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If your image of Microsoft is a sweaty Steve Ballmer screaming “developers, developers, developers” at an auditorium -- or the boring company that makes boring products like Excel, or Exchange Server -- prepare to change that image.
Microsoft just might be evolving into a killer consumer electronics company.
In the wake of two serial Apple announcements, the rumor mill has become an alien landscape. Instead of the usual chatter about amazing new Apple gadgets, everyone is now talking about even more amazing Microsoft hardware.
Yes, they're rumors. But most of them originate with credible sources or plausible guesstimates.
And these rumors are bolstered by known hot hardware products known to be coming soon.
Here's what could, should and probably will be coming soon from Microsoft.
Microsoft Xbox Surface Tablet
The most immanent rumor concerns itself with a gaming tablet, rumored to be branded the Xbox Surface tablet.
The rumor originates from an allegedly leaked document that outlines the specifications for the device. According those documents, the tablet will have a 7-inch, 1280 x 720 screen, and 288MB of RAM.
The speculation, which to me sounds credible, is that the Xbox Surface tablet would function in outline like Nintendo's new Wii U system.
Specifically, when the Xbox is running, the tablet functions like a remote control or provides additional information to augment what's onscreen (including during movies). But when the Xbox is off, the tablet can take what was on the screen "to go," and become both a media and a gaming tablet for wandering around the house or the neighborhood.
If the rumor is true, it's likely that the tablet would be released with a future version of the Xbox.
Microsoft Xbox 720
Microsoft's upcoming gaming console, code-named "Durango," may or may not be branded the Xbox 720 or the Xbox Infinity.
The rumor around the next Xbox is that it will hit in time for next year's holiday season -- possibly October.
If that's the case, then it makes sense for Microsoft to announce it very soon. They've got to widen the circle of trust for game developers, or they'll ship a gaming system without enough new games next year -- although a rumored spec sheet suggests that the new console will support old Xbox 360 games.
Other rumors suggest incredible capabilities. For example, Microsoft has a patent for a projection system that projects gaming environment on the walls of your living room during game play.
So as you're creeping through the jungle in some future version of Call of Duty, the walls, floor and ceiling and walls become part of the jungle to serve as "peripheral vision," even as the game play happens on screen -- a first step toward a Star Trek like “Holodeck” immersive virtual reality system.
There have also been rumors that the next version of Kinect for Xbox will be so capable that it will be able to read lips.
Microsoft Surface Phone
The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Microsoft is working with "Asian suppliers" on a smartphone design that could be branded as a Surface phone.
It's unclear what Microsoft could bring to a crowded market dominated by the Apple iPhone and Google Android-based phones.
One possibility is explicit and possibly proprietary support for Xbox -- a rumored phone that works like a rumored tablet in its ability to function as a Wii-like remote control and a portable gaming console.
Still, observers wonder about the wisdom of further alienating hardware partners, upon whom Microsoft has traditionally depended.
My own view is that in the mobile space, that partner dependence has benefited Microsoft diddly squat. They've been crushed by the Silicon Valley giants in the mobile space.
Microsoft is struggling to compete against Google, which gives away what Microsoft sells (the mobile operating system). And it’s stunned by Apple's business success in making hardware, software and services while eliminating as many partner dependencies as possible -- and single-handedly winning the majority of all mobile profits.
Microsoft Kinect for Windows
Gamers have been enjoying Kinect for Xbox 360 for some time -- but not as much as hardware hackers, scientists and tinkerers have. Microsoft's Kinect has been a runaway hit with the do-it-yourself engineering crowd.
Microsoft is now readying for market Kinect for Windows, enabling in-the-air gesture control for ordinary desktop PCs.
They've even taken the unusual step of selling the device -- on Amazon.com, for example, even though it's for developers only.
The demand for development on this piece of hardware is so great that the developer version is viewed as a "mass market" product. When they ship the consumer version, we can expect an avalanche of unexpected applications for it.
Windows Surface Desktop PC
There aren't a lot of rumors right now about a consumer desktop version of Windows Surface, so I'm here to start one.
It's pretty obvious that Windows 8 is a transitional operating system designed to acclimate mouse-and-keyboard users to a future touch version of desktop Windows.
Microsoft was not only the first major company in history to ship a multi-touch device -- the original Microsoft Surface, which is now called PixelSense -- but has since bought the other major maker of big-screen multi-touch devices, which is a company called Perceptive Pixel.
So Microsoft has been working with OEMs on vertical-industry big-screen touch devices for nearly eight years now. And they now own the company that has been making enterprise and media touch tablets for several years.
A consumer device seems very likely to me.
One fan in Australia couldn't wait. He managed to install Windows 8 on a PixelSense table, and posted the video on YouTube.
Is This Microsoft 2.0?
Some of these rumors are almost certainly true. And -- who knows? -- they might all be true, at least in outline.
If Microsoft executes on these products well, and keeps improving them and innovating the way they appear to be doing, it represents a whole new kind of company with a whole new public image.
That’s right. Microsoft could be on the verge of becoming a kick-ass consumer electronics company that gives Apple a run for it’s money -- or, more to the point, Microsoft may be making a run for Apple’s money.
And they only need three things to make their resurgence successful, ironically: developers, developers, developers.