I am not in Las Vegas this year for the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and I couldn't be happier. The crowds, the smells, the endless inanity ... I don't miss it. And, as I proved in years past, you can do just as good a job covering the show--perhaps better--by staying home. There's a lot of irrelevant stuff happening at CES this year, but I'll leave it to the kids at the gadget blogs to beat that junk to death.

So here's a breakdown of Microsoft's activities at 2011 CES, culled from my WinInfo reports this week, along with some new reporting.

Ballmer Delivers Confident CES Keynote

Original report: January 6, 2011 

Anyone hoping for a blockbuster revelation from Microsoft during CEO Steve Ballmer's annual keynote address last night at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was no doubt disappointed, as the software giant unveiled no major new initiatives. In retrospect, however, this seems to be part of a plan to exude a quiet confidence in the future rather than adopt the Chicken Little stance of many of its followers. Ballmer's message was simple: Microsoft had a great 2010, and they're going to do even better in 2011.

"2010 was an incredible year with over one billion consumers experiencing Xbox, Windows Phone and Windows PCs, and much, much more," Ballmer said during the keynote. "So, we want to start by saying thank you to the over one billion customers around the world for their support and feedback ... we want to share with you not only what we've done most recently, but a little bit of what's coming next."

Let the sharing begin.

Ballmer's keynote focused on three key areas which, not coincidentally, related to the three screens part of his company's "three screens and the cloud" mantra. What's different, however, in 2011, is that the company now has a viable product for all three of those screens, which include the PC (Windows 7), the smart phone (Windows Phone 7), and the TV (Xbox 360).

The keynote was heavy on milestone numbers and statistics and light on the futuristic stuff. The message, in way, seems to be focused on ongoing success and less on promises that may or may not materialize. Thus, even the revelations about future technologies were for advances that will appear in the next few months, and not later in the year or beyond. Ballmer didn't even utter the word "tablet" until his closing remarks. Seriously, think about that for a moment.

So what did Ballmer and company announce?

First, its current products are huge successes in the market already. Some key facts, figures, and milestones, all of which were aimed at driving home this point, include:

  • Microsoft has over one billion customers around the world.

  • 2010 was the biggest year ever for the Xbox 360, thanks to the release of the second generation Xbox 360 S console, the Kinect motion sensor add-on, and advances in Xbox LIVE. This is the realization of a "bold step a decade ago" and has "transported" 10s of millions of people into the worlds of many blockbuster games, including those in the "Halo," "Gears of War," "Call of Duty," and "Fable," among others.

  • While Microsoft expected to sell roughly 5 million Kinect motion sensor add-ons for the Xbox 360 during the final seven weeks of the year, it sold a whopping 8 million units. Ballmer didn't say this, but that makes the Kinect--and not Apple's hypetastic iPad--the fastest-selling consumer electronics product of all time.



  • There are over 30 million customers subscribed to Xbox LIVE now, and Microsoft adds a new member every two seconds. The company did not discern between free and paid (Gold) subscribers, however.

  • The Xbox 360 was the number one selling console in the US for every one of the final six months of 2010.

  • Microsoft has sold over 50 million Xbox 360 consoles worldwide.

  • Windows Phone 7 is off to a great start since its October/November launch, and now commands an apps store with over 5,500 apps. More than 100 new apps are added to the Windows Phone Marketplace every 24 hours.

  • One of the biggest advantages of Windows Phone 7 is its games collection, in particular its Xbox LIVE games. As of today, there are over 45 high-quality Xbox LIVE games available for Windows Phone 7, many of which are exclusive to this platform, and all of which provide Xbox LIVE-specific features like achievements.

  • There are over 20,000 Windows Phone developers registered with Microsoft.

  • On AT&T, 9 out of 10 Windows Phone customers evangelize the phone to others.

  • Windows 7 PCs are "the fastest-selling PCs in history," with over 7 copies of Windows 7 sold every second. Windows 7 represents over 20 percent of "all the PCs connected to the Internet." (What Microsoft did not specify was a new unit sales milestone for Windows 7. The last stated milestone was 240 million copies of as October 21, 2010.)

  • Over 20 million people have downloaded the Internet Explorer 9 beta since its release in September.

  • While the iPad has generated a lot of excitement, Microsoft's touch-base Windows 7 offerings are more sophisticated and can combined pen-based writing, with handwriting recognition, with Windows Touch-based multitouch functionality. Thanks to integrated "palm rejection" technology, the system knows when you're writing and ignores your hand pressed on the glass. The net effect is that the iPad looking like finger painting by comparison.

