Microsoft divulged little at CES -- but the products speak volumes

Ballmer was long on games, coy about phones, and nearly mum about the future of Windows. The pre-eminent presence at CES was Apple -- in absentia

I gave up attending monster computer shows long ago, in the twilight era of Comdex. It always struck me as (oxy)moronic that people who extoll -- indeed, sell -- the virtues of working on the grid should devote so much time, energy, and money on meatspace gatherings.

Those of you who are stuck in Vegas queues, wearing down your Nikes, have my sympathy. It has to feel a bit strange to join a party with 125,000 people, where the person who should be guest of honor didn't bother to show up -- again. Give or take a quibble or two, Apple rates as the largest consumer electronics company in the world. It's also rapidly becoming one of the largest corporate electronics companies. Apple doesn't do CES -- never has.

But Steve Ballmer was there, with a keynote presentation long on games, coy about phones, and almost completely mum about the future of Windows.

Yes, Steve, we know that Windows 7 PCs are the fastest-selling PCs in history. Ho-hum. We know that 20 percent of all PCs connected to the Internet use Windows 7. (Only 20 percent?) We've already seen the demos of Windows 7 on tablets -- been there, done that, what, two years ago? "Only the imagination limits what can be done with Windows PCs today. You can write on them, draw on them, hang them on the wall, touch them, use wireless keyboards, play a game and much, much more," said the Steve. Well, yes, that's true -- but it was also true five years ago. Watching the demos of sluggish Windows 7 tablets laboring with the decidedly touch-unfriendly interface doesn't inspire confidence.

Steve Sinofsky wove wondrous yuletide stories about the Ghost of Windows Yet to Be -- circa 2012 -- running on x86 chips as well as the same kind of ARM-design chips (oooh! aaaah!) that drive iPads today. It made me wonder if anybody remembers the 8086 and the reasons why the name hasn't changed. The next version of Windows will run on anything, from earth-rattling desktops to shiny slates to mini mobile phones, SteveS asserts. At least, some version of Windows will run on anything, I suppose. The skeptic in me wanted to jump up and ask if the semblance will be akin to that between Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 -- both of which are, by definition, Windows, but aside from the name there's very little else in common.

Other than that cross-processor assurance, Microsoft divulged basically nothing about Windows 8. Not even the name.

Out on the floor, depending on how you count, hardware manufacturers are showing off somewhere between 80 and 110 new tablets. Many of those tablets are aimed squarely at the corporate market. The ones that run Windows 7 look, to me, a lot like the tablets we saw introduced with great fanfare a couple of years ago, and not significantly different from the ones five years ago.

Most telling: Lenovo's new IdeaPad U1. Uh, Lenovo's newly rehashed IdeaPad U1. (Lenovo demonstrated a similar U1 at CES a year ago.) Open up a U1, and you see a full-fledged laptop, the IdeaPad, running Windows 7. Pop off the screen and you have a LePad Slate, which runs -- you guessed it, a modified version of Android. You can buy the LePad Slate separately or together with its laptop-shaped base station. I suppose Windows 7 just didn't cut the mustard on the 'Pad.

The real star of the show? Take a bow, Steve. No, I mean Steve Jobs.

It pains me to admit it, but there's no question that the pre-eminent presence at CES this year is Apple. Gloria in absentia. Every phone on offer struggles to differentiate itself from the iPhone. Every tablet claims to be better than an iPad. In short, Steve Jobs has set the standard that everyone's trying to beat.

Android has a running chance, but I'm not so sure about Windows.

This article, "Microsoft divulges little at CES -- but the products speak volumes," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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