LAS VEGAS—With every corner of its business facing strong competition in the past few years, Microsoft has been pushed (mostly by Google and Apple) to prove that it has the chops to survive in a world coming to rely less on Windows-based PCs and more on smart phones, touch-screen tablets and Internet-connected appliances for access to information and entertainment. On the eve of this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) here, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used his annual keynote to sum up his company's strategy: "Whatever device you use, now or in the future, Windows will be there."
More specifically, Microsoft will continue to focus on three key areas by delivering new ways of accessing entertainment through the Xbox, developing an improved mobile interface through the Windows Phone and making its Windows operating system available on all manner of new tablets and other mobile devices.
Savoring the success of its recently released Kinect sensor, which enables video game play without the need for a remote controller, Microsoft is now extending this capability to other areas of its Xbox video game console. During Ballmer's keynote, Microsoft engineer Ron Forbes demonstrated hand- and voice-initiated interactions with applications including Zune, Netflix and Hulu via an Xbox. The idea is to use the Xbox to summon music, movies and television programs on demand, in the easiest way possible. Forbes also demonstrated Avatar Kinect, which enables Xbox Live users to represent themselves as on-screen avatars when interacting with one another. Microsoft says it sold eight million Kinect sensors since they first went on sale in November.
Microsoft recently launched an ad campaign that pokes fun at smart phone users as being so absorbed in their devices that they tend to miss out on what is going on around them. Of course, the purpose of these ads is to sell mobile devices running the Windows Phone 7 operating system. The difference, according to Microsoft, is that tiled touch-screen buttons on these phones make information easier to find (thus you spend less time staring at your phone's screen and more time watching your kids play soccer, or something along those lines). Ballmer announced during his keynote that the Windows Phone operating system now supports cutting and pasting text across applications, and that Windows Phone 7 will be available by midyear on phones offered by Sprint and Verizon, in addition to AT&T.
The 5,500 applications available for Windows Phone is hardly on par with the tens of thousands accessible to users of iPhones or Android-based handsets, but Ballmer assured the CES crowd that more than 100 new apps enter the Microsoft fold daily.
But perhaps the biggest key to Microsoft's future is ensuring that its bread-and-butter Windows operating system remains relevant to users increasingly using their devices to access the Internet more than to create documents or spreadsheets. Ballmer pointed out that 20 percent of all PCs accessing the Web are running Windows 7, which was released in October 2009. As a result, Microsoft believes that interest in Windows is still high and is looking to make sure the operating system will run on a variety of mobile devices, regardless of whether those devices run on chips made by Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments or Samsung. "You'll be able to use windows wherever you go," Ballmer promised.