Steve Ballmer returns to CES, but should he have stayed away?

Nicole Kobie
8 Jan 2013

With the return of a prodigal CEO, a Nascar winner, Star Trek actress, a Hollywood director, a pop band, and a very large, yellow bird, this year's opening keynote for CES was certainly exciting -- but whether it's good news for anyone involved is a different matter.

This year marked the first opening keynote at the Las Vegas tech show to not feature either Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer, after Microsoft pulled out of the top slot. When Qualcomm's CEO Dr Paul Jacobs was revealed as the replacement, Ballmer must have felt pretty smug; Dr Jacobs is certainly an accomplished man, and his firm has been exceptionally successful with mobile chips, but Qualcomm is hardly A-List in terms of tech celebrity.

As the lights went down in the packed ballroom of the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas for the keynote, it was clear that the Consumer Electronics Association, the body that puts on CES, had splashed a fair amount of cash making Qualcomm's debut a memorable one, with a high-production value opening sequence pairing live actors and digital displays, all pushing the theme of being "born mobile", whatever that means.

Dr Jacobs is a decent speaker, but he had nothing new to say: mobile is a major force in tech, it could do a lot of good in the world, there are now more mobile devices than people in the world, that sort of thing. There were no surprises -- until Ballmer bounded onto stage.

Convincing Ballmer to return so quickly to the CES keynote is certainly a coup for the CEA, but it may have been wiser to leave him at home.

Neither Ballmer nor Dr Jacobs had very much to say, aside from a lot of marketing talk about how wonderful their respective products are, especially when partnered together. The only interesting tidbit of information was that Windows Phone was selling five times as much before Christmas as it was the previous year -- if vague sales data is the best you've got to tell thousands of tech fans, maybe it would have been better to sit this one out.

The celebrity-before-actual-content trend continued. The next person on stage was director Guillermo del Toro, who apparently used technology (from Qualcomm, of course) to make his next movie, which one would think is pretty common these days. We got to watch the trailer (on a tablet running a Qualcomm chip, as though playing film clips on a tablet is an achievement now), as well as some rather terrifying footage from a horror film.

If that wasn't tenuous enough, next up was a Nascar racing winner -- I don't remember his name, because Nascar bores me to death. Apparently, Qualcomm worked with Nascar to develop an app for watching racing. Pffft...

The highlight of the keynote may well have been a visit from Big Bird, of Sesame Street fame, who took to the stage to reveal -- you guessed it -- an app. After that, an electric Rolls Royce was rolled onto stage, followed by pop stars Maroon 5, who were at least a welcome change from Intel's usual choice and didn't appear to have created an app.

To be fair, the keynote wasn't all celebrities launching apps. Dr Jacobs briefly revealed Qualcomm's next-gen Snapdragon chips, but while they were introduced with a film-style trailer with animated dragons, actual details of the technology were fairly light. Dr. Jacobs also touched on bandwidth issues raised by HD content, saying Qualcomm was working on a solution -- ironic given the lack of wireless connections in the venue itself. That was the bulk of the real information, despite the keynote lasting more than an hour and a half.

What did I learn? Aside from the fact that Qualcomm has rather a few Star Trek fans, not much. Of course people want to be entertained in keynotes, and I was happy for the chance to brainlessly take in Maroon 5's short performance after a day of press conferences. But surely someone in the industry has something more solid to say than "mobile is good, yeah" to kick off the largest tech show in the world? And if Ballmer has nothing to say after a year of lessons from Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Surface, maybe it's best to say nothing at all.

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