For over a decade, Microsoft was the dominant presence at CES. But since pulling out of the show in 2013, the company has faded almost completely from view this year: the biggest Microsoft story at CES 2014 is that first-choice CEO candidate Alan Mulally has declined the job.
Since it’s not at the show, Microsoft has left it up to its hardware partners to push Windows 8. This year there’s an absence of new Windows PCs, especially exciting ones, and it’s noticeable. With a lack of new products and no presence on the floor, Microsoft and its platforms are almost nowhere to be seen.
Microsoft wasn’t officially at CES last year either, but Steve Ballmer ran on stage with Qualcomm, and Microsoft joined the Samsung press event to demonstrate an impressive Illumiroom concept. This year the company has barely involved itself with CES: Microsoft executives like Julie Larson-Green and Terry Myerson are in Las Vegas, along with lots of employees holding private meetings with partners and OEMs, but the show itself has been dominated by sensors and devices that are optimized for iOS and Android, with few Windows and Windows Phone apps to be seen.
PC-makers appear to have paused on Windows hybrids at CES
Although Apple and Google officially sit out the biggest tech trade show of the year, their platforms are well represented by the third parties that create thousands of products for them. This year it feels like Microsoft is simply being left out. It’s certainly not getting any secondary attention from PC partners: while recent years at CES have seen products like the Yoga, ThinkPad Helix, and super-thin ultrabooks from a variety of PC-makers, this year it's been difficult to pinpoint a laptop or hybrid star. After the launch of Windows 8.1, new Surface 2 devices, and a host of fresh hardware for the holidays, PC-makers appear to have paused and put the brakes on any adventurous hardware at CES this year.
Dell and HP have no new consumer-related hardware at CES 2014, Sony simply shrunk its existing Flip PC to 11 inches, and Toshiba rolled out two chunky 4K laptops. While others have largely played it safe, Lenovo and Asus have at least attempted to do new things. Lenovo launched a great new 8-inch ThinkPad 8 tablet, and Asus launched a Wacom-equipped 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablet alongside the Transformer Book Duet that also runs Android. But there’s nothing that’s stunning or truly innovative, and with Windows facing competitive challenges in 2014 from rival tablets, smartphones, and even Chrome OS, PC-makers are truly considering their paths forward with Windows 8 hybrids. "I think a lot of vendors are likely standing down on laptops simply because they’re not selling at the volume they’d like, so they’re reducing their investment in the form factor and trying tablets and other form factors instead," says Wes Miller, an analyst for Directions on Microsoft.
This year’s CES is either a realization that it’s difficult (maybe impossible) to create the perfect hybrid hardware right now, or it’s a sign that the players in this space are starting to focus their energy elsewhere. Lenovo, the top PC-maker worldwide, has thrown its weight behind Microsoft’s software at CES consistently since the introduction of Windows 8, but it’s hard to say whether the rest are just as committed. With no new consumer hardware lines at CES 2014 from HP, Dell, and Acer — three of the top five PC vendors worldwide — we could be left waiting until Computex in June to see the next round of Windows PCs, and an underwhelming CES lineup does little to inspire or set the pace for the year ahead.
Toshiba is the only PC-maker showcasing its future vision this year
Toshiba is the only PC-maker that’s attempting to showcase its future vision. The company has a "shape-shifting" five-in-one PC on display under glass, and we were able to spend some time with a working concept. It’s imperfect: it's a little heavy with a weird lip that folds around the machine, and it’s clearly not ready for market. But Toshiba is at least continuing the trend of Windows hybrid experimentation: being able to use a device as a laptop and tablet without compromise is still a challenge that no PC-maker has fully conquered.
As tablets continue to increase in popularity and eat into laptop sales, it’s also possible that the industry has hit a spot where tablets are now able to replace laptops for more and more people. "We’re arriving at a sweet spot where Intel / AMD tablets are now becoming desktop, let alone laptop, replacements," says Miller. "These tablets are combining the right mix of portability / weight, performance, and price such that a lot of users who would have held out for a laptop, because it was more powerful, might want a tablet instead, and even be willing to live with some compromises in order to benefit from the other form-factor benefits and flexibility."
If the lack of laptops and hybrids is a mere blip on the radar due to a quiet CES or a busy holiday season, then there’s nothing to be alarmed about. But if it’s a greater trend across 2014 that leads to less refinement of the ambitious designs that PC-makers have experimented with then that could spell further trouble for Windows 8 and its hybrids. With exciting new hardware like Pebble, Nest, and various fitness bands still not fully supported on Windows, the industry is starting to move to new devices and leave Microsoft's platforms behind. 2013 has been a mixed year for Windows 8 and its associated hardware, but 2014 could be the year when PC-makers and the industry give up and play it safe, leaving Windows — and Microsoft — truly under siege.