Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer promised a sports arena filled with Microsoft partners that, within months, a number of Windows-based tablets would be hitting the market, and that the company is urgently working to bring its Microsoft Windows Phone 7 smartphone OS to market.
With his usual energetic physical expressiveness, Ballmer kicked off the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), being held in Washington DC, this week, with a keynote that urged business partners to stick with Microsoft, even as the company has stumbled in keeping up its presence in new device offerings.
Although Ballmer didn't mention the Apple iPad or Apple iPhone or the Google Android smartphone OS, clearly the successes of these products weighed heavily over the keynote. Ballmer noted that the company's business partners have been asking whether Microsoft would offer similar devices.
"I've heard from partners who want to know what is coming," he said, in a rare public moment of admitting that the company has fallen behind. He then assured partners that Microsoft equivalents are in the works. The resulting Windows-based devices would appeal to end users, and have the added benefit of being supported for enterprise use through existing Microsoft management tools.
And cloud computing - another main topic of the keynote - will require such smart devices, he said. "The cloud wants smarter devices," he said. While the cloud services could be accessed by thin client devices, Ballmer predicted that users would want richer functionality.
"Rich is the path forward. It is want consumers want," Ballmer said.
For the audience, the question of what Microsoft is doing in mobile computing is a pertinent one, as these are the companies that use Microsoft's technologies to serve their own customers. Many partner customers have been asking about mobile technologies, Ballmer said.
Microsoft is working on these new form factors, Ballmer assured the audience. Within the next few months, Dell, Samsung, Toshiba and other equipment vendors will release a range new tablets, with a variety of features and prices.
As for the smartphone market, Ballmer admitted that Microsoft "missed a release cycle" with the Windows mobile OS, but said that Microsoft is working with the highest level of diligence to get Windows Phone 7 ready for the competitive smartphone OS market. Ballmer did not offer a specific release date, though the mobile OS is expected to be released toward the end of the year.
While Microsoft will support thin client devices, there are a number of good reasons for keeping some computational power on client devices such as smartphones, including the ability to conserve bandwidth and enhance graphics.
As an example of smart-client devices, he pointed to the Microsoft Kinect, an XBox online gaming service that uses advanced motion-detection client technology.
Ballmer also emphasized Microsoft's work on the cloud. For the conference, the company announced the release of the Windows Azure Appliance, a pre-packaged version of the Azure cloud platform, offered by partners such as Dell, Fujitsu and Hewlett-Packard, that can be run within an organization's datacentre.
The company will also run the first Azure professional developers conference this year, in Seattle around September, which will be broadcast over the Internet, said Bob Muglia, Microsoft president of software and tools, during his follow-up keynote
According to Ballmer, the company wants to work with partners to help the get their customers on the cloud. While admitting that partners were initially reluctant to take on the cloud in years past, he counted off the usual reasons for using the cloud: easier distribution and management of applications, less investment in maintenance and greater reach with customers.
Ballmer said that offering large-scale cloud services such the Bing search engine and Windows Live, company engineers have learned many lessons about how to run a cloud service, and the company is in the process of folding what it has learned back into the Azure service, and in Windows Server.
This year's WPC has attracted 9,500 attendees, the largest ever for the conference, according to the company (in addition, 3,000 Microsoft employees are also in attendance).