Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage in Las Vegas Wednesday night to kick off the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the first time he has delivered the prestigious opening keynote address, a role filled by his colleague Bill Gates for the last 14 years.
And as is appropriate for the Las Vegas venue, Ballmer says Microsoft is betting its future on lucky number 7 -- as in Windows 7 -- the successor to Microsoft's star-crossed operating system Windows Vista. Ballmer surprised the crowd by announcing that the first test versions of Windows 7 will be released today in the U.S., and globally on Friday.
Dressed nattily in a sweater and slacks, Ballmer began his comments with a nod to Gates and his global humanitarian efforts since leaving the day-to-day responsibilities running the world's largest software company.
He then said he had gotten a lot of advice from various corners about what to do and how to handle the keynote.
From Gates: "Make sure you're at CES and not that other conference" in Las Vegas, referring to the Adult Entertainment Expo that's also going on this week here.
From Yahoo's former CEO Jerry Yang: "Why do you keep ignoring my Friend requests on Facebook?" That got a lot of laughter from the several thousand members of the crowd on hand to witness the event.
Ballmer struck an optimistic tune, saying "regardless of the economic climate," technology and innovation will continue to improve lives and lifestyles, and that Microsoft will continue "to invest more than others" to bring those innovations to market.
He sees the convergence of three major technologies: The phone, the PC and the TV, "evolving into a single seamless ecosystem of anytime/anywhere computing." Smart phones will make up more than 50 percent of the mobile phone market over the next several years, he says. The boundary between the PC and the TV will dissolve, he says. And natural user interfaces, like speech, gestures and handwriting will dramatically change the way we use computers.
So-called "connected experiences" will also begin to change the way consumers will use technology using the web, with "cloud computing," and across all technologies. Tonight, Ballmer also announced a new, long-term partnership with Verizon Wireless where Verizon will use Microsoft's LiveSearch for mobile searches, which means more competition for Google and its nascent mobile search initiatives.
"The lynchpin for bringing this all together for you should be Windows," said Ballmer.
It's a familiar theme for Microsoft , something that Gates has emphasized in speeches past; that all these disparate gadgets ought to be linked together by a common software platform, and with so many new devices trying to link up today by cloud computing and the web, a common software backbone seems more important today than ever before.
"Windows is nothing without the cool hardware that runs it," says Ballmer, adding he's "super-excited" about what Microsoft partners are preparing to release.
He added that in this economic time, when consumers are watching every dollar, the devices that make the most sense are the most powerful, and the most cost-effective. And that's what PCs running Windows offer, he says, a clear swipe at the fast-growing marketshare that Apple has enjoyed as consumers and enterprise customers continued to complain about Windows Vista.
Ballmer also announced a new partnership with social networking superstar Facebook, a company in which Microsoft owns a tiny percentage that will take advantage of Microsoft's online WindowsLive software.
He says Microsoft is determined to get Windows 7 out, and to get it right.
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