LAS VEGAS — There was a certain almost sentimental quality about the leadup to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s final opening keynote speech at the International Consumer Electronics Show Monday night. After all, one of the preshow songs was “This Is Our Last Goodbye.”
The tech giant has announced it’s pulling its exhibit out of next year’s show, and will no longer provide a keynote, as Ballmer and his predecessor Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates have done since 1998.
But Steve Ballmer sentimental? C’mon, he’s a Detroit guy. For most of the hour-long presentation, Ballmer looked more likely to leap out of his seat and go galumphing across the stage bellowing about Microsoft’s general wonderfulness than he did to shed a tear over leaving CES.
Well over 5,000 people packed the monstrous Palazzo ballroom on the Strip, a room that looked bigger than a football field (and some day I will pace it off and find out). Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro warmed up the crowd by recalling how Gates first spoke at a CEA event in 1995 on “The Coming Revolution In Consumer Computing.”
Ballmer was joined on stage by the peripatetic TV host Ryan Secrest. And Secrest got the night’s biggest laugh when he noted that when Ballmer made mention of Microsoft’s Metro user interface, “you looked at me in a strange way.” Later, an absolutely killer gospel choir sang out some of the tweets the blogosphere was saying about the event, an amusing bit of live-blogging.
Ballmer began the presentation by demonstrating Windows phones, phones that have won good reviews but tepid customer response. Ballmer said Windows Phone’s display system, which puts pictures and people on the phone screen rather than icons, is superior.
“All these other phones make the sea of icons the view of the world,” Ballmer said. “With Windows Phone I think we’ve done it differently from anybody else, we put people first in front of you.”
The phone also provided the only technical glitch of the night, a relatively minor one. But there were also several absolutely gorgeous new Windows phones from Nokia and HTC.
Other Microsoft employees demonstrated other Microsoft technologies. Tami Reller demonstrated the coming operating system Windows 8, due out late this year, which she called “more than the new version of widows, it’s a new way to think about your a PC.”
The opening user interface certainly looks different — icon-free, with date and time and a picture. Users can customize the security that opens up the app — for the demonstration, fish being carried by people in the picture were clicked on in a certain order. Once inside, applications are scrolled over in an interface that looks a lot like today’s Windows Media Center. Several very cool ultra-thin laptop computers also were shown.
The evening concluded with a very cool demonstration of how Xbox now responds very accurately to voice commands — and an absolutely adorable little girl demonstrated how it can be used to interact with specially produced episodes of Sesame Street. Probably the newsiest nugget of the event came late — the Kinect control model, developed for Xbox, is coming to Windows later this winter.