Tuesday, 10 January 2012

CES 2012: Microsoft's keynote. Speak it softly, Steve!

Last night, at the Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft presented what they had claimed would be their last opening keynote. The most interesting points, though, were the ones that were unsaid.

As usual, Gary Shapiro, the Eternal Leader of the Consumer Electronics Association, intrduced it. His spin on the ending of MS's annual pre-show presentation: that it was a joint decision. I have my doubts, lots of them. Reading the body language, I'd say that wasn't entirely the whole story. There was a mawkish handover to Steve Ballmer of a framed set of photographs from previous keynotes that will sit well in a restroom somewhere in Seattle, and a lot of half-hearted back-slapping displays of mutual respect.

And this is where we hear the first big hidden hint. Shapiro kept the door open for a return from Microsoft post the 2013 Show. That in itself isn't so surprising, but the way he phrased it was - referring not to Steve Ballmer, but to "The leader of Microsoft". Ballmer looked momentarily struck by that, before getting back to speed. This is worthy of interest - a power play by Shapiro, pointedly showing a loss of respect for Ballmer, an acknowledgement of information obtained behind the scenes, or just the caginess of a natural politician?

There were some notable product announcements, mostly new allegiances and step-changes. The Kinect will become available for the PC, something that was blindingly obvious ever since it was introduced for the Xbox. Both Windows 8 and Windows Phone will have voice control at their hearts, successfully demonstrated by one employee...to need a little work yet. MSFT showed off the Windows 8 "Metro" interface - interesting, but hardly new news.

What were more intriguing were the several mentions of Windows 8 on ARM (regular readers will recall I broke this story about 15 months ago) - but no demonstrations. Telling, that, no? As a number of other commentators noted, Nvidia also failed to demonstrate Windows 8's ARM port in their own keynote, which left a hole in their presentation big enough to drive an x86-powered Ford (another MS announcement) through.

Back to body language, Ballmer's was just a little ambiguous - let's be more exact; he flinched - every time he mentioned the big February milestone for Windows 8. Even the extra leap day in the month this year might not be enough, he seemed to be thinking.

And finally, the biggie, the echelon of elephants stacked pyramid-style in the corner of the proverbial room...who would be taking Microsoft's place as the leading pre-show keynote?

I'm going to shuffle to the thin end of the branch I'm teetering on, and make a prediction.

Apple.

Well yes, obviously, huh? Not quite. Apple has pointedly eschewed CES for years, preferring to present to their faithful congregations at Developer Conferences and the like. There's never been a completely believable explanation, but it has to be connected to MSFT's guaranteed pre-Show spotlight. Apple has never liked sitting in someone else's shadow, particularly that of the owner of the predominant personal computer platform.

Getting Apple to lead the Show next year would be a stunning win for the CEA - and perhaps not before time. Although Microsoft has showed some genuine innovation (in Kinect and the Metro interface), for the first time in a very long time indeed, it's been very, very late to the smartphone party, and missed the tablet shindig completely. Almost everything Microsoft's done in recent years, other than in those two products, has been in response to Apple. Apple has shown leadership in interactivity, in design, in style, in robustness, in market-breaking new concepts and products, and MS has had to watch. Microsoft's plays in the non-PC markets have mostly been, by comparison, me-toos, whilst Apple now owns the mind-share in personal consumer electronics. And it /is/ the Consumer Electronics Show, no?

And there's more. According to today's figures, MSFT's market cap is less than 2/3rds that of APPL, and the trend is not in MSFT's favour. So now, MSFT is not only no longer the CE leader, it's not even the biggest player, and that's unlikely to change soon - or at all. Microsoft still has majority ownership of the PC market, but those figures are declining too, and the PC is looking more and more dated as a product, and as an architecture. Ballmer's the Captain on a leaky, listing and sail-shredded ship, and he's desperately casting around for buckets of tar. It's hard to know whether Microsoft needs a new Captain, or a new ship.

Gary Shapiro is a consummate politician. That's how he's kept his job as the CEA's leader and figurehead for so long. In his place, there's only one phone call I'd make, to fill the hole that Microsoft leaves in the Show programme, and it terminates at 1, Infiinite Loop.

The only question in my own mind is - was that call made before or after MS departed?

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