CES: The Company That Wasn’t There

on January 15, 2014


Steve Ballmer at CES 2012
Steve Ballmer in happier times, at CES 2012

For many years, Microsoft set the tone for CES with a keynote the evening before the annual consumer electronics extravaganza opened. It was always heavily attended and heavily covered, and there was usually at least one piece of significant news. On the show floor, Microsoft  had a huge, prominent booth, conveniently located at the point where attendees were most likely to enter the sprawling Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

At its 2012 appearance, CEO Steve Ballmer (above)  announced Microsoft would not be coming back. But last year, even with its keynote slot taken up by Qualcom’s Paul Jacobs and its floor space occupied by Chinese TV maker Hisense, Microsoft managed to be a presence at CES. There was considerable interest in the newly released Windows 8  and Windows RT, and in the Surface and Surface Pro tablets and Ultrabooks.

This year: Nothing. Microsoft, of course, had a presence in Las Vegas, a suite of meeting rooms at one of the hotels. But far more notable than the lack of official participation in CES is the near-zero mindshare Microsoft had on both participants and its erstwhile partners. After all, Apple has managed to be a looming presence at CES for years without ever taking an official role. In 2007, it notoriously drew a huge chunk of CES media from Las Vegas to San Francisco to cover the mid-CES launch of the original iPhone. In an astonishingly short time, Microsoft has gone from being the great, feared bully of the tech world to being a company that most people rarely think about.[pullquote] To the extent that CES is a reflection of the viability of Microsoft’s consumer offerings, the company has some big decisions to make. [/pullquote]

The fact that Microsoft was neither seen nor talked about at CES is probably a reasonable reflection of the company’s current place in the consumer world. The new Xbox One is selling fairly well, though not as well as the Sony PlayStation 4, but it doesn’t seem to be generating a great deal of excitement. I saw Xbox Ones here and there around CES, along with a larger number of Xbox 360s, but without Microsoft’s sponsorship, there was no one to generate Xbox buzz. By contrast, Sony dedicated a substantial part of its exhibit to PS/4 and the display included a stunning video wall on which a PS/4 FIFA World Cup game was being played (photo below).


For Microsoft, the Intel exhibit may have been the low point of the show. Intel and Microsoft long were  neighbors on the show floor and effectively promoted each other’s products. There were a fair number of systems, mostly Ultrabooks, running Windows in the Intel booth. But Intel grabbed a lot of attention by announcing that it would be promoting laptops running both Windows and Google’s Android software. And the center of interest of its display was a section promoting its new ultra-small, ultra-low-power Edison system on chip and particular, its entry into the Internet of babies: The Mimo baby monitor from Rest Devices, a tiny plastic turtle that slips into a specially designed onesie and beams data on your baby’s motions and vital signs–to your iOS or Android device. Edison is based an on x86 processor, but devices based on in are going to run Android or Linux, not Windows.

Among leading leading laptop makers, only Lenovo was present on the floor.  ((The original version erroneously said Lenovo was among the absent.))  HP and Dell skipped the show floor altogether. And while companies such as Toshiba, Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic showed laptops, they did not get very prominent placement.

Microsoft, of course, still has a healthy enterprise business, and you would not expect that to be reflected at CES. But to the extent that CES is a reflection of the viability of Microsoft’s consumer offerings, the company has some big decisions to make. Its acquisition of Nokia seemed to represent a decision to stick with and rebuild the consumer market, but so far it is not helping. As Microsoft goes through its protracted selection of a new CEO, it has to decide whether it really wants to be in consumer markets–and just what sort of investment it will take to become relevant again.