next foray into the future, a series Tuesday afternoon, hosted by Ericsson phones about the future of mobile.

 

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