(Today’s column from CES, on Microsoft’s Windows and tablet news …)
LAS VEGAS — Here at the Consumer Electronics Show, you can see every TV set, iPhone accessory and cellphone ever imagined.
There are thousands of products in more than a million square feet of exhibition space, packed with more than 140,000 people.
But what’s really hard to find are people who understand what Microsoft is up to with its mysterious pronouncements at the show about the next version of Windows. It took me four days to come up with a few guesses.
I’m talking about the centerpiece of Chief Executive Steve Ballmer’s keynote — the show’s grand opening event, where thousands come to hear what’s next from a company straddling the computer, phone and entertainment industries.
Ballmer used the spotlight to present hardware test beds running the next version of Windows on the tiny processors used in phones and Web tablets.
Ballmer also touted the Xbox and Windows Phone 7 with flashy demonstrations.
But his Big Deal was a demonstration of this new software and hardware running Office, Quicken and a high-definition video clip in Windows Media Player.
This probably would win the blue ribbon and scholarship offers at a university computer-science fair. It also sent various messages to Microsoft’s industry partners and competitors. But it seemed strangely out of place as the opening spectacle at CES, where most people couldn’t understand the semaphore and Microsoft refused to explain the flags.
Microsoft was so reserved and calculated with the presentation, you were left feeling that the company was keeping the cool new stuff under wraps, and using CES to check off a milestone in its secret release schedule.
In years past, Microsoft set the show’s tone. Bill Gates used to open the event with bold predictions about software and PC technology spreading into TVs, refrigerators and Web tablets. His keynote usually had a funny video or two, perhaps a celebrity appearance and a few exciting prototypes.
This year Ballmer showed Microsoft is making an important move. It’s extending Windows to the minuscule hardware used to produce phenomenally thin and light mobile Web devices. The hardware is primarily based on the ARM architecture that’s dominant in smartphones and Web tablets.
A lot of people think Microsoft missed this boat and will never get past the iPad’s wake. The bigger competition, though, may be Google and its Android operating system, which was powering nearly all of the new tablets and smartphones debuting at the show.
Either way, Microsoft’s big investment into ARM is “a huge, but necessary, step for the company as it works to re-engage with the booming mobile device space,” IDC analyst Al Gillen said in a research note.
What’s a little strange is that Microsoft already has versions of Windows that run on ARM. The Windows phone software runs on ARM; its mobile Windows CE software has run on ARM since 1996.
But Ballmer made it clear at CES that Microsoft intends to put the full version of Windows on mobile devices coming in 2012 and beyond. He said customers expect “the full range of capabilities from any device” and Windows “will be everywhere on every kind of device without compromise.”
Once again, Microsoft is insisting that the full version of Windows be used on what it considers to be primary computing devices.
That gives the devices the benefit of Windows’ support for all sorts of programs and hardware. But it can also put a heavy load on the system, affecting performance and battery life.
By pushing “big Windows” onto tablets, Microsoft is saying it considers these devices to be full-powered computing systems, with the capabilities of a laptop. Not just a tablet for browsing and running Web applications.
This pronouncement comes as the definition of Web tablets, and portable computers, is in flux.
Consumers and the industry are still trying to figure out the mix of computing devices we’ll use to work, play and communicate.
Microsoft is taking a different path than Apple, which opted to produce a slimmed-down version of its operating system for the iPhone and the iPad. Its mobile operating system has fewer capabilities, but works well for the hardware.
The bigger competition appears to be the Android, which Google gives away free. Android is already overtaking the iPhone and is now aimed at the iPad with a refined version for tablets coming out later this year. Google demonstrated the upgrade at CES, and it looks like it could also become a competitor to Windows 7 and Apple’s OS X.
Microsoft has to make some bold moves, because its execution hasn’t kept up with its vision for mobile computing.
Early on, the company saw the potential for tablets and smartphones. The first Windows tablets launched in 2002, nearly a decade before the iPad, and its ultra-mobile, handheld PCs launched a year before the iPhone.
Yet ultra-mobile PCs were held back in part because Microsoft opted to use the full version of Windows. Hardware at the time wasn’t powerful enough and was too expensive.
Sales were poor and PC makers turned to netbooks.
There were hints Microsoft figured this out. After the iPhone cleaned its clock, the phone group rebuilt its unwieldy operating system, sharpened its focus and unveiled Windows Phone 7.
Windows 7 was also supposed to be better for tablets, with the ability to remove more components and lighten the system, and improvements to touch controls.
But, for tablets, Microsoft’s biggest partners are turning from Windows. Dell’s new Streak tablet runs Android on ARM, and Hewlett-Packard’s next tablets run its own operating system.
It seems Microsoft, with the strategy Ballmer discussed the other night, is moving to reverse that.
But even if it makes full Windows work well with devices, huge obstacles stand in its way — if my tour of the international section of CES is an indication
A walk through the crowded stalls where Chinese and Taiwanese companies hawk every gadget imaginable, from flashlights to holographic video players, suggested Asian factories are gearing up to produce millions of Android tablets this year.
Last year, this zone was full of netbooks; before that it was iPhone and iPod knockoffs. This year every other company seemed to offering Android tablets, most with ARM processors.
But after talking to one of the manufacturers, I’m not counting on a flood of Windows ARM (WARM?) tablets at the 2012 CES.
The issue isn’t hardware support or the software’s capability as much as price, according to William Hsaio, deputy general manager of Hopeland Digital in Shenzhen China.
Hsaio hadn’t heard of Microsoft’s plan for the next version of Windows to run on ARM. But he said it won’t matter when he can get Android free.
“Windows? Too expensive for our market,” he said. “One license costs $30, $40. That’s huge money.”
(UPDATE: After this was filed, I heard from a veteran Microsoft engineer who shared a few thoughts. He said it could turn out to be more like Apple’s approach after all – taking a legacy operating system to new processor architecture, with more constrained computational abilities, and leaving legacy applications behind.
Deep changes in Windows to make it run well on mobile hardware could result in new efficiencies and responsiveness that would also improve things on Intel x86 architecture.
Maybe we’ll learn more about what’s meant by “full power” Windows on mobile hardware at Microsoft’s Mix conference in April or a developer conference later in the year.)
Here is Ballmer’s keynote:
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