iPad Who? Microsoft Talks 8 Million Kinect 'Sold'

What does it say about Microsoft's tablet strategy that Steve Ballmer spent much of his CES keynote speech last night gabbing about the Xbox 360 and Kinect?

"Who needs tablets?" That's what.

Elephant-in-the-room-itis? Sure, but when you can break estimate-annihilating sales shipments of your flagship set-top product, who wouldn't save tablets for the postlude?

That's just what Ballmer did, bumping tablet-talk to crow that Microsoft sold shipped 8 million Kinect units in just two months.

Update 1: It seems Ballmer pulled a Sony, slyly employing the verb 'sold' to mean sold-to-stores. Those 8 million Kinect units 'sold' are in fact 'shipped to store', not sold-through.

Update 2: Microsoft's Aaron Greenberg confirms the numbers are sell-in, but claimed earlier on Twitter that "We have no channel inventory, so [it's] essentially the same #....every Kinect we make we sell."

Sony hasn't released updated PlayStation Move sales figures yet, but last we heard, they'd shipped some 4.1 million units through the end of November. The Move launched in mid-September, suggesting Sony shipped in just under three months half what Kinect sold-through shipped in just 60 days.

Microsoft originally predicted 3 million in Kinect sales by end of 2010, then revised that figure upward to 5 million.

8 million in unit sales units shipped is thus (probably) a bona fide triumph. Take a bow, Microsoft. Well done.

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But--and you knew there'd be one--let's consider the demographic unknowns. Who's buying this thing, and why? I'm pretty sure Xbox 360 gamers don't play most Wii games, the rare Mario, Metroid, or Zelda notwithstanding. Are they picking up Kinect for other (younger) family members? For casual party-play with friends? Because they're technophiles and Kinect's too intriguing to ignore? Will they still be playing in the weeks and months ahead? Or will Kinect spend a lot of time perched in entertainment centers looking at little save the occasional hand-waggle to lazily flip through a movie queue?

Wait for trackers like Nielsen to release play-time figures, if they can somehow track Kinect use independently. Those numbers would tell the real story.

And let's face it, Kinect just isn't that great a product. The sensor tends to be less accurate than the Wii without the MotionPlus, and the launch lineup of sports games, dance-offs, and fitness workouts was mostly panned.

But don't tell that to Steve Ballmer. He's already on to the next big thing: Avatar Kinect!

No, not a device that transforms you into a willowy feline smurf. He's talking about using Kinect to chat with other players, a feature that'll let your Xbox 360 avatars meet in virtual space and rap using face tracking: If you raise an eyebrow, Spock-like, so will your cartoony onscreen persona.

It'll be available this spring, though only for those paying Microsoft's $60 annual Xbox Live Gold fee.

Also available for Xbox Live Gold members this spring: Netflix and Hulu Plus for Kinect. And why not? I'll admit it's vaguely amusing watching friends and relatives react as you raise your arms like a conductor and put The Clapper 2.0 through its paces.

A bet: In the time it takes you to wake up Kinect, probing the air for the "trigger spot" and waving your hand, I've already got my nearly weightless remote pointed and punching buttons. And while you're fumbling to swipe a virtual pointer across chunky panels or holding your hand out like a traffic cop for several seconds each time you want to select something, I've already pulled up Netflix, typed in a search, selected what I'm after, and started watching.

Novelty, not utility. I'm fine with that, but you won't catch me spinning it as functionally better, because at this point, it's not.

Tablets put in an appearance toward the end of Ballmer's keynote: The (or should we say 'another'?) tablet-optimized version of Windows, already demoed ahead of the show. Microsoft's iPad-killer was elusive as ever, the very idea now buried that much deeper beneath a towering mountain of living room media center ballyhoo.

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