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At CES, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer Strains For Relevance In Keynote

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Microsoft's Chief Executive Steve Ballmer
Microsoft's Chief Executive Steve Ballmer

LAS VEGAS -- Listening to Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer last night hyperventilate about the company's supposedly stupendous future as purveyor of the planet's life-altering experiences was not unlike watching a heavyset, middle-aged guy strutting through a pulsating club, telling all the slinky, 20-something women how hot he looks in a Speedo.

Ballmer was giving the keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show, the ultimate showcase for gadgetry. The people crammed inside a giant ballroom at the Venetian Hotel took in the spectacle of Ballmer's famously cornball cheerleading and Tweeted away and captured video clips -- most of them using iPhones and various Android models. You could find plenty of Microsoft products in the crowd, yes, but predominantly on the PCs schlepped around by people whose companies issue them as a matter of policy.

For more than a decade, Microsoft has been vowing to expand from its preserve in the business world -- the supplier of products that scream work -- into a hipper consumer company that produces things people might actually be inclined to buy with their own money. As HuffPost's technology editor Bianca Bosker has pointed out on more than one occasion, this transformation has gone approximately as well as British Petroleum's labors to burnish its image as a lover of handicapped dolphins. The very fact that Ballmer was, for the last time, giving the keynote at a show whose name is about consumer electronics served as reminder of this mostly failed campaign.

To be fair, Microsoft has had some notable successes in this realm. The Xbox has become the gaming platform of choice. A demo last night of new voice-controlled features going into that gizmo drew a healthy share of oohs, as well as vows to go home and get one for the children (even as one had to worry that many of those children -- now served up voice control in place of text -- are destined to be illiterate.)

The latest version of Microsoft's operating system, Windows 8, due out next month in pre-beta version, does indeed look robust and interesting, turning the old home-screen into a buffet of apps that can be managed by pinching and zooming.

"I think people will be kind of impressed about how it kind of lights everything up," Ballmer said, in what for him passes as understatement.

The new Windows smartphones seemed like an interesting take on that product, bringing together all the streams of communication -- text messages, Facebook chats, e-mails, Twitter updates -- into one central repository, sorted out by the people with whom one is communicating.

Yet as Ballmer displayed these various wares on two giant screens during his uncomfortably-contrived tete a tete with Ryan Seacrest -- the television host whose saccharine ubiquity now rivals that of non-dairy creamer -- the scent of desperation hung thick.

These are late days to be making a serious play for the smartphone, a device that is in many ways already a commodity. New products may not be enough in an era in which technology is increasingly about the ecosystem of services that surround products -- the Kindle as conduit for Amazon's electronic books, the iPad as platform for countless apps, Google and its full suite of cloud-based software offerings.

Among the tech cognoscenti, Microsoft's very name conjures up the opposite of innovation, with memories of its heavy-handed efforts to use its monopoly hold on the desktop in the 1990s as a portal to similar dominance on the Web. In many minds, Microsoft is seen as a company whose success has less to do with cool products than its unfair wielding of market share to stifle competition. That's a hard residue to shake.

Ballmer has long been seen as the salesman who is trying so hard you can see him sweat. As he called Seacrest "dude," and indulged every fifty-cent adjective in the vernacular of hype -- "stunning," "amazing" and "exciting as heck" -- he presented himself as a guy who knows he probably can't close the deal, but is certainly not going to be accused of making less than maximum effort.

"What's next?," Seacrest asked Ballmer as the event mercifully ended.

"Windows 8!" Ballmer hollered, before repeating it twice for good measure.

The lights came back on along with the music. The crowd filtered into the Las Vegas night, as people switched on their iPhones and their Droids to set up dinner and drinks.

Clarification: This article originally stated that the new version of Windows 8 would launch in the month of February; it was referring to the pre-beta version of Windows 8, not the full, commercial version.

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