LAS VEGAS — With the possible exception of Wayne Newton, every star that struts their stuff on the glitzy stages of Las Vegas will eventually be forced to walk away from the spotlight and leave The Strip to a new generation of headliners.

Microsoft Corp. is no exception.

As the technology industry descends on Las Vegas this week for the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world’s largest software company is preparing to take its final bow at the biggest technology trade show in North America.

That’s because after nearly two decades of exhibiting at CES and holding the prime opening keynote slot — originally delivered by chairman Bill Gates, and for the past few years by chief executive Steve Ballmer — Microsoft announced last month that 2012 would be the last year the Redmond, Washington-based company would be making the trek to Vegas.

It’s not a wholly unsurprising move, but it’s a decision that not only illustrates the changing nature of CES, but points to a seismic shift in the evolution of Microsoft: a company accustomed to playing the role of front runner casting off its favoured son status and embracing a new reality of stiffer competition from the likes of Apple Inc., Google Inc. and others.

When Microsoft first started exhibiting at CES, it was the single biggest event on the technology calendar. Over the years, Microsoft used the event to give the world the first glimpse of some of its biggest products, including Windows Vista and the first Xbox game console, and its booth in the main hall was always one of the largest and most lavish.

But as the technology world has grown, other huge industry events have become equally as important to Microsoft, but for different reasons.

Although it can rely on the virtual monopolies Windows and Office have over their respective markets, in the mobile phone, tablet and the video game markets — three arenas key to the company’s future growth prospects — Microsoft is one of a number of competitors fighting for relevance, and in many cases, second or third place in the market.

Microsoft understands that if it wants the Xbox to continue to challenge Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co. Ltd., it needs to save its best video game announcements for the Electronic Entertainment Exp (E3).

If it wants Windows Phone to grow into something more than fourth place competitor behind Apple, Android and BlackBerry, it needs to make a good impression at Mobile World Congress, as it did last year when the company revealed its billion-dollar partnership with Nokia Oyj.

Microsoft has shown an growing willingness to embrace its new competitive realities. Over the past decade, the company has invested billions of dollars in Internet search technologies in an effort to evolve Bing into a true competitor to Google.

It’s a strategy the company may be forced to replicate in the tablet space. For each of the past two years, Microsoft has offered CES attendees a peek at what it was working on with its partners in an effort to create a viable tablet alternative to Apple’s iPad. However, to date, no serious Windows tablets have emerged.

This year, Mr. Ballmer is expected to show off Windows 8, the next evolution of the company’s flagship software, that will power both PCs and tablets. For Microsoft to present a serious challenge to Apple in the tablet space, the company must embrace its role as the underdog.

Of course, Microsoft’s decision to step away from CES and to set its own product launch schedule is nothing new. Apple pulled out of Macworld several years ago in an effort to set its own timetable, and Google tends to schedule its own special events to announce new products and services.

Instead of expecting the world to pay attention to Microsoft simply because it holds the opening keynote at CES, Microsoft appears willing to attempt to earn its accolades from direct competition with its competitors on neutral ground, not its home turf.

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