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Microsoft unveils slate PC, motion sensor for Xbox games

Sharon Pian Chan
The Seattle Times (MCT)

LAS VEGAS — Aiming to fend off competitors in a bid to expand Microsoft's consumer reach, CEO Steve Ballmer announced a new slate computer Wednesday night as he kicked off the annual International Consumer Electronics Show.

Essentially a laptop with no keyboard, the computer comes as rival Apple prepares to introduce a much-hyped tablet PC of its own later this month.

"We are talking about something as portable as a phone and as powerful as Windows 7," Ballmer said to an audience of more than 3,500 at the Las Vegas Hilton Center. "And they are perfect for reading, for surfing the Web and for taking entertainment on the go."

The slate, which runs on the Windows 7 operating system, is being made by Hewlett-Packard and other manufacturers and promises to liberate computing from a mouse and a keyboard.

But like the 2009 movie release of "Fame," this slate has a distinct whiff of the past.

Several years ago Microsoft announced the Tablet PC, a laptop with a touch-screen that flips over to look just like the slate announced Wednesday.

Be it a slate or a tablet, the device is another step toward what techies call a "natural user interface," — which allows users to interact with a device through motions and gestures.

Microsoft's other major announcement Wednesday echoed the natural user interface, promising freedom from the video-game controller.

Natal, a motion sensor for the Xbox, will go on sale by this year's holiday season, allowing gamers to play simply by moving their bodies and hands. Microsoft publicly introduced the technology in June at the Electronic Entertainment Exposition, or E3.

Ballmer's keynote, which included videos featuring humorous bits by "Saturday Night Live's" Seth Meyers, marked Microsoft's 15th year presenting the opening speech at CES, an electronica wonderland of giant 3-D televisions, smartphones, e-readers and car stereos that runs through Saturday.

In the next few days, geeks will go gaga over gadgets and pop star Lady Gaga herself: She's scheduled to show up today to pitch Polaroid products.

Ballmer said Microsoft and longtime partner HP are developing the slate, which has no name or price attached to it yet. Users can also dock the slate to a keyboard and other hardware.

Late Tuesday, a New York Times blog said Ballmer would introduce a slate computer in his keynote, igniting speculation that he would show off a device reportedly called the Courier. Buzz about that device, which apparently has two hinged touch-screens, erupted in September when Gizmodo, a leading technology blog, showed a video of a purportedly secret device by that name. The blog termed it "astonishing."

But it turned out that wasn't the device Ballmer showed Wednesday, and he made no mention of it. Other Microsoft representatives declined to comment.

Regardless, computer makers have been selling Tablet PCs that run on Windows for years. But Apple, which is not at CES, revived the hype around the tablet last year, with unconfirmed rumors circulating that it will start selling an i-version in March.

Lenovo, another PC maker, on Wednesday announced the IdeaPad U1, a Windows 7 PC with a detachable touch screen that snaps off the keyboard and can work without it.

And many companies are making announcements about e-book readers that are slatelike in their slim and display-focused design.

For Microsoft, Ballmer's speech was a chance to assert itself as a consumer player, as competitors such as Google and Apple made gains in 2009 in the market. Like Apple, Google has no CES presence.

On Tuesday, Google introduced the Nexus One smartphone that it will sell directly to consumers.

On Wednesday, Ballmer demonstrated a new HTC HD2 smartphone that uses Windows Mobile 6.5 and will sell through Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA.

Windows Mobile 6.5 has been panned by reviewers, and many are waiting to see what Microsoft will deliver with the 7.0 version, expected to come out this year. The company plans to make announcements about Windows Mobile 7.0 at the World Mobile Congress next month.

Ballmer also gave a progress report on Windows 7, calling it "by far the fastest-selling operating system in history." While he did not announce numbers of copies sold, Ballmer said holiday sales had outpaced sales of PCs in the 2008 holiday season.

Windows 7 helped increase sales of PCs by 50 percent during the holiday season that just ended, compared with the 2008 holidays, Ballmer said.

He also highlighted computers that have taken off in the consumer market, such as all-in-one units that combine touch-screens with computers and netbooks, small laptops that cost about $300.

The holiday season also saw a new high for the Xbox Live online video-game network, with up to 2.2 million players logging on concurrently. The Xbox 360 has sold 39 million units, Ballmer said.

"Halo Reach," the next installment in the popular Xbox game franchise, will come out in the fall.

Robbie Bach took the stage at the end of the keynote and showed a video about the making of Natal.

"With Project Natal we are removing the last barrier to gaming, the controller," Bach said, adding that "2010 will be the biggest year in Xbox history."

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