Xbox and Kinect Are the Stars of Microsoft's Final CES Keynote

Microsoft's final Consumer Electronics Show (CES) keynote address focused on Windows Phone, Windows 8, and the Xbox. It's somewhat fitting that most of the new information was about Kinect, the one truly successful consumer product that the company has launched in the past few years. But enthusiasts were disappointed that Microsoft  described only existing features in Windows Phone and Windows 8, while providing absolutely no clues about the future. 

And maybe that's why Microsoft is really leaving CES, which is all about the future. Last night, Microsoft seemed to want to talk mostly about the past.

"We have a chance in the next year to really raise our game, our product line to the next level, across phones, PCs, tablets, TV, the Xbox, and really the heart and soul of that will be our kind of featured attraction tonight, our new Metro user interface," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at the opening of the keynote. "We kind of pioneered it over the last few years, but you'll see it tonight, fast, fluid, and dynamic across all the Microsoft experiences, and really helping people to connect directly to the people and information, music, friends that are most important to them. I think you will be kind of impressed by how it lights everything up."

The Metro UI publicly debuted as part of Windows Phone at an event almost exactly two years ago. Microsoft has spent the intervening time updating that phone-based UI, adding it to the Xbox 360 via a Dashboard Update that shipped two months ago, and is in the process of infusing it into Windows 8, which will presumably ship sometime in 2012. 

But back to the keynote. Windows Phone was up first, though the discussion was undercut fairly dramatically by the fact that everything discussed—LTE availability on AT&T in the coming months, a new HTC Titan II handset, and new US-based phones from Nokia that include the Lumia 710 on T-Mobile and the Lumia 900 on AT&T—were all announced earlier in the day at separate press conferences.

Moving on to Windows PCs, Ballmer said that there were now more than 1.3 billion Windows-based PCs in use around the world, and that Windows has continually evolved to meet the ever-changing needs of its users. And Windows 7 is, he said, the most successful version of Windows ever, with more than 500 million copies in the hands of users.

A brief Windows 8 demo appeared to be using a Developer Preview-era build of the OS and not the beta version that's coming next month. And though it featured some Metro-style apps that enthusiasts were eager to see (such as the Windows Live-based Mail, People, and Calendar apps), the only new app shown was ... wait for it ... for finger painting. No new features were shown.

Then it was on to Xbox, Microsoft's most successful consumer product. Ballmer said that the company has sold 66 million Xbox 360 consoles since the device's 2005 launch, and that it had signed up about 40 million Xbox LIVE accounts, which is probably an accurate measure of the console's user base. Amazingly, almost half of those users—more than18 million—have purchased a Kinect motion and voice sensor. 

And this is where the actual news comes in. Microsoft announced a partnership with Fox to bring Fox TV, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News Channel, and IGN to Xbox LIVE, sometime in 2012, further bolstering the console's suddenly excellent TV and entertainment programming capabilities. A tiring Sesame Street interactive TV show demo followed with one of those overly emotive child actors I always feel bad about; I'll spare you the details.

Ballmer also announced that Kinect for Windows would ship on February 1. This version of the sensor costs a whopping $250, if Amazon's pre-release pricing is accurate, and includes changes that make the device more usable from close range. (The current Kinect is infamously inaccurate and must be used at distances of 6 feet or greater.) I'm eager to try it, and yes, I've preordered one.

With time running out, Ballmer quickly stepped through a list of Microsoft's other consumer products, such as Ford SYNC, Office 2010 (?), Skype, and Bing. And when asked what's was next, he cagily brought the discussion right back to the most eagerly anticipated 2012 product release for his company.

"Windows 8 is what's next," he answered. "The next milestone is in late February and then boom, on to the shipment of Windows 8. There's nothing more important at Microsoft than Windows ... Metro will drive the new magic across all of our user experiences. In the new math at Microsoft, Metro means that one plus one really does equal three. So, in 2012, what's next? Metro, Metro, Metro ... and, of course, Windows, Windows, Windows."

I understand that much of what Microsoft showed off in the keynote was in fact new to many average onlookers, but enthusiasts, again, were hoping for more. And though the list of items that weren't discussed in the company's final CES keynote could probably fill a small book, I'll note a few that seemed terrifically important a few days ago: How Microsoft will differentiate ARM-based versions of Windows 8 from x86 versions, the next Xbox console, the Windows Phone Skype app and future OS versions, and Microsoft's plans for significantly improving Windows Phone's market share in 2012. That's just the tip of the iceberg, but virtually any of those items are as important, or more important, than what was discussed Monday night.

That said, Microsoft likes to do things on its own schedule. And as it noted in late December when it revealed that this CES would be its last, Microsoft's product news milestones just don’t line up with the CES January schedule. So we can expect to hear more in the weeks and months ahead. February, for example, won't just see the Windows 8 Beta release, but also Mobile World Congress—an obvious time for further Windows Phone news.
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