Could Microsoft Beat Apple to Market with Tablet?


Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer could drop some big news when he delivers the opening keynote at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) tonight in Las Vegas. According to a New York Times report, the software giant could unveil a tablet/slate PC tonight, weeks ahead of an expected announcement from Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL).

The slate will be made by HP (NYSE: HPQ) and possibly available by mid-year, according to the NYT report, which described the device as "a multimedia whiz with e-reader and multi-touch functions."

Other possible topics for Ballmer tonight include: the Bing search engine; the Zune HD media player; the Windows Phone operating system; the company's pending Natal motion capture game controller for the Xbox; and at least one new deal for Microsoft's Windows Auto software.

Also on that list will probably at least be a passing reference to Office 2010, which entered beta test in November and is due out by the end of June. Microsoft just announced packaging and pricing for Office 2010 on Tuesday in the run up to CES.

In his CES keynote last year, Ballmer unveiled the beginning of the beta test for Windows 7.

Windows 7 shipped to consumers in late October, so while he's likely to pump up the audience with stats on how well the new operating system is performing in the marketplace -- at the company's annual meeting in November, he said sales had been "fantastic" -- Ballmer is expected to spend more focus on other consumer products and technologies this year.

Given that CES is known as a "gadget" show, one of the highest profile products that Ballmer and Robbie Bach, president of Entertainment & Devices at Microsoft and Ballmer's partner in the keynote, are expected to show off is Natal.

Microsoft first demonstrated Natal in June at the E3 game conference in Los Angeles.

However, CES 2010 may be the largest audience so far for a demo of the technology, which uses cameras to "read" a person's body movements, turning the individual into a living game controller.

"That's definitely something they'll have in the keynote," Matt Rosoff, research vice president at Directions on Microsoft, told "Maybe they'll even have a release date and a price," he added.

Although Natal has been rumored to be slated to ship by the end of 2010, Microsoft has made no commitments regarding that so far.

As for the Bing search engine, Microsoft has been adding new features since Bing became available in June. Those include more support for video searches as well as use of sophisticated mathematical functions in searches. One thing Ballmer is likely to mention is that Microsoft's deal with Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO), which was finally signed in early December and only awaits clearance from regulators.

Another candidate for inclusion in Ballmer's speech is the Zune HD media player, which began shipping in mid-SeptemberWhile Bing is slowly rising in market share and Zune HD limps along, little in Microsoft's consumer sphere is as important as Windows Phone, formerly known as Windows Mobile. While Microsoft released version 6.5 of Windows Phone in 2009, many observers view it as inadequate to compete head-to-head with Apple's iPhone and other multi-touch smartphones.

"We don't expect a whole lot of news [regarding Windows Mobile]," Rosoff said. "There might be some Windows Mobile news but not about Windows Mobile 7," he added.

One bright spot for Microsoft's consumer businesses has been the growing popularity of its Windows Embedded Auto software. Microsoft is set to announce that South Korean auto maker Kia Motors has signed up to use its in-car infotainment system.

Ballmer may also give a progress report on how sales of Ford vehicles that use its software -- branded as "Sync" for Ford -- have been going, and will possibly provide status on a similar deal it has with Italian car maker Fiat.

A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment for the story.

A Webcast of Ballmer's keynote will be available beginning at 6:30 p.m. Pacific time Wednesday.

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