Steve Ballmer has never had a problem letting us see him sweat. On Wednesday, he had no reason to. For as troubling as new technology demos can be, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) pulled off several during Ballmer's relatively uneventful opening keynote to kick off this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Rather than just skiing through the moguls -- from mishap to mishap -- Mr. Softy demonstrated products that weren't just the same old point upgrades. Consider the Xbox: On stage, a Microsoft product manager showed off a voice-activated interface that danced between music and movies with little effort.
Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 also looked good. We don't know anyone making odds on the success of the Windows Phone here in Vegas, but we'd guess they'd be fairly long. Yet from what we could see, it was a well-designed, attractive, and even fun-looking device that contrasts nicely with competitive offerings from Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMIWI ) , and Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) .
So should investors get excited about Microsoft again? Does it matter that you're no longer a dollar short when you're still a day late?
Sure, sometimes being late isn't as bad as it seems. For example, Microsoft has sold more than 8 million Kinect controllers in its first 60 days on the market. When it came time to chase Nintendo and its Wii motion controller, Sony (NYSE: SNE ) largely chose to replicate what came before. It took Microsoft to think really differently about the way we interact with a console.
But perhaps nothing accentuates a change in the company's traditional thinking more than a newfound willingness to part ways with its traditional Wintel alliance and design a version of Windows for ARM Holdings' (Nasdaq: ARMH ) low-power architecture. We don't know what netbooks and tablets will rise from this pairing, but it's safe to assume Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) is already looking over its shoulder.
Why this won't stay in Vegas
There's much to like about Microsoft's product direction with each of the products it showed at CES. But will any of these feel-good stories change the way investors see the company? Here's our take:
Windows Phone 7. Will it move the needle? Not really. For those who really want a Windows phone, Microsoft has given them a lot more to love. For those on the fence, the handset is an attractive choice, but it's hardly a no-brainer alternative to either the iPhone or any of the many Android winners currently on the market.
Xbox, Xbox Live, and Kinect. Will they move the needle? Yes. The fight for the figurative "remote" in the entertainment center of America's living rooms is messy and by no means over. What Microsoft showed us is among the best interactive TV offerings we saw.
Windows 8, Sandy Bridge, and ARM. Will they move the needle? A little. It's far too early to say Microsoft has put a shot across Apple's or anyone else's bow (pardon the metaphor; we were staying at Treasure Island), but these systems are clearly fast and functional, and the two-screen Acer Iconia laptop that Ballmer and his team demonstrated was as slick as anything we've ever seen in an Apple demo.
The Foolish bottom line
Microsoft already has a lot of fans among value investors, and for those who already like the company's market dominance, healthy cash position, and reasonable valuation, this week's CES announcements may have given you more reason to get excited.
For growth investors, there still isn't much to love here. But the story is about as good as it's been in a decade. And that's saying something.
Now it's your turn to weigh in. What do you think of Microsoft's CES announcements? Would you buy the stock at current prices? Use the comments box below to let us know what you think.
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