June 18, 2012 at 2:34 PM ET
With the big mystery announcement from Microsoft pending Monday afternoon, let's cast our eyes back to the last few years of big Microsoft presentations.
Since many expect today's announcement is related to Microsoft's tablet and mobile ecosystem, it seems proper to recall to Microsoft's first efforts at a tablet and go forward from there. Such a large company has numerous products and events every year, but these are the ones most relevant to consumers at large, whether the products ended in success or failure.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but we are not privy to any additional product information about Monday's announcement due to this relationship.)
2000: XP Tablet Edition
Bill Gates got on stage in 2000 and showed off what the company was sure to be the future of computing: tablets. Unfortunately, Microsoft was a bit early to the party: a lack of compelling hardware and an interface designed with tablets as an afterthought ensured that Windows tablets would be the smallest of niches for years to come.
In what seemed like a wildly risky move, Microsoft spent a billion dollars in a bid to take on Nintendo and Sony in the gaming business. Many at the time mocked the company for its naivete and the hardware for its enormous size, but the gamble has paid off many times over now. Purchasing Bungie, which made the hit game "Halo," in 2000 proved to be a wise move as well.
2002: Xbox Live
While much of the news relating to Microsoft in this time was antitrust and various legal issues, the company's consumer divisions were focused on monetizing its newest successful product, the Xbox. The company rightly recognized the need for pervasive connectivity, something neither Nintendo nor Sony were nearly as interested in. This early recognition of social and service-based gaming would also prove to be forward-thinking.
2003: SPOT watches and appliances
Few remember these primitive smart devices, the service for which was discontinued at the beginning of 2012. Watches, coffee makers, and alarm clocks — all updated regularly with weather, traffic, and news — for the low price of $59 per year. While smart devices are making a comeback, these predecessors were low on bandwidth, monochrome, and fairly useless.
2004: MSN Search Beta
Microsoft's first efforts to create its own search engine would eventually grow and differentiate into several products, but in 2004 this early incarnation served as a declaration of independence from Google. The decision to roll its own search suggested Microsoft had an ace up its sleeve. That did not turned out to be the case and Google's domination over search endures.
2005: Xbox 360
With the wind at its backs from a few successful years in the game industry, Microsoft decided to strike first in the next-generation gaming battle. The Xbox 360 was launched at E3, long before the Wii (a year later) and PS3 (a year and a half later), giving it a huge head start. The sacrifice of this early launch (a sacrifice, it was later revealed, Microsoft was fully aware of) was that the hardware that was far from perfected. Thousands upon thousands of consoles broke down, suffering the infamous "red ring of death."
The ill-fated Zune ecosystem had its start this year, debuting with interesting hardware and software, unique features, and bizarre marketing. Despite heavy investment, the project never took off. Attempts at subscription-based music delivery were seen as odd at a time when buying music via iTunes into huge local libraries was the norm. Several years later, services like Spotify and Rdio would try this method again, to great success.
The fruit of Microsoft's extensive internal research and labs departments, this touchscreen table captured the attention of anyone nearby and amazed press with its smooth and intuitive operation. High cost, bulky construction and a focus on solely business applications prevented Surface from entering living rooms, but a huge amount of development went into making it and Windows touch-friendly.
The big business news in 2008 was Microsoft's massive $47 billion bid for Yahoo!. Though it was eventually retracted for various reasons, the attempted purchase signaled to consumers that Microsoft was not giving up on its dream of being the way people found and accessed information on the Web. But the company's lack of expertise in the area compared to veterans like Yahoo! and Google meant that this dream was still far from becoming a reality, even when Bing was announced the following year.
2009: Zune HD
This upgrade to the ailing Zune brand was hailed by users and critics as an excellent music playback device, but again failed to lure the audience away from Apple's iPod. The Zune HD was, however, the first device to exhibit Metro, the visual style that would become Microsoft's signature look years later. High contrast, large sans-serif fonts, tile-based navigation — all these would reappear in Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8.
2010: Kinect, Windows Phone 7, Windows slates
A big year for Microsoft's consumer aspirations, 2010 brought several forward-looking announcements. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Steve Ballmer brandished a slate on stage and told the audience that Windows 7 tablets would be a major focus for the company. This turned out to be an overstatement, with very few tablets being offered, and those mainly aimed at enterprise customers. Kinect, announced at a mystifying press event during that year's E3 conference, indicated a new way of interacting with devices. The Xbox 360 add-on sold incredibly well, and it is likely that it will be integrated with laptops and tablets running Windows 8. Late in the year, Windows Phone 7 made its debut, and was reviewed well, but largely with optimism towards the platform's future.
2011: Windows on ARM, Skype, and Nokia
Ballmer took the stage again at CES to demonstrate Windows running on ARM, a competing CPU architecture to Intel chips, on which Windows has run for decades. This genuinely surprising move suggested real tablets and portable devices on the horizon (and many expect them at today's announcement). Microsoft then purchased Skype for more than $8 billion, indicating that it was serious about being in the consumer communication game. Though no major announcements have been made, many speculate that the service will end up tightly integrated with Xbox and Windows 8 before long. Lastly, Microsoft entered into a major partnership with Nokia, paying the floundering Finnish mobile phone giant a billion dollars to use Windows Phone 7 as their primary OS and to design some new flagship products. The resulting Lumia series did little to dislodge the iOS and Android competition, but proved itself to be a powerful and unique platform.
Monday's announcement could be many things, but the accelerating unification of Microsoft's platforms and the increasing focus on consumer-facing products over the last ten years suggest it will be more of the same. The recent announcement of Smart Glass is indicative of this trend as well: mobile phone, tablet, PC, and TV all connected and aware of one another. But with Microsoft's track record of delivering things before the industry is quite ready to adopt them, it may be that their reach will exceed their grasp once again. We'll found out at 3:30 PM Pacific Time this afternoon.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.