Microsoft returns to CES Las Vegas tech show

Microsoft booth at CES Microsoft used to have one of the biggest stands at CES, but China's Hisense took much of the space in 2013

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The organiser of the US's biggest tech show has told the BBC that Microsoft is returning to the event.

Microsoft announced it was pulling out of CES in 2012, saying that its "product news milestones" did not align with the January tradeshow.

Although it is not scheduled to host a keynote speech at 2014's event, the firm has booked meeting rooms again.

One analyst said the news reinforced the Las Vegas show's claim to be the year's most important tech event.

Others had previously suggested Microsoft's departure might mark "the beginning of the end" of the show.

'Tactical blunder'

Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association - the lobby group which hosts CES, disclosed the news during a visit to London.

"Microsoft is officially back in the International CES," he told the BBC.

"They are taking out significant space in meeting rooms - it's actually a larger presence than I believe they have ever had.

"Microsoft will have to make the decision who the rooms are open to or not, but I imagine they're very open to the press.

Steve Ballmer at CES Steve Ballmer made a guest appearance during another firm's press conference in 2013

"We have had a tremendous partnership [with Microsoft] going back to the very beginning. You know, we had one little blip this year... but now we're happy to have them back with a physical presence."

However, a spokesman from Microsoft played down the idea that his firm was engaged in a major shift of strategy.

"Just like last year, we will be using CES 2014 to meet with key partners and customers," he said.

Microsoft was not totally absent at the event at the start of this year.

Chief executive Steve Ballmer made a brief surprise appearance during chipmaker Qualcomm's keynote event, and Microsoft's chief technology strategy officer spent a few minutes on stage at a Samsung press conference. The firm said that it had also paid to use some meeting rooms.

But one tech consultant who regularly attends the show said the US company had made a "tactical blunder" by not hosting its own event or having space to show off its wares.

"There was an opportunity to really assert the Windows 8 story and they completely missed it," said Ben Wood, from CCS Insight.

"So, you had a show floor full of convertibles, tablets and all-in-one Windows 8 PCs but no narrative to go with them. You can align that to the fact that Google's Android was omnipresent and Windows Phone didn't really get a look-in at all.

"If you look at the assets that Microsoft has now, I'd argue that it's virtually essential that it steps up its efforts at not just CES but also other shows like Barcelona's Mobile Wold Congress where its absence has been noted."

Microsoft is in the process of taking over Nokia's handset unit; recently launched the second generation of its Surface tablet, despite missing sales targets with the first one; and is about to put its Xbox One games console on sale.

Tech titans

More than 152,000 people attended 2013's CES, according to an independent audit, with 3,282 exhibitors taking part across a range of venues totalling 1.92 million sq ft (178,370 sq m).

Bill Gates and Slash at CES Bill Gates appeared alongside musician Slash at Microsoft's 2008 CES keynote event

The event is not open to the public, but presents an opportunity for firms to host public and private meetings with the media, analysts, retail chains and other industry professionals.

Although there has been a trend in recent years for tech-makers to hold special events to launch products, rather than competing for attention at a tradeshow, many of the industry's biggest names continue to hold gadgets and other announcements back for CES.

Intel and Audi are both holding what is termed "tech titans keynote" events at the forthcoming show, which runs from 7 to 10 January.

Sony, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Huawei and Toyota are among others hosting both press conferences and stands. Google, Yahoo and Dropbox prefer to just book private meeting rooms. Apple does not attend in any formal capacity.

'Set the agenda'

Microsoft is currently going through a period of upheaval. Last week Mr Ballmer gave a tearful farewell to staff having previously announced his resignation.

Gary Shapiro and Steve Ballmer Gary Shapiro had previously described Microsoft's pull-out as a "pause" rather than a permanent departure

Reuters is now reporting that some of the firm's biggest investors are pressing for Bill Gates, its chairman and co-founder, to also step down.

Mr Shapiro did not speculate whether changes in management might see Microsoft further bolster its presence in later years. However, Mr Wood had little doubt this would happen.

"I can see a renaissance, particularly given Microsoft's move into hardware," he said.

"It's going to be in the heartland of consumer electronics - you're looking at tablets, Xbox and mobile phones all working together for not just a mobile story but a connected homes story, and that's the epicentre of CES.

"It's all about how these different bits of gadgetry hang together, and CES helps set the agenda."

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