Mystery: Who killed the Microsoft CES keynote?

So, just who nixed future Microsoft (s MSFT) keynotes at the big Consumer Electronics Show? It’s a sticky question.

Microsoft said Wednesday that Steve Ballmer’s keynote at the  Consumer Electronics Show next month will be the company’s last center stage event at the show, and that it will focus more on company-owned venues going forward.

Ballmer, who is Microsoft’s CEO, has keynoted the show for the last three years, taking over from Bill Gates who did the honors several years before that. The CES stage gave Microsoft the opportunity to show that it could do more than business productivity software, that it could be a player in the cool world of consumer electronics. That’s a contention that many at CES quibbled with over the years. Some say the company has made a habit of splashy CES announcements that don’t add up to much. 

 This keynote change of plan was initially covered as a Microsoft-initiated decision.

Statements from the Consumer Electronics Association subsequently recast the move as a mutual decision made amicably, as covered by The New York Times here.

But there’s more to it than that. Folks inside Microsoft said that it was the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the organization in charge of CES, that put the kibosh on future Microsoft keynotes and that Microsoft then pulled plans for its huge CES booth in response.

Said one company insider: “Microsoft didn’t pull out of the keynote — they were kicked out. Big difference.”

A CEA executive would not comment.

Frank Shaw, the Microsoft corporate VP who posted the Microsoft blog, referred all questions back to his post and reiterated that the timing of the show, coming as it does right after the big holiday buying season, made it problematic.

Still, given Microsoft’s desire to be seen as a power in consumer electronics, building on its Kinect success and its Windows 8 OS push, it would make sense for it to continue as a front-and-center presence at CES.