As for the future, Microsoft did provide some interesting glimpses at technology that will, again, appear before mid-2011 and not at some unclear future time. These include:

  • Kinect motion- and voice-based control of the Netflix On Demand service via Xbox 360. (This requires an Xbox Live Gold subscription as well.) When? In a couple of months.

  • The availability of the Hulu Plus TV subscription service on the Xbox 360, including Kinect motion- and voice-based control. (This, too, requires Xbox LIVE Gold.) When? Later this Spring, US only.

  • An expansion of Microsoft's partnership with the ESPN sports network, though this was one of the few areas where details were not provided.

  • Avatar Kinect, a free addition to the Xbox 360 user experience that adds facial expression recognition (raised eyebrows, smiling, and so on) and a number of "sets" in which you can virtually interact with other people's avatars. This requires an Xbox LIVE Gold account.  When? This Spring.



  • Microsoft plans a "series of updates" to Windows Phone "over the next few months" that will "automatically be pushed out to customers." Among these updates are the addition of copy and paste support and "significant" performance improvements, especially to application and game load time. (This has been a frequent criticism of Windows Phone.)

  • Another update to Windows Phone 7 will bring this exciting new platform to the Sprint and Verizon wireless networks "in the first half of 2011."

  • Microsoft showed off a number of innovative PC designs that will go on sale in the next few months, all running Windows 7. Key to these new form factors are efficient new chipsets, like the Intel "Sandy Bridge," the second generation iCore platform that combines the CPU and GPU (graphics processor) into a single chip. Also, Intel's Oak Trail platform, which is the next generation Atom chipset, so power efficient that PC makers can build machines with no cooling fans for silent operation.

  • Microsoft announced a new version of its Surface technology that offers dramatically improved form factors that can be used in far more situations. Gone is the big box with integrated cameras, replaced by a four-inch-thin screen in which every pixel, essentially, is a camera, providing PixelSense infrared sensor capabilities. The new Surface runs on Windows 7, which makes plenty of sense, can be hung on the wall, and not just moored to the floor. It's also a lot less expensive. Suddenly, what was a niche product could have a breakout year.

     

Additionally, Microsoft discussed some admittedly vague ideas about the next version of Windows, called Windows 8, which will run on ARM-based platforms as well as traditional x86 PCs. (See below.) Upcoming ARM- and x86-based "system on a chip" designs will allow Windows to become available on devices as small as a smart phone, since the chips are just the size of a fingernail. These systems are still 2-3 years out, according to the evasive Steven Sinofsky, who heads Microsoft's Windows division. But Ballmer noted that this expansion of Windows means that Microsoft's flagship OS "will be everywhere on every kind of device without compromise; all the performance and flexibility of Windows on low-power, long-lasting devices."

So there you have it. Naysayers will tell you that Microsoft didn't shock or awe anyone at this year's CES keynote. But when you look over the vast array of information that Ballmer and company provided, it's hard to argue against the software giant's quiet confidence. It's exactly the type of leadership Microsoft needs to exude in a time of unparalleled angst.

Microsoft Unveils Future Multi-Touch Mouse Design

New report

At CES, Microsoft also announced its Mouse 2.0 project, which will result in its first-ever multitouch mouse designed exclusively for Windows 7. Dubbed the Touch Mouse, this new offering will provide "faster and easier navigation with all the advantages of a mouse plus unique multitouch gestures," including:

  • One Finger provides controlled 360 scrolling in any direction and hyperscrolling for long documents with a quick flick of your finger, while using your thumb lets you move back/forward easily through your browser.
  • Two Fingers lets you manage multiple windows by maximizing, minimizing, snapping and restoring.
  • Three Fingers lets you navigate the whole desktop, displaying all your open windows for easy task switching or clearing the desktop entirely.

Touch Mouse will be available in June 2011 for $79.95, with presales starting this week at Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and the Microsoft Store, Microsoft says.

For more information, please read the Touch Mouse fact sheet (DOCX format).

Microsoft Confirms Windows 8 Port to ARM Chipsets

Original report: January 5, 2011

On the eve of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Microsoft confirmed its long-rumored plans to port the next version of Windows, currently known as Windows 8, to ARM chipsets, in addition to those based on the Intel x86 architecture. And yes, the port is happening in part to power a new generation of iPad-like slate devices, but Microsoft says that it has plans far beyond that, since these "system on a chip" systems are so small they can fit on a fingernail.

"We're showing the flexibility and resiliency of Windows through the power of software and a commitment to world-class engineering," said Microsoft president Steven Sinofsky, who was on hand in Las Vegas for the announcement. "We continue to evolve Windows to deliver the functionality customers demand across the widest variety of hardware platforms and form factors."

