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Microsoft needed an attention grabbing 2011 Consumer Electronics Show opening keynote to make up for last year's snoozefest, and CEO Steve Ballmer delivered by giving attendees a peek at a future in which Windows powers a multitude of different devices and form factors.
Much of the excitement in Ballmer's keynote stemmed from Microsoft's revelation earlier Wednesday that the next version of Windows will support system-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture from ARM. Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments are now working on SoC designs based on the ARM architecture, and this work has now reached a point where it's ready for public viewing.
Microsoft decided to go public with its ARM plans now in order to give partners plenty of time to adjust, Ballmer said.
"This is really about enabling a new class of hardware, new silicon partners for Windows and bringing the widest possible range of form factors to market," Ballmer told the roughly 4000 attendees who crammed into the Hilton Convention Center in Las Vegas. "This is an important step for Microsoft because customers expect the full range of Windows functions in any device."
Ballmer said Intel and AMD will continue working on SoC designs with Windows support and support for native x86 applications, but the addition of ARM support in the next version of Windows clearly underscores Microsoft's ambitions in the tablet space, where it has been watching enviously as Apple's iPad and Samsung's Android-powered Galaxy Pad have been stealing the show.
Ballmer and Windows hardware vice president Mike Angiulo gave a series of demos that up until recently were the stuff of fantasy, including the next generation Windows client (using the Windows 7 UI) running on Qualcomm Snapdragon. They also demonstrated a recompiled build of Microsoft Word running on Texas Instruments' OMAP platform and a recompiled version of Powerpoint that takes advantage of the hardware acceleration built into Nvidia's Tegra processor.
"This isn't virtualization, this is real Windows running on ARM," Angiulo said in a voice brimming with satisfaction.
Ballmer also introduced a new -- and radically different -- 2.0 version of Microsoft Surface that has been developed in conjunction with Samsung. Surface 2.0 is wall-mountable and much smaller than its coffee table sized predecessor, measuring about 4 inches in thickness. As Ballmer noted, Surface 2.0 is "no longer a big box with cameras inside."
Surface 2.0 includes Pixelsense, a new technology that uses infrared sensors and more powerful processors to enable each individual pixel to act as a camera. Surface 2.0 can also be used as a kiosk, since it's essentially an outsized ruggedized PC that's designed for industrial applications. Surface 2.0's large Gorilla Glass touch screen can withstand the impact of a beer bottle dropped from 18 inches without breaking, Angiulo said.
Ballmer said Surface 2.0's advancements are poised to open new opportunities for developers and expand the product's overall footprint. "This vision based interaction creates a whole new category of apps that developers can write," Ballmer said.
NEXT: The Tablet PC Army Arrives ..