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Las Vegas: Having watched Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer warming up in the darkened corner of the Hilton Las Vegas this evening, slapping friends on the back and punching the air, I expected him to unleash some of his trademark over-exuberance.

But it was a relatively subdued Ballmer who took to the stage for the opening keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, mirroring perhaps the lack of any major new game-changing technology from the software giant – and uncertain times in the tech sector in general.

Instead Ballmer and his executives spent three quarters of an hour recapping some recent successes – the well-received launch of the Xbox 360 motion controller Kinect, which is changing the nature of video gaming and the progress of Microsoft’s phone operating system Windows Phone 7. They followed up not with a glimpse of the next Windows operating system, which remains the backbone of the Seattle-based company’s business, but a technology roadmap that it hopes will ensure Windows adapts to the increasingly lightweight and portable form factors computers are appearing in.

“Whatever device you use… Windows will be there,” said Ballmer. “Windows PCs will continue to adapt and evolve. Windows will be everywhere on every device without compromise.”

After talking up tablets at CES last year, Ballmer barely mentioned the word “tablet” this year, obviously seeking to steer clear of an area dominated by Apple.

System on a chip

The next version of Windows, Windows 8, will support system on a chip (SoC) computer architecture, Ballmer revealed. SoC is a way of packing numerous components essential to the running of a computer into a microchip. The advantages may include better computing performance, a smaller form factor allowing for greater mobility, better power efficiency and less materials used meaning lower cost computers.

Steve Ballmer at the CES keynote in Las Vegas

Steve Ballmer at the CES keynote in Las Vegas

Need an example to illustrate SoC? This helpful site provides a good one:

For instance, an SOC for electronic control of an automobile’s suspension system will have the following distinct parts: 1) an accelerometer for detecting the car’s motion; 2) an ADC for converting the accelerometer’s analog output into digital data; 3) a digital signal processor for analyzing the digital data; 4) and an output driver system for controlling the mechanical behavior of the suspension system. In an SOC, all of these functionally individual circuits will be contained on a single integrated circuit.

Microsoft confirmed today it is partnering with chip-designer ARM to develop SoC systems and will continue to work on the technology with its traditional chip partners AMD and Intel on the x86 architecture. The CES keynote featured CoS applications from chip partners like NVidia and Texas Instruments to show high-quality performance of basic Windows features like Windows Media playback of HD content and printing in Microsoft Word. What wasn’t shown was a glimpse of what the future Windows 8 user interface may look like.

While there was speculation in the run-up to CES that Microsoft may unveil a version of Windows tailored to tablet computers to challenge Google and Apple in this space, Ballmer’s comments instead suggest Microsoft is playing a longer game, re-engineering Windows for SoC architecture that essentially allows Windows in all its glory to be played on multiple types of computer and boast excellent performance. While Tablet computers running Windows 7 are debuting at CES this week, they are not running an operating system engineered specifically for touch-screen tablet computers in the way the Apple iPad iOS operating system is, or Honeycomb, Google’s version of its smartphone software Android, which has been tailored for tablets.

So Microsoft isn’t falling over itself to try and emulate the success of Apple’s tablet and the App Store that has in the space of a year changed how consumers think of software “applications”. Its preference is to offer a more powerful operating system on more compact devices, using more efficient technology to potentially deliver the same software set across desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone – the same computing experience regardless of the medium.

Whether the strategy will pay off for Microsoft in a year where analysts estimate up to 30 million tablets will be sold, may depend on the momentum Apple generates with version 2 of the iPad and whether Google can repeat the success of Android in the tablet world.

Kinect sales reach 8 million

Ballmer devoted the first part of his keynote address to Kinect, the gesture-based controller for the Xbox 360, which has proven to be a surprise hit for the company selling 8 million units in its first two months on the market.

Kinect is changing the interaction gamers have with their video game consoles, in an extension of what Nintendo achieved with its innovative Wii remote three years ago. But demos at CES showed that use of Kinect will soon extend to using hand gestures and voice recognition to control the Xbox 360 and TV on demand applications that run on it. Demos of TV streaming services Netflix, Hulu and ESPN showed how an Xbox 360 user could browse and play content without touching a remote control. Sadly, none of those services are available in the New Zealand market so such use of Kinect will depend on Microsoft striking deals with local content providers – this could be some way off.

Another use of Kinect that was demoed was dubbed “Avatar Kinect“  and uses the same motion sensing and gesture recognition to mimic a user’s actions in the virtual world where avatars can meet in online chat sessions.

Update for Windows 7

Some useful updates for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform were released, including one button photo-taking from locked phone mode which will impress those who struggle to take timely photos on their phone camera. Copy and paste feature turns up (yes, amazingly this wasn’t implemented before now) and Ballmer revealed that 5,500 applications were now available in the Windows marketplace.

All up then, a credible if unambitious report on incremental changes from Microsoft rather than any change in direction. Microsoft’s power in the tech industry means it can help steer the direction of legions of software and hardware vendors. But with rivals Apple and Google forging ahead with their own plans for mobile phones and tablets the pressure is on Microsoft to ensure Windows expands its relevance beyond the desktop and laptop.

Peter Griffin attended CES with the assistance of Microsoft.

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