Two years after Microsoft announced its withdrawal from the Consumer Electronics Show, the company is quietly preparing to return to the annual gadget extravaganza in early January. Kind of.
Microsoft will not be back on the show floor with a booth when CES opens on Jan. 7. Nor will it have an executive deliver a keynote speech, despite its new mission to be a devices and services company.
But the company has reserved a “huge amount of meeting space” at the event, taking up more square footage than it used to reserve for its exhibits, according to Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association that hosts the show.
There’s enough room for Microsoft to set up a private exhibition of its upcoming gadgets and hold meetings with customers and partner companies.
“What they’re doing in their meeting rooms is up to them,” Shapiro said.
Among the spaces that Microsoft has reserved is a ballroom in The Venetian casino and convention complex, where it’s planning an exhibition area to show its latest products to customers, partners and press.
Microsoft spokesman Frank Shaw said it’s not an expanded presence as much as a reorganization of space the company previously took up around the event.
“We have consolidated all the space that we previously held,” he said.
Shaw announced the company’s pullback from CES in December 2011, just before Chief Executive Steve Ballmer delivered a final keynote at the event in January 2012.
The move followed Microsoft’s decision to stop publicly broadcasting its vision and plans for upcoming products and technology.
That coincided with Microsoft mounting a bigger challenge to the device business of Apple, which also opts to make its big announcements at carefully scripted company events rather than broad, industry gatherings such as CES.
Shaw said today that it’s largely about timing. The January event is a challenge ”if you’re a consumer-electronics company and you want to make news at the same time we want people to buy things — then that’s not a great place to make news. It’s a good place to make news about the industry, around trends, momentum, leadership, things like that that don’t involve ‘go buy me now.’ ”
So instead of using CES to announce products that may be coming in June, Microsoft will share plans privately with partners at the event.
Microsoft’s ongoing search for a new chief executive also makes it an awkward time for a big splash at CES. If one of its group leaders were to deliver a big speech, the content would be overshadowed by speculation about the person’s candidacy for the top job in Redmond.
Despite the withdrawal, Steve Ballmer made a cameo CES appearance last January during a Qualcomm presentation. Shapiro said he talked to Ballmer afterward and invited him to return for one more keynote, to no avail.
Instead the big presentations will be made by the heads of Audi, Intel, Yahoo, Cisco and Sony.
The opening-day speaker, Sony Chief Executive Kaz Hirai, is likely to use the podium to talk up the PlayStation 4 and perhaps take a swipe or two at the Xbox One.
Sony and others also are expected to use the show to push the next wave of ultra high-definition TVs. Other big themes will be wireless health gadgets, 3-D printing, wearable computing and new automotive technologies, including more advanced in-car systems plus electric and autonomous self-driving cars.
Shapiro said these categories are all just emerging and starting a “new innovation cycle.”
“These are growing very quickly and the potential is to be very, very big,” he said.
Like CES itself, which this year has 3,200 exhibitors so far and around 150,000 attendees expected from around the world. The show runs from Jan. 7 to 10 — plus a day of company announcements planned for Jan. 6 — and is closed to the general public.