Microsoft’s innovation streak – integration on a roll #1

Not too long after Windows Vista’s fiasco, continually decreasing relevancy of its Windows Mobile platform and Internet Explorer’s market share dropping rapidly, everybody started to wonder if Microsoft finally lost its way. Its searching engine rapidly losing market share against Google,  together with a corporate image that seemed to discard innovation and originality in favor of …well, I am not sure in favor of what since Microsoft’s most revenue comes from Windows and Office while still losing money almost everywhere else, even in the Entertainment division which was arguable successful through its XBOX 360 sales.

Of course, a company culture that pushes innovation somewhere behind and instead concentrates on marketing, sales, stability and so on is expected to appear in a company as big as Microsoft, but especially in the software industry, it doesn’t take long for the competition to surface. As opposed to manufacturing industry for example, in software you can still have ideas in a garage and became wildly successful, with Google and Facebook being just the two most well known examples.

However, lately Microsoft tries to redefine its image by rolling announcement after announcement. And I am talking about Windows 7, Project Natal, Microsoft Courier, Windows Phone 7, the renewed and revamped Bing search engine, Bing Maps (Silverlight version).  I am sure all of these took everybody by surprise and, a friend recently asked me when I told him about Windows Phone 7 – “Is there no end for the cool toys for us to play with?”. I replied with a big smile (it was on Yahoo Messenger) – “I certainly hope not!”.

Let’s dwell a little bit in more details about Microsoft’s recent announcements. Some of them will only launch in fall (Windows Phone 7), for some the launch date is still unknown (Courier) but I really don’t see a giant like Microsoft announcing pure vaporware. The loss of face would be immense.

Project Natal

Project Natal is a revolutionary new way to play, without using a controller. Do you remember Minority Report or Johnny Mnemonic? Well, something like that but using your entire body.

Project Natal’s roots are based on a 3D camera technology developed by Primer Sense that uses a continuous infrared pattern to create a 3D scene. The software side (which is of course Microsoft’s primary domain and you would expect them to be really good at it) is actually the main part of Project’s Natal enabling gesture recognition using a skeletal mapping technology, facial recognition and voice recognition.

Microsoft described Project Natal as a miniature “Manhattan Project” illustrating the sheer number of researchers participating in it. If Microsoft will deliver a similar experience as the one demoed at various game shows, it will be a complete game changer, completely altering not only how we interact with a game console, but how we interact with our very home. I foresee the technology advancing enough to be embedded in our main home computer and react to our gestures, facial expressions and voice commands in the future.

Microsoft announced that it distributed already more that a thousand SDKs, so we should expect a number of games fully designed for the new interface by the time the package will be launched at the end of this year.

Also part of Project Natal is Milo, a virtual person that can talk with you and supposedly understand some of your feelings. Milo can also overcome the real-virtual barrier by scanning objects through Project Natal’s and start using them himself, or by letting you modify the virtual environments in which he “lives”. Potentially, this could evolve into a variety of virtual characters set for different interactive tasks – teaching your kids, as companions for lonely persons, disabled, etc.

It remains to be seen how much of this technology will be released by the end of the year, but if Microsoft is committed to perfect this technology it will forever change the way we interact with the computers.

Windows Phone 7

Everybody knows by now that Microsoft Windows Mobile lags severely behind iPhone. The reason is that, at its heart, Windows Mobile was always a Geek oriented OS. The recent trends however show that most of the people just want something that works well, in a fluid manner and not necessarily something that can be customized to no end. After all, we have our PC and that should be enough. It is not a matter of acknowledging that less is always better, but a closed platform with limited degrees of freedom just seems to work better for the majority. This being said, Microsoft had to start from scratch and create their own closed platform. Starting from scratch has its advantages – you don’t have to waste your time by keeping backward compatibility (and we know how many headaches backward compatibility generate in Windows). The development platform changed as well, being based on Silverlight which personally I happen to like. And of course, Microsoft’s development tools are second to none (I should know, I use them on a daily basis). So score one for the developers.

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The main difference between Windows Phone 7 and iPhone (and any other smart phone available today) is an interface based on functionality rather than applications. Instead of having separate applications for e-mail, Facebook, Flickr, etc Windows Phone 7 has a series of hubs that bring together content from the Web, applications and services into a single view to simplify common tasks. For example all the e-mails, instant messages and Facebook updates would show in the same place.

The 7 Series’ interface is internally called Metro and consists  in a flat and clean look, displaying a number of tiles populated by the above mentioned hubs. The interface heavily borrowed elements from Zune HD (elements that are also present in Windows 7 media Center).

Available Hubs:

People. This hub delivers an engaging social experience by bringing together relevant content based on the person, including his or her live feeds from social networks and photos. It also provides a central place from which to post updates to Facebook and Windows Live in one step.
Pictures. This hub makes it easy to share pictures and video to a social network in one step. Windows Phone 7 Series also brings together a user’s photos by integrating with the Web and PC, making the phone the ideal place to view a person’s entire picture and video collection.
Games. This hub delivers the first and only official Xbox LIVE experience on a phone, including Xbox LIVE games, Spotlight feed and the ability to see a gamer’s avatar, Achievements and gamer profile. With more than 23 million active members around the world, Xbox LIVE unlocks a world of friends, games and entertainment on Xbox 360, and now also on Windows Phone 7 Series.
Music + Video. This hub creates an incredible media experience that brings the best of Zune, including content from a user’s PC, online music services and even a built-in FM radio into one simple place that is all about music and video. Users can turn their media experience into a social one with Zune Social on a PC and share their media recommendations with like-minded music lovers. The playback experience is rich and easy to navigate, and immerses the listener in the content.
Marketplace. This hub allows the user to easily discover and load the phone with certified applications and games.
Office. This hub brings the familiar experience of the world’s leading productivity software to the Windows Phone. With access to Office, OneNote and SharePoint Workspace all in one place, users can easily read, edit and share documents. With the additional power of Outlook Mobile, users stay productive and up to date while on the go.

One of the most interesting aspects of the new OS is the integration with XBOX live. Microsoft actually demonstrated the capability of playing a game on the phone, unlocking achievements and, saving the game and resuming it on Xbox 360 from the same place. With the release of XNA 4 Framework that supports hardware acceleration in Windows Phone 7 during GDC 2010 we can expect some very serious gaming capabilities indeed.

Stay tuned for the next part of this article covering Microsoft Courier, Bing and Azure.

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