Microsoft Corp. made its International Consumer Electronics Show swan song — or maybe it didn’t — on the eve of the kickoff of the 2012 show that begins Tuesday in Las Vegas, where more than 140,000 people will begin poring over thousands of gadgets and gizmos for four days.
Latecomers to Steve Ballmer’s CES-opening keynote address were turned away from the packed ballroom where the Microsoft CEO spent just over an hour onstage with “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest in a session that was light on news and heavy on the promotion of the soon-to-be-released Windows 8 operating system.
Ballmer also hyped the Windows Phone, new laptop computer products that will use Windows 8, and News Corp. bringing Fox, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and IGN Entertainment to a new Xbox app.
Monday’s keynote was billed as Microsoft’s last major appearance at CES after 14 years of Ballmer and company legend Bill Gates kicking things off with celebrity-filled presentations that set the tone for North America’s largest trade show.
But Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro left the keynote door open a crack when he introduced Ballmer to the enthusiastic crowd.
Shapiro said he was grateful that Gates’ notoriety drove media coverage and attendance to the show.
“Microsoft took a risk on us early and we both benefitted,” Shapiro said in his introduction. “But as much as our human inclination is to protect the status quo, in a technology world we recognize that change is the only constant and for both CES and for Microsoft to be fresh, innovative and enticing, we agreed to a pause.”
He added that he “would be shocked if a Microsoft leader did not return to the stage in the next few years.”
Shapiro presented Ballmer with a collage of Microsoft-CES memorabilia and the company indulged itself with a 90-second tribute video showing some of the highlights of opening keynotes of the past, which included appearances by National Basketball Association star Shaquille O’Neal and late-night talk-show hosts Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, among others.
Microsoft has said that its product announcements no longer coincide with the time frame of the show.
But that didn’t stop Ballmer and several Microsoft associates from gushing about Windows 8, which is expected to be released later this year and is in beta now.
Tami Reller, chief marketing officer of Microsoft, said Windows 8 can be expected on tablet computers and ultrabooks. The company touted new notebook releases by Sony, Asus, Acer, Toshiba, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung and HP that will drive the new operating system.
Windows 8 will thrive in an environment of shared apps that will be run by mouse clicks or gestures. The Windows Store download center is expected to be running by the end of February and it will offer apps in more than 100 languages.
Ballmer also shared the stage with Craig Davison of Microsoft’s Xbox Live team to demonstrate Kinect and its voice-activated menus. In addition to serving up games, the system is the center of a residential entertainment center where movies and videos can be found by title, actor and director and played, paused and fast forwarded by voice command.
Davison announced that Comcast and its television offerings would partner into the system and through existing agreements, he was able to serve up a couple of plays from the third quarter of the BCS Championship Game, which was being played at the same time as the speech.
The company also demonstrated interactive television with Kinect, showing the potential to enable youngsters to learn by interacting with “Sesame Street” characters, a product that will be unveiled later this year.
Ballmer said Kinect’s potential is limitless as Microsoft searches for partners to explore applications in health care, the automotive industry and personal finance.
The only “oops” moment of the night came when Microsoft product marketing manager Derek Snyder was demonstrating the capabilities of the Windows Phone and how it seamlessly integrates messages, chats and voice conversations converted to text into one list. In a response to an inquiry from a colleague about dinner plans, Snyder said into the phone, “Sounds great,” but the text response on the phone readout said, “Sound.”
The CES trade show floor opens Tuesday at 10 a.m. A state-of-the-industry keynote address by Shapiro and Qualcomm chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs will precede the opening.