CES: Ballmer Mum On TV Plans In Microsoft Keynote

If the reports are true that Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) is preparing to make big moves in the TV space, CEO Steve Ballmer wasn’t about to tip his hand at the company’s annual pre-CES keynote Wednesday. Aside from announcing the integration of its new Kinect system with Hulu Plus and Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX), he had far less to say about TV than about new developments in mobile and PC applications.

At first, Ballmer’s keynote seemed as if it had ambitious plans to reveal as he talked of the “big technology bets” that had given Microsoft a strong 2010. And XBox was the very first subject the keynote explored in depth.

Then the night’s first surprise was the Hulu Plus/Netflix announcement. Beginning this spring, XBox Live members will be able to navigate the viewing experience without using their controllers. If anything, shining the light on Netflix and Hulu Plus only reinforced the weakness of Microsoft’s own content storefront, Zune.

In addition, Kinect yielded another interesting announcement in the form of AvatarKinect, which captures facial expressions and renders them on avatars. In a demo following that disclosure, the avatars are depicted discussing the viewing experience–a nifty value-add to the social aspect of XBox.

But there was little else to share on the TV front. While some attention was paid the ESPN-XBox partnership, no further information was offered on what else that would yield or if other programming partners were on the way.

Rumors and speculation have been swirling in recent months that Microsoft was not about to cede the burgeoning over-the-top video category to Google (NSDQ: GOOG) TV or Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) TV, which made Ballmer’s keynote a logical place for making a big splash with a relevant announcement. In November, Reuters reported that Microsoft was angling to turn XBox into a “virtual cable operator” that would be a significant player given the console’s 30-million-strong footprint in U.S. living rooms.

And just last week, the Seattle Times reported that Microsoft was looking to introduce its own set-top box powered by a stripped-down version of Windows Media Center.

The fact that Microsoft didn’t even allude to interesting developments in the pipeline on the TV front may very well be a sign that for all the speculation going on, little of it is real. Or perhaps when it comes to TV, Microsoft’s plans just aren’t ready for primetime. Stay tuned.