The reason seems fairly straightforward: CES takes place in Vegas, and Ballmer's keynote--scheduled for 6:30 p.m. PST--takes place after all but the most die-hard news junkies have signed off their RSS feeds. By holding a press conference for 1 p.m. Vegas time, Microsoft could occupy at least part of a news cycle with the announcement that the next version of Windows will support System on a Chip (SoC) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments.
What does this mean for you? The potential for a broader variety of Windows-based devices in the future, notably tablets. Windows currently dominates the x86 platform used by traditional PCs, but the rise of powerful mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets--powered largely by ARM chip designs--has effectively created a whole new market for the operating system, provided Microsoft can work out the inevitable engineering issues.
"Under the hood there's a ton of differences that need to be worked through," Steven Sinofsky, president of Windows and Windows Live Division, told the audience at the press conference. "Windows has proven remarkably flexible at this under-the-hood sort of stuff. We work on storage from Flash all the way up to terabytes of storage" and "Windows kernel on alternate architectures."
Microsoft used the press conference to show off ARM running various Windows applications, including Internet Explorer and PowerPoint. It all seemed very smooth in the demonstration, but much work evidently needs to be done before ARM-based Windows becomes a reality you can purchase at your local Best Buy--Sinofsky seemed reluctant to offer any sort of firm release date.
Microsoft executives also demonstrated some interesting new devices in the pipeline, including a Samsung laptop whose keyboard slides to make the device a tablet, and an Acer laptop with two touch-screens. (Whether you pay hundreds of dollars for the latter, of course, seems dependent on your tolerance for virtual keyboards.) Also on display: Surface 2, the next generation of the company's table-sized touch-screen tablet. This new version runs Windows 7, and its Gorilla Glass front apparently means it can resist a bottle dropped from 18 inches or less--evidently, restaurants are among the commercial enterprises intended as potential customers for the device.
These little demonstrations, of course, make me wonder what the company's holding in reserve for Ballmer's presentation. We'll see in a few hours.