This commitment to Windows may be controversial in some circles--there are many who'd like to see the company port its Windows Phone OS to tablets, for example--but Microsoft says this is key to its future success. Windows already has a thriving ecosystem around it, and by expanding the range of devices on which the system runs, it can take an already popular product and open it up to new markets.


So small it can fit on the tip of your finger.

The key to this expansion is these so-called "system on a chip" architectures, which include ARM-based designs by NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments, as well as traditional x86-based designs from Intel and AMD. By expanding Windows to these tiny and power-efficient systems, Microsoft can deliver an OS that is rich and powerful, compatible with today's applications, and yet achieves all-day battery life. And the variety of device types that are possible with system on a chip is far greater than with traditional PC motherboards and chipsets.

According to Sinofksy, the system requirements for Windows 8 will actually double since Windows 7, but he downplayed the potential problem by reminding us that Windows 7 actually arrived with lower hardware requirements than its predecessor. And since Windows 8 won't ship until mid-2012, the available hardware will be more impressive as well.

As was also expected, Microsoft didn't show off the Windows 8 user interface, which is expected to ship in a new "dual" mode with different UIs for devices and full-powered PCs. Instead, Wednesday's demo was described as a technology preview only, similar to the May 2008 preview of the multitouch technologies in Windows 7.

Though Absent from Show, Apple Looms Large Over CES

Original report: January 5, 2011

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) news deluge has already begun, with approximately 20,000 consumer electronics companies from around the world vying for our attention on the eve of the show. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, which produces CES, the big trends this year are Internet/device integration, app stores, tablets, and 3D—at least three of which are repeats from last year's show. But despite the variety of companies on hand, including some truly major players, the single most important consumer electronics company on Earth isn't at CES, as usual. And as usual, that company could derail the whole thing with just a single product announcement.

Whether an Apple announcement comes is currently a mystery. But Apple has silenced the noise from CES more than once in the past. In 2004, HP's then-CEO Carly Fiorina announced that her company would sell a specially branded version of Apple's ubiquitous iPod, overshadowing all other announcements at the show. (HP's deal with Apple subsequently fell apart when it became obvious that Apple had out-negotiated Fiorina, and the product was discontinued a year later. Not coincidentally, Fiorina was also discontinued: She was ousted as HP's CEO in early 2005.)

Apple announced its industry-changing iPhone in January 2007, coincidentally on the second day of CES. You can assume that every single journalist onsite in Las Vegas was following the iPhone event electronically. But many simply left Las Vegas to attend the Apple announcement in person.

There were new MacBook Pro laptops in 2008, ill-founded rumors of CEO Steve Jobs' pending death in 2009, followed by iTunes Store, MacBook Pro, iLife, and iWork announcements in 2009—all relatively minor compared with the clamor of CES, but all overshadowing the show in one way or another.

Apple's most conspicuous derailing of CES, perhaps, came last year, when rumors of an Apple tablet device had every competitor on earth in a tizzy. Fear of the then-upcoming new Apple product was so rampant that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer infamously spent much of his CES keynote focusing on a supposedly new category of PC-based tablets, none of which actually materialized during 2010 as promised. The most widely acclaimed new product at CES, the Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid notebook, was cancelled a few months later, and this very week Lenovo announced a new version of the U1 with a retooled architecture. As for Apple, it didn't reveal its plans for iPad until weeks after CES, long after it had spoiled the party.

Apple may or may not make a surprise announcement this week in an attempt to steal CES's thunder yet again. (Apple is releasing a beta version of its Mac Apps Store on Thursday.) But the company's product plans hang over the show regardless. There are widespread rumors of a Verizon version of the best-selling iPhone 4. Apple is absolutely planning a second-generation iPad, the only question being one of timing. The company is rumored to be working on a cloud-based or subscription version of its popular iTunes software. And many expect Apple to expand its Apple TV's capabilities with apps and access to more services.


The new Mac App Store, running on my Mac Mini.

An announcement about any one of these products would instantly relegate CES to the back page, thanks to the media's fascination with Apple and its popularity with consumers. And let's face it, CES could use some help: The last notable technology introduction at the show was Blu-ray, and that came back in 2004. Microsoft's only truly historic CES introduction was its original Xbox. That happened way back in 2001, 10 long years ago.

With all eyes on Las Vegas this week—but all ears pricked for any news out of Cupertino—Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will once again take to the stage tonight for Microsoft's annual keynote address, kicking off CES and, hopefully, reenergizing consumers about the company's chances going forward. Microsoft is widely expected to unveil its plans for a new Windows version at the show, discuss a new generation of tablet devices, reveal its plans for Windows Phone and Kinect momentum, and more.

Will any of it matter? Will Apple overshadow CES yet again?

Stay tuned.