Microsoft’s mobile message: wait till next month

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer flashed an HTC phone running a version of the company's mobile software, but said he won't divulge details until next month. Photos: Jon Fortt.

LAS VEGAS – When he took the stage to deliver the opening keynote for the Consumer Electronics Show, Steve Ballmer took a novel approach to the hype Apple and Google have generated in the mobile space:

He sidestepped it.

Instead of talking much about his own ambitions in smartphones and tablets, the two emerging platforms that are generating plenty of buzz at the annual gadgetfest, the Microsoft (MSFT) CEO focused on more familiar turf: PCs and entertainment. There the company had some good news to tout. Holiday PC unit sales were up 50% over last year, he told an audience of about 3,500. And Microsoft’s answer to the Nintendo Wii, a motion-sensing technology for its Xbox 360 console known as “Project Natal,” will be on sale in time for Christmas.

Ballmer also recapped some of Microsoft’s greatest hits of 2009. Those included the successful launch of the Windows 7 operating system and Bing search engine, advances in 3D maps, and fresh features in the upcoming version of the Office productivity software due this year. He highlighted marketing developments that should pay off for Microsoft, like innovative PC designs and a deal to make Bing the default search engine on Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) computers. But by and large, at a conference that’s all about new technology, Microsoft didn’t unveil many new ideas of its own. (A couple of exceptions: a cool new Xbox arcade experience where you can go head-to-head with friends playing vintage hits like Asteroid and Frogger, and a way to easily play your DVR’s high-def TV shows on your mobile device.)

That was a risky move, especially since Google (GOOG) released a sexy smartphone this week and Apple (AAPL) is widely expected to show off tablet computer at the end of January – and those big announcements could make Microsoft seem like a laggard. But it was also a calculated one. Ballmer told the crowd that he was saving his big phone news for Mobile World Congress next month in Barcelona, the biggest event in the phone industry, where he probably figures he can build buzz with the power brokers in the communications business.

Though geeks might have been disappointed by the lack of news in Ballmer’s speech, investors should find more to like. Ballmer sounded bullish about the economic recovery – no talk of cutbacks or price cuts. The software giant is poised to make gains in crucial areas like Windows 7 adoption, Office upgrades, search and gaming.

More highlights from Ballmer’s keynote:

“With the new Bing maps you can go from a satellite view very quickly and easily down to your own front door. … Bing also allows you to explore and contribute to the creation of three-dimensional photo experiences with the use of PhotoSynth. … Bing will become the default search engine and MSN the default homepage on HP PCs in 42 countries.”

“The biggest hit of the year for us and for our industry partners was the launch of Windows 7. … The results are now speaking for themselves.”

Ballmer reacts to one of his deputies delivering the line, “Being in Vegas, you’ve gotta look sexy,” before showing off new PC designs from partners.

Windows senior product manager Ryan Asdourian shows Ballmer how a Windows Mobile device can play back high-definition shows that were stored on a Windows-based set top box.

Ballmer cradles a prototype HP “slate PC” that can display Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle app for Windows 7 and play video.

Microsoft entertainment division chief Robbie Bach describes Alan Wake, a new psychological thriller game on tap for the Xbox 360 this year.

Bach previews the next installment in the mega-franchise Halo for the Xbox 360.

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