Microsoft's big launch for Windows 8 and its sibling, Windows RT, has produced mixed reactions. Some analysts were left asking, "Is that all?" while others called the presentation the best Windows launch in nearly 20 years.
"Yeah, I'm really excited," Ballmer said as he stepped into the limelight near the end of the hour-long webcast presentation. Moments later, he called the new Windows tablets, and by reference, Windows 8 and Windows RT, "really, truly magical," perhaps intentionally escalating the adjective that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who religiously used "magical" to describe his company's new products, was so fond of.
Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester who was at the New York launch event, was nonplused about the keynote -- even Ballmer's time on stage.
"He wasn't out of control, but he had more emotion than the others," said Gillett. "But even though he had more energy, there was some snap missing. And I have to say that they didn't do anything that made me feel good about how they're going to eliminate the confusion that consumers will have facing buying decisions."
Others countered, however.
"Ballmer doing a great job on stage," tweeted Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, from the event.
Microsoft's CEO was easily the most energetic of the four speakers the company put on stage, speaking clearly, sometimes quickly, about what he saw as the strengths of the new operating system.
"This leaves no doubt that Windows 8 shatters the perception of what a PC really is," Ballmer said. "One device now pairs the greatest qualities of the PC and the greatest qualities of the tablet experience. Are these new designs PCs? Yes. Are these new designs tablets? Yes."
He was referring to the many keyboard-equipped tablets and so-called "hybrids" -- systems that combine elements of both a tablet and an ultra-thin notebook -- that Microsoft and its OEM partners are introducing alongside Windows 8 and Windows RT.
Before Ballmer's moments on stage, Microsoft's WIndows chief Steven Sinofsky kicked things off with a recap of Windows 7's success and then took on the tough task of explaining the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT, something even industry veterans and long-time IT professionals have struggled to digest.
"We shunned the incremental," Sinofsky said as he described the development of Windows 8. "This is the next generation of Windows, computing for the next billion people. This is the best release of Windows ever ... [and] these are the best PCs ever made."
Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Gartner who was also on site, called Sinofsky's "incremental" comment the best line of the day. "Sinofsky is telling a complex story of Windows 8 and [Windows] RT very well," Gartenberg tweeted from the floor.
Sinofsky handed off to Julie Larson-Green, vice president of Windows, and Mike Angiulo, vice president of Windows hardware and the PC ecosystem, who together touted a score or more new devices that run Windows 8 and Windows RT.
Their part had a distinctly QVC flavor to it, with quick recaps of each device's or PC's attributes, with Larson-Green sometimes searching for adjectives to apply.
"You just can't keep from touching these," Larson-Green exclaimed at one point after talking up several touch-enabled devices. She also boasted of Windows 8's desktop, saying, "We made the desktop in Windows 8 even better than Windows 7."
Customers who have tried the former and been frustrated at the changes, notably the omission of a Start button and Start menu, and the forced boot to the tile-based Start screen, might take exception.
The Larson-Green and Angiulo stage time was the least impressive to analysts.
"It was like walking down the aisles at an automobile auction: almost too many choices and a lot of options to process," said Jack Narcotta of Technology Business Research, in an email reply to questions.
Gillett concurred. "There were just too many [devices]," he said of that segment. "It wasn't curated, and just reinforced our sense that the [Microsoft and OEM] approach makes it harder on buyers."
Unlike Apple, Microsoft has little control over what the actual makers of most Windows PCs and devices look like, how they're manufactured, the degree to which they're polished premium products, or even how they're marketed.
The biggest omission from the hour, according to two analysts, was news about the Windows Store, the Microsoft-controlled distribution outlet for Windows RT and touch-based Windows 8 software.
Many had expected more than just a reminder that the Store was holding its "grand opening" -- a term both Sinofsky and Ballmer used -- on Friday; they had hoped that Microsoft would announce, perhaps in conjunction with some first-tier developers, new Windows 8 apps.
"We got bupkis," complained Gillett. "They didn't even name an app count. They're just not addressing the ecosystem."
Moorhead, who has been adamant about the importance of the Windows Store to the success of Windows RT, and tablets that rely on it, tweeted: "Sinofsky says don't count Windows 8 apps or look for your favorite right now in the store. [But] it's a grand opening."
"They were very strategic in their choice of words," Carolina Milanesi of Gartner said in an interview after the event. "They just said, 'More apps' with no numbers. Really, that was only thing they could say. If the numbers were impressive, they would have used them."
Milanesi, however, had the most insightful comment of the day as she broke down the keynote's sequencing, and what that progression said about Microsoft's strategy.
"They started with talking about existing users upgrading their software, then moved on to OEMs and finally their own hardware," said Milanesi of the Sinofsky-Larson/Angiulo-Ballmer chronology. "That line of positioning shows that the core of their message remains software, and that the Surface is a marketing vehicle for them."
By starting off with Windows 7's success -- Sinofsky said Microsoft had sold over 670 million licenses, while Ballmer repeated the number as the possible pool for developers' Windows 8 apps -- and then touting the $39.99 Windows 8 upgrade, the company tipped its hand.
Even though the company has dipped into hardware, even though Ballmer recently told shareholders, "We see ourselves as a devices and services company," the reality is different, Milanesi agued.
"The core of their business is still the software," she said while reading between the lines. "That's the way they're thinking about their business. It's software still."
A keynote does not a company, or even a product make, but the analysts had strong opinions on how effectively Microsoft made its pitch today.
"[This is the] most polished Windows launch since [Windows] 95. Perhaps more so," Gartenberg tweeted during the event.
Moorhead agreed: "Best Microsoft launch I've seen."
But Gillett took exception. "None of it was news," he said. "There were no interesting nuggets. At the end, all I could think was 'Is that all?' And they continue to be unhelpful and opaque in their communication about Windows 8 and Windows RT, and the differences between them."
The opening keynote, and several other videos -- including one that introduced the Surface RT -- will be available later today for on-demand viewing from Microsoft's website, probably its News Centre site..