by Shane O'Neill

Ballmer’s CES Keynote: Element of Surprise Was Sorely Lacking

Jan 08, 2010
Data Center

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's keynote at CES was long on summaries and short on revelations. Is Microsoft afraid to surprise us?

The general consensus on Steve Ballmer’s CES keynote Wednesday night is that it was a let down. Instead of dazzling us with a new product (Courier tablet PC?) or a change in strategy (mobile?), Microsoft’s chief took the opportunity to … get everybody up to speed on stuff we already knew about.

Industry watchers were expecting more.

Veteran Microsoft watcher and ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley wrote that Ballmer didn’t “share any information on Windows Mobile 7, Windows Live Wave 4, Windows 8 or much of anything else that enthusiasts had been hoping to hear,” adding that “continuing to re-announce previously unveiled technologies — even in new bottles — doesn’t create much excitement.”

Steve Ballmer demos Windows 7 “slate PCs” during his keynote address at CES.

Fellow Microsoft blogger Joe Wilcox wrote that Ballmer’s keynote was was flat-out boring and accuses Microsoft of being stuck in the past.

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I agree with the stuck in the past part. But personally I never find Steve Ballmer boring: I kind of like how excitable he is and how the volume of his voice is a few notches higher than is necessary. He may not be smooth and mysterious like that other Steve (the one with the black turtlenecks), but he’s the rare CEO who’s not afraid to be emotional in front of an audience.

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That said, it’s a valid criticism that Ballmer & Co. were too busy talking about Windows 7 and 2009 to give us a much-needed taste of Microsoft’s future. It makes you wonder if Redmond even knows what the future holds.

Ballmer should have seized his moment in Vegas to repair the damage done to Windows Mobile by explaining Microsoft’s mobile strategy and teasing the audience with some prototypes of Windows Mobile 7. What we got was a “blink and you missed it” mention of an upcoming Windows Mobile 6.5 phone from HTC/T-Mobile. Ballmer did, however, plant a little seed by saying, “We will have a lot more to say about phones at next month’s Mobile World Congress.”

The much-hyped Microsoft branded Courier tablet was also a no-show during the CES keynote. The Courier speculation started earlier this week and can be blamed more on the alleged tablet PC that Apple may be announcing in a few weeks than anything Microsoft said or promised. But given that Courier tablet prototypes leaked back in September, CES seemed like the right time to roll it out and quiet the Apple iSlate ballyhoo. No dice.

What we got were some pretty standard PC tablets running Windows 7 from hardware makers Archos, Pegatron and Hewlett-Packard. Ballmer focused on the HP tablet, which is essentially a Windows 7 PC that works as a color e-reader running Kindle software. All three of the tablets Ballmer displayed will be available in mid-2010. Whether this is a death knell for the Courier remains to be seen.

It’s not as if the keynote wasn’t informative. Ballmer and Entertainment and Devices president Robbie Bach covered a lot of ground in the hour-long address, including: A summary of the “three screens and a cloud” strategy; a display of Windows 7 hardware; the touting of Bing’s 11

million new users; a demo of version 2.0 of Microsoft’s IPTV software, MediaRoom; an announcement that Project Natal, a gaming technology where consumers can play Xbox 360 games using bodily gestures, will release this year; and of course, there was Ballmer’s favorite subject, Windows 7, on which he heaped praise supported by glowing statistics on high customer satisfaction and increased PC sales.

Yes, Ballmer & Co. discussed all this and more, but Microsoft forgot to do one essential thing, something Apple has mastered: They forgot to surprise us.

Shane O’Neill is a senior writer at Follow him on Twitter at Follow everything from on Twitter at