There's something nice about a tradition, and today saw the end of one that's been a regular book mark in our year. Next January there won't be that convivial couple of hours stood (or sat) in a queue of thousands of technology press from all over the world (today's section of the queue mixed journalists from all over Europe, South America and the United States). That's because it was the last of Microsoft's CES keynotes – at least for now.
If you wondered why Microsoft was pulling out from CES, the content of Steve Ballmer's address said it all. CES just isn’t in the right place in Microsoft's product cycle. There were no major new announcements, and even Windows 8's time on stage was just a cut down version of the unveiling at BUILD last September, while the Windows Phone demonstration echoed all the Mango demonstrations we've seen since MWC nearly a year ago. The only news was the announcement of a date for the release of PC Kinect, now slated for the 1st of February – that and the obligatory lauding of OEM Ultrabooks and LTE phones from Nokia and HTC. That makes it hard to write a traditional news story about the keynote…
This instead was an unusually introspective Microsoft, giving the audience a statement of where the company is now, and a brief overview of where the company is going in the next year. Ballmer was a high school valedictorian, a president giving a State of the Union address – compered by a reality TV host. It's not a bad place for Microsoft to be, ending 14 years of keynotes on a reflective note. The old Microsoft would have been triumphant, but this is the new Microsoft, remade after its anti-trust remedies and chastened by Vista and by Kin, no longer the master of the world, but part of a triumvirate of significant players.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the keynote was the importance of Metro to Microsoft. From phone to TV, via desktop and laptop, it's the signature of the next generation of Microsoft products. Ballmer described it as "[Going] beyond the sea of icons as a view of the world, putting the people and things important to you in front of you". Designed to scale from the smallest to the largest screens the Metro design language is the future of Microsoft, one of the big bets that the company makes for the long term. This is a Microsoft that's focusing on Metro as a basis for next-generation natural user interfaces, one that is so focused on user experience that it's dictating to OEMs the size of the touch pad on Windows 8 certified hardware, in order to deliver the promised user experience.
Metro is the key to Windows Phone, and the tooling for the new Xbox experience (as well as the basis for the Xbox's TV and video applications), as well as driving the Windows 8 user experience. With Metro Microsoft is finally delivering on its long-standing three screens plus the cloud promise, giving it a common look and feel. Ballmer left the stage with a chant of "Metro, Metro, Metro", echoing his famous "Developers…" speech.
While CEA head Gary Shapiro made it clear that he expected Microsoft to return to the stage at some time in the future, conversations we’ve had with Microsoft spokespeople seem to tell a different story. Microsoft seems likely to rationalise its many shows and events, and use that reworked schedule as its own jumping off point for announcements and launches, with smaller events for more specific product launches – much like it's been working towards with the way it managed the Windows Phone and Windows 7 launches.