After more than a decade holding court during the opening keynote of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) was supposed to step aside and let Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM) Dr. Paul Jacobs enjoy the limelight.
So much for promises. Just 10 minutes into Jacobs' presentation, Ballmer took the stage to a big enough round of applause that it made the crowd's meek reception of band Maroon 5, which closed Jacobs' talk, appear mild by comparison. Geeks love Windows more than pop music.
For Ballmer, the appearance was a homecoming of sorts.
"It's great to be back at CES," Ballmer said. "This year, I'm here to actually have a chance to show you some of the phenomenal new Windows devices on [Qualcomm] Snapdragon and on the market today."
The next several minutes saw Jacobs and Ballmer show off Windows 8 devices using Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset, including their own personal Windows Phone handsets. "Microsoft reimagined Windows and introduced completely new forms of mobile devices into the world," Jacobs said.
Really? Completely new? High praise, to be sure, though I'm not so certain it's deserved. Mr. Softy's primary hardware partner, Nokia (NYSE:NOK) has had a rough go selling Windows Phone handsets so far. Supply issues rather than design appear to be the cause, but still: Jacobs probably took the hyperbole a bit too far.
Where's the robot?
And there's risk in that. Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is a big Qualcomm partner. Snapdragon processors inhabit a large number of Android-powered handsets. Jacobs acknowledged as much with a full-screen backdrop of the Android logo at one point in his presentation, though details of what to expect in terms of new Snapdragon-powered Android handsets were notably absent.
Frankly, there may not be much to say at this point. Qualcomm used CES to give consumers a taste of what's to come, rebranding its line as it promised new performance breakthroughs.
Gone is the "S" preamble that used to identify Qualcomm chips, replaced by an even-numbered series identifier that conjures up visions of horsepower. The new 800 series, due this summer, offers four cores operating at speeds of up to 2.3 GHz per core with an integrated graphics chip for rendering even complex video with clarity.
To prove it, Jacobs invited director Guillermo Del Toro to the stage to show a clip of this summer's giant-monster-versus-giant-robot throwdown, Pacific Rim. An 800-series smartphone rendered the clip to the big screen in HD with high-quality sound.
But he wasn't done. Del Toro also showed a remastered Ultra HD clip from 2002's Blade II, in which bloodthirsty vampires feed. For me, it was quite possibly the most awesome part of the presentation. An audience of geeks cowering at Del Toro's in-your-face horror -- he introduced by the clip by calling it "jolting" -- as Jacobs stood to the side.
Call it a not-so-subtle reminder that technology is helping to enhance the cinematic experience in impressive ways. Pacific Rim should build on the theme.
Giant robots drawing battle lines
Qualcomm hasn't been much of a player in this area until now. But with more streaming occurring on mobile devices now, there's a battle under way to be the brains behind big-screen theatrics brought to phones and tablets.
In bringing Del Toro to the stage, Jacobs has fired a shot across NVIDIA's (NASDAQ:NVDA) bow. The rival chip maker has already responded with the release of Tegra 4, also a quad core processor with integrated graphics likely to find it way into many Android devices. Qualcomm is hoping to position itself to get more of that business even as it bear-hugs Microsoft.
Ultimately, that may be the genius of Jacobs' presentation. Invite Ballmer to fire up the Windows crowd, position Qualcomm as the top dog in mobile computing, give a nod to Android, and remind the world that smartphones are today what PCs were 20 years ago.