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Few surprises at Ballmer's last keynote

No Xbox 720: just 'Windows, Windows, Windows'

So there was no mention of the Xbox 720 after all. (I got that one right, I guess.) Instead, Steve Ballmer used his final CES keynote speech to talk about Windows Phone, Windows 8, and Xbox Kinect.

In fact the biggest announcement as far as I was concerned was the news that Kinect is now officially coming to Windows, although others were more interested in the announcement of the 4G Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone handset.

Actually, the real theme of the evening - if you resist the tempation to say 'predictability' - was the Metro interface made famous by Windows Phone 7 and now largely consistent across Windows 8 and Xbox Live. Indeed, Ballmer initially summed things up with the words 'Metro, Metro, Metro' - in a parody of his own 'developers, developers, developers' meltdown of years ago - before changing his mind and repeating the word Windows.

The big news in the buildup to CES was that Microsoft was pulling out - no more keynotes, no more booth, after 2012. In commemoration of this fact, CEA boss Gary Shapiro presented Ballmer with a large memento of the happy days.

I thought I detected a bit of a rebuke when Shapiro discussed the reasons why Microsoft was pulling out - although he characterised it as a mutual decision. He claimed that, in the past, when he's been asked why Microsoft got the automatic right to lead the keynotes each year, he replied that it was because the company had completely changed the PC industry. Which means what, that it won't be doing keynotes any more because it's no longer a market-changing company?

He did then compare Microsoft to the American founding fathers, though, which I believe is quite complimentary.

Derek Snyder came on stage to discuss and show off the latest version of Windows Phone. It's designed to mirror your relationships, he said, and brings together various kinds of social communication into a single interface.

And it has voice recognition... which sadly didn't work. Snyder tried to dictate a text with the words 'Sounds great', and Windows Phone translated that to the admittedly-means-the-same-but-sounds-a-bit-Mancunian 'Sound'.

We were told about hardware partners producing Windows Phone handsets. The Nokia Lumia 710 and 800 will be coming to the US & Canada shortly (as usual, no word in the keynote on European launches, but we'll try to track down that information this week), and the previously mentioned Lumia 900, together with the HTC Titan 2 (which has a stunning 16Mp camera), will follow.

Next up was Tami Reller to talk about Windows 8, and how it's changed since we were given a sneak peek at it at CES 2011. She called it 'a new way of thinking about your PC', and claimed it represented the best of PCs and the best of tablets.

Interesting stuff? Picture passwords: Instead of entering a word or number code you can have a photo appear on your lock screen, and when you touch a particular part of the photo or use a particular gesture it unlocks. This seemed pretty user-friendly.

Semantic zoom allows you to zoom out from the normal view and see all of your apps as thumbnail icons, grouped however you want. And the type to search seemed very slick.

There was some smart smart integration on the apps, too. One feature is called app contracts, and allows apps to talk to each other and share information (with your permission). So Reller used one app to find a recipe, then brought up the 'Charms' - simple, frequently accessed tools - by swiping from the left, and shared this information with a messenging app.

The two apps could sit side by side, too - apparently apps are smart enough to know the optimal way to present their information alongside other apps.

Windows 8 isn't ready yet, though, so there was plenty of talk about how great Windows 7 is - or rather, how great Windows 7 PCs have become, with a video of some desirable thin-and-light models available now. Ballmer claimed now is the perfect time to buy a Windows PC, because - and this is a great soundbite - every Windows 7 PC will be able to run Windows 8 from day 1.

Microsoft seems to be very pleased with the way things are going with Kinect. So much so that it's bringing the motion-sensing technology to Windows, as of 1 February. It's going beyond gaming, too, with the developers working on Kinect-enabled applications including healthcare and automobile companies.

There were some interesting developments for Kinect showcased tonight. Tying in with the theme throughout the Xbox section of being an entertainment centre rather than a games console, we were shown an 'interactive app' for kids: Sesame Street.

It was hard to see exactly how it wasn't a game, but I'd guess the difference is that new content is regularly produced in the normal TV fashion, but it's just that the TV show can respond to actions detected by the Kinect. So when kids make throwing gestures at key points in the show, say, objects land in the characters' hands. Microsoft called this 'two-way TV'.

Again, this seemed pretty slick. It's coming later this year.

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