Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

My take on Microsoft's Keynote at CES 2011

Tonight I did two things I didn't think would ever happen; I stayed up until 2:30am to watch Steve Ballmer give a presentation and I installed Silverlight on my Macbook Air. Why you ask? As someone in the "mobile development space", I felt it was my duty to not just focus on Apple's keynotes (fantastic though they are) and instead take a listen to a few other CEO's, especially when they could be announcing something important in the area of tablet PCs. Last year, Steve Ballmer famously introduced "slates" to the world at a time when Apple hadn't yet launched a tablet and all the rumour blogs were pointing at the possible name for a new device being the iSlate. It struck me then that by suddenly calling the tablets he was announcing slates (when nobody had previously) that Ballmer was just doing some showboating as he was launching something before Apple. However, the iPad (I like to imagine Steve Jobs put out the iSlate name purely to fool Ballmer whilst all along knowing he was going to call it the iPad) launched shortly afterwards to international success. In the year since, no other tablet has gained as much media attention or sales. The HP slates that Ballmer announced at CES 2010 have conveniently never materialised. So, I was curious to see if slates would be making a comeback and if we'd actually see an iPad-killer. As an iPad developer, I thought it best that I see the competition as it happened rather than waiting until morning for the news.

Aside from any tablet announcements, I was also curious about what was happening with Windows Phone 7 and any news about upcoming games for the Kinect. I know very little about Windows Phone 7 (about from the UI looks a bit better than Android's) so any extra knowledge would be an asset. The Kinect, on the other hand, is a device I've owned since day one and absolutely love - I'm just keen to know what they are bringing to it apart from fitness and dance games.

Opening

It's 2:30am. I refresh Safari and nothing. 2:35am. Nothing. 2:40am. Nothing. Finally, at 2:47am, somebody from CES comes out after showing off a video to showcase CES that looks like it was made pre-2000. It was a seriously bad video with the only indication it was new being that it had a song that's only just been in the charts as a backing track. It was painful. The only thing more painful was the guy introducing who seemed to speak corporate bullshit (I have no idea what half his sentences meant) and the odd reference to a book he'd written that he was trying to plug. This was topped only by his introduction for Steve Ballmer in which he called the Microsoft CEO "focused". In any case, the music started and we all expected Steve to come bounding out like a maniac as per usualbut he didn't. I was genuinely surprised to find Steve behaving and sounding a little bit like a normal person throughout! Anyway, he briefly talks about how successful Microsoft has been in the past year (let's face it, we needed reminding) and how he wanted to talk about Kinect, Windows Phone 7, and then Windows itself. I'll give you my opinion of each in the same order.

Kinect

I love the Kinect. It's a fantastic device and some of the homebrew apps that people have written to use it have been truly inspiring. For all that, the launch titles were fairly unimpressive with the most popular games being Kinect Adventures (that comes free with it), Dance Central (dance game from the people behind Rock Band), and Your Shape: Fitness Evolved (which has an amazing UI and gives you the socially awkward power of laughing at anyone who still uses Wii Fit). However, this isn't gaming for the masses; this is trying to be a Nintendo Wii with an albeit better controller. I should point out at this point that Steve did put a lot of emphasis into the marketing slogan of "You... are....... the................. controller" as if we haven't heard it a million times already. Anyway, were we going to find out about some awesome new software for the Kinect.

Umm... no.

The first "big" announcement was that the Netflix interface would now be controllable with the Kinect. I already thought it was but then I'm not in the US so I don't get to see any Netflix interface! Next up was that Hulu would be coming to the Kinect. Now that is a good announcement, but alas, it's US only as well so not terribly exciting for me personally. There was some talk about some more ESPN stuff including some very awkward "trash talk" about a college football game and then that was it for the live demo. And then Steve came back onstage but this time in the form of his Xbox avatar in order to tell us about Avatar Kinect. When I'd first heard the name Avatar Kinect about 3 hours before the presentation, I assumed it was going to be some amazing Kinect powered tie-in with the 3D film Avatar. How wrong I was!

