When Ballmer ended Microsoft's 13-year streak of kicking off CES, he was only able to provide a peek at a makeover of the operating system that was still months away from being completed.
Microsoft touts Windows 8 as a breakthrough that will enable people to straddle the divide between personal computers and tablets. The revamped operating system is built to respond to the touch of a finger so it can work on tablet computers while still retaining the ability to respond to commands from keyboards and mice on laptop and desktop machines. To take advantage of Windows 8's versatility, many PC makers are building convertible devices that can work as a tablet or a laptop.
But reviews of the new operating system have been lukewarm. Critics have been panning it as too confusing and cumbersome.
Microsoft used part of a CES technology forum presented by J.P. Morgan to try to build more enthusiasm. The company revealed that 60 million copies of Windows 8 have been sold so far, putting it on the same pace as the previous version — Windows 7 — at the same juncture of its release. But it's unclear how many of those Windows 8 licenses are installed on computers that are still sitting in stores or warehouses.
Investors have been so unimpressed with the reception to the new Windows products that Microsoft's stock price has slipped 4 percent since the operating system's Oct. 26 release. Meanwhile, the bellwether Standard & Poor's 500 index has gained 4 percent. Microsoft's stock closed Friday at $26.83, up 37 cents.
A clearer picture of the early reception to Windows 8 may emerge Jan. 24 when Microsoft is scheduled to report its earnings for the three months spanning the holiday shopping season.
Although he wasn't the main attraction, Ballmer made a cameo appearance during Qualcomm Inc. CEO Paul Jacobs' opening address at this year's show.
Ballmer's acceptance of Qualcomm's invitation to join Jacobs on stage surprised some people because Qualcomm has emerged as a threat to Intel Corp., a longtime Microsoft ally that makes most of the processors in Windows computers. Instead of touting Windows 8, Ballmer spent his time hailing a streamlined version of the operating system, dubbed Windows RT, which runs on tablets using processors that rely on technology designed by ARM, another Intel rival.
Microsoft's top executive in charge of technical strategy appeared on stage at Samsung Electronics' invitation to reveal a Windows phone featuring a flexible color display. The electronics of the phone are in a little box, and the thin, bendable screen is attached to it, looking much like a piece of paper.
That left Intel and other Microsoft partners, including PC makers Samsung, Sony, Asus, Acer and Hewlett-Packard Co., to do most of the boasting about Windows 8 at their own CES booths.
"Our partners are doing that very effectively," Shaw said. "You couldn't walk through the (CES) floor without seeing people doing really interesting things with Windows 8."
But there were other times when it appeared Microsoft's partners could have used some help.
Sony exhibitor John Guzman, for instance, seemed stumped when an Associated Press reporter visited the company's CES booth and asked whether a machine running Windows 8 or the more advanced Windows 8 Pro would be a better fit for journalistic work.
"That is more of a Microsoft question," Guzman said, adding that no Microsoft representatives were around.
Liedtke reported from San Francisco. AP Technology Writer Peter Svensson contributed to this story.