Microsoft has dropped its strongest hint yet that it may one day produce its own mobile phones, with CEO Steve Ballmer using his annual letter to shareholders to outline “a new era” at the software giant.

Ballmer begins the letter by recognising “a fundamental shift underway in our business”, before noting that the company now sees itself as “a devices and services company”. This devices/services approach mimics major rival Apple, whose massively successful iPhone and iPad demonstrated tight integration of high-quality software and hardware.

Although Ballmer says the company will “continue to work with a vast ecosystem of partners to deliver a broad spectrum of Windows PCs, tablets and phones”, he then suggests that a Microsoft-produced smartphone may be in the pipeline: “There will be times when we build specific devices for specific purposes, as we have chosen to do with Xbox and the recently announced Microsoft Surface.”

Coming just days ahead of the release (26 October) of the Surface RT tablet – alongside a new touch-centric Windows 8 operating system – as well as the official launch of Windows Phone 8 (29 October), the letter showcases Microsoft’s belief that its role in the technology ecosystem is changing, with an acceleration away from its traditional business model of selling installed software. "It impacts how we run the company, how we develop new experiences, and how we take products to market for both consumers and businesses," Ballmer writes.

Looking ahead, Ballmer says Microsoft is focused on developing new form factors "that have increasingly natural ways to use them including touch, gestures and speech". There will be a major focus around Windows too: Ballmer says Microsoft will "firmly establish one platform" around Windows across the PC, tablet, phone, server, and cloud.

“We are uniquely positioned to lead in these areas given the breadth of our devices and services portfolio, as well as our large, global partner and customer base and the growing Windows ecosystem,” concludes Ballmer. “It truly is a new era at Microsoft — an era of incredible opportunity for us, for the 8 million developers building apps for our devices, for the more than 640,000 partners worldwide and, most important, for the people and businesses using our products to reach their full potential.”