Avatar Kinect is a free piece of software that will be available in a future Xbox update. It allows you to use your Xbox Avatar to talk to friends by putting you in a number of different settings with your friends Avatars (e.g. a news desk or a car park) where you can then chat or record movies, etc. The technology is pretty clever in that it will do lip syncing and animate facial features (Steve showed this off with his eyebrows) but I can't help but feel that you'd use the app once to try it out and then never use it again. Why would you chat with your friends through your avatar when you have a proper webcam built into the Kinect and the software to use it? It was hardly earth-shattering news so the Xbox portion of the evening was pretty disappointing.

Windows Phone 7

As I said earlier, I don't know a huge amount about Windows Phone 7 so I was kind of looking forward to seeing this section to try and understand it a bit better. The first thing that Steve points out is that the Windows Phone 7 is actually really good, it's just not very popular as people haven't seen it. We are encouraged that by showing it to people, they really like it and thing it's better than other phones on the market. This smacks of Project Mojave to me - to those that don't remember, Project Mojave was a Microsoft marketing experiment in which they tried to combat the negative tide of opinion about Windows Vista by putting focus groups together to try the next version of Windows (naming it Windows Mojave) but instead gave them Windows Vista. This led to lots of video of people saying "this is great" and "so much better than Vista" before then being told the truth. The end result was supposed to be that Vista is great and people need to use it rather than bitch about it but the actual feeling you got from it was that Microsoft has a real problem with it's marketing department. This appears to be true of Windows Phone 7 as well if the only reason it isn't the biggest selling phone of the year is because people haven't used it or don't know about it.

In any case, now was the time to show it off. So, did they do a Steve Jobs style gradual walkthrough or a nice video to show off it's strengths? No. They got a "chief goatherder for two, young, rambunctious kids" who seemed to be on some medical grade drugs to do it. Words can't describe how off-putting Liz Sloan is so I'm just going to embed the 8 minute segment she did below. If you can get through 30 seconds without wanting to scream then you did better than me.

Firstly, her presentational style is such that I quickly forgot about the phone as I was concentrating on her so much trying to work out just what she was on. That isn't good for a phone which is described as "a good phone if you show it to someone" as we weren't seeing the phone, just her. Other things that riled me were that she thinks it's a "great phone for people like us" whilst talking to the audience but she actually means "people like her". The audience wasn't made up of busy mums who want to get tasks done on their phone quickly - it was made up of tech nerds who were going to a 4 day conference about technology. These are the kind of people that want to get lost in their phones every day and never come out. In addition, her description of copy and paste (a feature which is a long time coming - yes, I know it took a while on the iPhone as well but you don't launch an "iPhone killer" without it) was borderline patronising and nearly every task she did I could do at the same speed on an iPhone or Android phone so I don't follow the supposed speed increase which she was talking about. The stat of "5500 apps in our store" was also repeated far too much - that isn't a figure to be proud of.

The best piece for me though was a dig at Google that went all wrong. Liz tried to point out that Bing on the Windows Phone 7 pushes the most relevant pieces to the top so you don't have to hunt around to find information. The demonstration given was a search for "Miami Heat" which then showed the score from last night at the top of the search results "instead of a lot of blue links that then brings me to the answer" (read Google Search Results). I thought this a little odd so I searched for "Miami Heat" in Google and, as I suspected, the scores for the last 3 games were shown right up top. Liz passionately explains how this breakthrough (*cough*) also worked for things like stocks and weather which I'm pretty sure show up in Google in the same way as well (along with cinema times, maths calculations, and a host of other things).

All in all, the Windows Phone 7 segment was pretty terrible. The highlight was probably Steve showing off how Xbox Live works on the phone and the announcement of a pinball game that connects with Fable 3 to give you gold. This was however quickly marred by a video showing how great games are on Windows Phone 7 that mainly featured iOS games which have been ported...

