Why Microsoft's Vision of 2019 Just Doesn't Cut the Mustard

Microsoft gave a public showing of its futurologist vision of 2019 the other day at the Wharton Business Technology Conference, and it's set the interwebs a-quiver with excitement. But if you have a bit of think about it, it's actually not very visionary at all. 

Gizmodo's Jason Chen loved it, quoting Arthur C. Clarke's famous Third Law: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The Industry Standard's Paul Boutin suggests "More important than whizzy interfaces, the videos promise much more extensive collaboration, instant information retrieval, and multimedia communication." And "2019" has  appeared all over the place because it's from Microsoft, and that's a name that carries almost limitless clout.

Which is why it's surprising the video is actually so uninspiring.

The references to Minority Report are unmistakable: Transparent "air screens" with gestural controls, handheld computers with see-through screens that you can hold over a larger display to "capture" the info. Everything is touch-controlled, with gestural inputs and with seamless wireless information transfer from one device to another--the concept of a "file" is conspicuously absent--and that's very Tom Cruise. There's also much use of color e-paper with a touch-surface, and modular cellphones with interactive touch-sensitive exteriors and screens. Location-based services show up, with the "corporate visitor" chap being located (presumably by some smart RFID/GPS/LPS tech in his phone) and directed to his destination by smart-display floor tiles.

All of these technologies are under current development. And nearly every application of the tech shown in the video is already dreamed-up: Multi-touch gestures have been catapulted into the public's eye by Apple--it's why the iPhone is so very snazzy (and the iPhone's not much "dumber" than the device in the video.) E-paper is already in the best-selling Kindle, Fujitsu's trialing a color e-book, and touch-screen e-paper has recently been demonstrated. Ubiquitous "touch controls everywhere" have been foreseen often, and location-based tech--with cellphone widgets like NRU-- is just beginning to get off the ground.

So the video is set ten years hence, by which time all of this technology will have matured and be in common use. It seems all Microsoft has done is bunch it all up and applied the same--very "conventional" Flash-like--user interface to it all. And though, as Boutin notes, Microsoft's been careful to not smear everything with a Window's logo, that's the clear message of the video: "Microsoft will run everything.". 

But where're the intelligent air-gesture controls, Microsoft? Where's voice-control? What about the eco-footprint of all that e-paper, and the electricity demands of smart floor-tiling? Where's the customizable UI to meet the needs of different people with different tastes? Where, in fact, is the imagination, the "what Microsoft is going to do to change the world"ness?

It's slightly sad that what Microsoft imagines is itself adding nothing new, and applying a "vanilla" smoothness to all these exciting developments.

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4 Comments

  • Arthur Lee

    I am late to this article. I somehow missed it. I'd like to defend Microsoft on this one. What's wrong with vanilla smoothness? Tastes pretty good. Now if you want to mix in some other flavors you can. However some flavors will be awful, others great and and some "so-so". It seems to me innovation is usually built on stable platforms with some standardization.

    Art

  • George Birbilis

    Regarding transparent LCDs, you don't really need them, when you hold them in the air, they can just have a camera at their back and display what the camera sees with superimposed contextual digital information (Augmented Reality). See Intel's OpenCV Computer Vision open source library for example. If they device is placed on a MultiTouch projector surface, the surface can recognize the device's proximity and its visual boundaries (using the FTIR technology that can recongize IR light changes on a surface using a camera) and can talk to the mobile device to send it the image of what is displayed (or what was supposed to be displayed if a docking placeholder is shown when device touches the surface) on the surface under the mobile device and the mobile device can be clever enough to show that display which is streamed from the surface device to it, making it seem transparent

  • Kit Eaton

    @Michael. Baffling, but I kind of see the sentiment in the stream of speak. But it doesn't stop me from thinking "I've seen all of this before." There's nothing "innovative" or "good grief, I'd never thought of that!" in 2019. Surely a vision for a future direction should include some originality? (otherwise you're just "stagnating" yourself?)

  • Michael Gautier

    The quality of your vision impacts the quality of your solution. This is part of the message Stephen Elop presented before the Wharton School audience. A message, where we are going with technology will be greater than where we’ve been.

    A long term goal throughout the technology industry has been the idea of connecting systems, data, and groups seamlessly. Spoken about at length, the focus of the idea has traditionally centered on over hyped technologies over their application. Refreshing it is to see a portrayal far more relevant to our customers and stakeholders.

    Expanding from this is not the conventional vaporware approach of stating this all will be built by one entity. Rather, a cross functional collaboration involving current hardware and network providers are followed to one point in their logical evolutionary progression. This bolsters the credibility and likelihood of the vision in that the today’s assets can be tuned to enable the opportunities of tomorrow.

    With the software technology we have today, all that was presented in the video could be built if the hardware and networks were available. The question centers on the incentive to pursue investments in the direction of the devices, materials, and communications components in the fashion represented. A disincentive may be to say that this vision is neither good enough nor actionable. We can do far better than to endorse that perspective.

    A greater outcome is for us to actively move forward in this effort to realize not just the vision, but its benefits so obvious in the presentation. A future un-tethered from the desktop and were collaboration is far more pervasive. Devices and software unite more with the surrounding environment. Transportation, logistics, architecture, communities and commerce operate more seamlessly.

    A time when those of the next generation, today’s youth, are more greatly empowered to pursue their ideas and creative solutions. The ideas Stephen presented may be a catalyst to navigate us past a level of stagnation spurring innovation. Activity, creative and intellectual investment provides a path to continued technological evolution.

    The excitement you see on the web regarding this vision has less to do with the style. Rather it is quite possible that the optimistic human spirit is awakened to the substantive proposition that we can make this happen. The vision outlined is innovative. Starting today, we can begin the journey to make this future a reality.