Ballmer slates Apple’s tablet

Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer has made a feeble attempt to steal Apple’s tablet thunder after unveiling a selection of “slate PCs” at CES in Las Vegas.

Ballmer slates Apple's tablet

In a speech that contained precious few announcements of note, the Microsoft boss relied on a thin selection of so-called “Slate PCs” to liven up proceedings. The devices were a naked – and rather weak – attempt to usurp Apple’s tablet, which is widely expected to be launched at an event later this month.

It’s almost as portable as a phone and as powerful as a PC running Windows 7

The most interesting of the Slate PCs came from HP – but detail was desperately thin on the ground. The unnamed device had a 10 to 12in colour screen, and looked very similar in appearance to an eBook reader. Indeed, Ballmer demonstrated the Windows 7 device running Amazon’s Kindle eBook software for PCs.

“It’s almost as portable as a phone and as powerful as a PC running Windows 7,” Ballmer proclaimed. “It’s perfect for reading, surfing the web and taking entertainment on the go.”

The Microsoft chief said the HP device would be available later this year, but gave no indication of price or international availability. Slate PCs from Archos and Pegatron also appeared on stage.

Black out

Ballmer’s appearance on the CES stage was delayed for half-an-hour by a power cut, but the 90-minute long presentation was almost as dull as the blacked-out stage.

The Microsoft boss spent the first third of his speech reminding the audience of Microsoft’s successes in 2009, including Windows 7, Bing and the Zune HD. Ballmer claimed that Christmas sales of Windows PCs had grown 50% year-on-year, which he attributed to the popularity of Windows 7. “Customer reaction has been very, very good,” Ballmer said.

“We have a 94% customer satisfaction rate among early adopters. Windows 7 is a rising tide that has lifted many boats in our business.”

Amongst the sparse number of new announcements was the second generation of Microsoft’s Mediaroom software, its platform for pay TV providers such as BT. The latest version of the software will allow pay TV companies to deliver services directly through the PC, in a similar vein to the way Sky is currently available through the Xbox 360 console in the UK. Customers can also access their pay TV library through any PC in the house or on portable devices such as the Zune HD.

Windows 7 Media Center has also been given a boost, with the option to record up to four HD channels simultaneously – although this service appears to be limited to US cable card customers at present.

The rest of the announcements were reserved for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console. Project Natal – the company’s natural user interface which was first unveiled at E3 last year – has been given a launch date of this winter. The company will launch a new “Game Room” service across the Xbox and Windows 7 PCs, which is essentially a compendium of 1980s arcade classics that can be played across the Xbox Live service.

Finally, Microsoft will launch a new gaming genre – the psychological action thriller – in the form of an episodic game called Alan Wake, which will launch later this year.

All in all, a desperately disappointing show for the thousands of CES attendees who queued for hours to see Ballmer’s speech, and a performance that will do little to temper criticism that his tenure at the top of Microsoft has failed to reinvigorate the company.

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