Windows

And so we got to the final round; Windows itself. Unfortunately Microsoft had already announced the biggest thing some 4 hours earlier which was that Windows was now being rebuilt to work on SoC processors (estimated time: 18-24 months) but that didn't stop them giving us another 15 minute demo of what that looks like. Aside from that, there was very little to say. A few laptops and tablets were briefly demoed and I'd like to talk about two of them which caught my eye; the Acer Iconia and the ASUS EEE Slate EP121 (just rolls of the tongue that one).

Acer Iconia - this new Windows 7 laptop looks a little like a large Nintendo DS due to it's dual screen setup but unlike the DS, both screens are touch-enabled. The demo looked ok apart from a few UI issues such as tapping the tilted screen (remember Steve Jobs saying how they'd never do this as every time they tested it people hated it?) and having a folder stretch over both screens leading to a big plastic bar half way between your viewing area. However, the thing that irritated me the most was the gesture to bring up the onscreen keyboard. Since seeing the demo, I've asked a few people "what do you think Microsoft would choose a suitable gesture for bringing up a keyboard"? Most people said a swipe up or even a two or three fingered swipe in a direction. Instead, Microsoft decided that a 10-fingered gesture (must be the world's first) was best - you have to push all 10 of your digits onto the lower screen at the same time to bring up the keyboard. Without having used the Iconia myself I can't really comment on how it works but I can't imagine that typing on a glass display is going to be particularly good for long usage. The iPad is great but you wouldn't use it to type an essay and entering any text is really a bit of a chore - I would hate to have that as my main input option on what is supposed to be a fully fledged PC, not just a tablet for light app usage. Having said that, it's a very different concept and I'm going to be interested to see consumer feedback on the dual-screen approach.

ASUS EEE Slate EP121 - This was the main tablet that was shown off and is actually a full PC inside a 12.1" tablet form factor. It's running an Intel Core i5 and can have upto 4 gigs of RAM in it. They seem to have hedged their bets for input methods by bundling it with both a wireless keyboard and a stylus but you can also use normal touch and a virtual keyboard. The thing that struck me was a) it looks heavy and too bulky to be a convenient tablet and b) the input methods don't look good. If you have a tablet, you shouldn't need a physical keyboard. Yes, you can get them for the iPad but why would you? If you need to do a lot of typing you are probably better off with a real laptop rather than a tablet device. The demo showed an excel spreadsheet being controlled with touch at one point (with a pinch gesture to zoom) and then using a stylus to edit a spreadsheet. I can't imagine anything worse than trying to fill in a spreadsheet on a 12.1" tablet with a stylus but there you are. I haven't used it, so again I'm speculating, but I have a feeling that this device is going to get very hot and run out of battery very quickly (they say 3+ hours on their website!). For $100 less than the asking price (which is $1,099), you could get an 11" MacBook Air with a higher screen resolution, longer battery, far less weight, and a much smaller form factor. A MacBook Air could also run Windows 7 if that's what you want!

Summary

The keynote ended with a look at the Microsoft Surface which is now in a smaller form factor, is slightly cheaper, and has support for 20 fingers in multitouch gestures rather than 10. That was pretty much all I could glean about it! I do like the Surface but I wish they'd spent as much time as they have on that working on a truly mobile tablet OS rather than trying to shoehorn Windows 7 onto every device. Windows 7 may be good for some tasks (I don't like it personally) but it is not a suitable OS for a tablet in the same way that OS X wouldn't have worked on a tablet. Android made a similar decision when they tried to put a mobile phone OS onto a tablet. Apple made the right choice by making an optimised OS for it and that is why it has succeeded and other tablets have failed (although it will be interesting to see how the new Android 3.0 UI, supposedly optimised for tablets, will work out).

Overall I was pretty disappointed with the Microsoft Keynote. Sure there were some interesting ideas being floated with the dual-screen Acer laptop and the Windows for SoC announcement but the majority was just rehashing things that have already been demoed or shown off in the past and irritating people showing off features that most mobile phones now have. Microsoft have a lot of catching up to do in the mobile world and I think this year is going to hit them pretty hard.

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