CES: Microsoft's Ballmer Gives Sneak Peek At Windows Tablets

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."

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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 ...

The biggest obstacle to Surface adoption thus far has been its high price tag, and while Microsoft isn't talking specifics about how much Surface 2.0 will cost, Ballmer did say it'll be less expensive than the previous model.

Speculation has been rampant in recent weeks that Microsoft might debut a wave of Windows 7 powered tablet PCs at CES, and this turned out to be on the mark. Most of these tablets are set for release in the next few months, and they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes -- in line with how Ballmer has repeatedly explained how Microsoft's tablet strategy would look once it was fully baked.

Ballmer and Angiulo showed off Samsung's Sliding PC 7, a hybrid 10.inch touch screen tablet with a physical keyboard that weighs just one kilogram and runs without a fan. Asus' new Eee Slate EP121, which is more akin to a fully powered Windows PC and comes equipped with Intel's Core i5 processor, features a 12.1 inch capacitive touch screen made from Gorilla Glass and handwriting recognition support in 26 languages.

Ballmer and Angiulo also displayed Acer's Iconia, which looks like a notebook but substitutes a touch screen where the physical keyboard should be. Acer debuted the Iconia in November, and judging from the reaction of audience members it's a device that will have a tough time remaining on store shelves.

Microsoft has taken a lot of heat for its slow move into tablets, and for insisting on building them around Windows 7 as opposed to Windows Phone 7. Ballmer could have been forgiven for exuding an air of "I told you so" in touting these impressive new tablets from OEM partners. But if anything, Ballmer seemed to downplay the fact that these were, in fact, the long awaited Windows 7 tablets that pundits have been unable to stop blabbing about.

Microsoft for the past year has been steadfast in its insistence that Windows 7 will work well not just in desktops and notebooks but also in tablets and other form factors. This explains the lack of preening over the arrival -- finally -- of devices that can give iPad and Android tablets a run for their money.