Microsoft might not have been at CES this year, but its partners and OEMs were out in full force. A quiet showing from Redmond at a time when the company is trying to push Windows 8 to the world could be seen as an unusual move, but looking around the show this week it made a lot of sense. Why waste millions of dollars on a CES booth to promote Windows 8 when your struggling PC OEMs can do it for you?

Lots of Windows 8 machines, despite Microsoft's absence

And that's exactly what happened. Sony had rows of Windows PCs with specific areas of focus on photography, applications, and more. While Samsung had an equally impressive range of Windows 8 devices and Panasonic unveiled a 20-inch 4K Windows 8 tablet. If last year's CES was a focus on Android tablets, this year was very much Windows despite Redmond's absence. It was hard to walk around the halls and not spot the recognizable Windows 8 Start Screen on a device in the distance. Perhaps the biggest guard of the Windows brand was Intel. Its usual booth in central hall was transformed into a Windows 8 showcase. Ultrabooks, tablets, and hybrids could all be found at the booth and presenters were schooling visitors on the advantages of Windows 8.

As Intel struggles to conquer the mobile market, it's essential for the company to push the latest Windows release and support the health of the PC industry. It hasn't been a great start to the new year for PC manufacturers and Intel, with reports of an 11 percent year-over-year drop of notebook PC sales. The traditional Wintel relationship that used to generate an increase of PC purchases and excitement around a Windows release is starting to show signs of cracks. It's not the first time that PC sales have taken a plunge, but this time it feels a little different. There's a huge amount of competition trying to take sales away from Windows PCs, and a weakened global economy with a focus on low-cost mobile devices vying for consumers' dollars. Microsoft needs its partners more than ever to help with its transition to a devices and services model.

The Wintel family tree is very much under attack

These partners are supporting Microsoft for now because they have little choice elsewhere, but at CES Microsoft's absence is another sign that the company is trying to determine its own destiny. Steve Ballmer appeared on stage at Qualcomm's unusual keynote while Intel was busy pushing the Windows 8 message. That's not a comfortable position for Intel to be in, just as Qualcomm is trying to tackle its consumer message and brand while its sales take off. Microsoft's balancing act between partners and OEMs gets even more complicated with Surface, with Microsoft opting for Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor for its Windows RT device. The Wintel family tree is very much under attack.

Microsoft's future is building its own devices. You don't build a complex and large manufacturing complex in China, that produces custom parts, unless you're serious about the future as a devices and services company. CES is very much about Windows 8 OEMs and I saw no signs of Surface across the show floor, but the roads of the Las Vegas Strip are covered in huge Surface ads. It feels like that's where the focus is for Microsoft's marketing and the company's future.

The future is Surface

Microsoft held private meetings at CES about its Surface Pro which is set to debut soon. It's a super tablet that poses a significant threat to PC OEMs, and Redmond has to balance the complex tree of partners vs. the future of Surface. This transition will define Microsoft in 2013, and with a departure from CES it's clear what really matters to the firm. While Intel is trying to keep the Windows tree healthy, Microsoft is hoping that the leaves don't start to drop off before its own family of Surface devices are fully ready. Redmond isn't "priming the pump" here, it's planting seeds for the future. If Microsoft is successful then it could be the world's biggest Windows OEM in just a few years. The future is Surface.