Patent Patrol: Is Microsoft Planning A Robust Mobile Device Future?

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With last week's reveal of Surface, Microsoft's bid for relevance in the mobile computing future, has thrown a rare spotlight on Microsoft's R&D. Turns out, there are a few recent patents with MS's name on them that suggest bold plans for mobile devices.

Persona-Based Login--The Future of BYOD

One criticism of the iPad, iPhone and indeed Android devices is that they're single-user products. That's a very different situation than laptops and traditional desktop computers, which can be multi-user and thus multi-purpose: A single PC can have a login to a user environment that is perhaps configured for business use for one user, and for entertainment with adult control protocols for a child.

That's something U.S. patent application 20120159479 is designed to remedy. In its introduction, Microsoft notes:

Technologies are described herein for providing a persona-based application experience. Application virtualization provides the ability to deliver an application with its own set of configurations to a computer without any installation on the computer. The application may run on the computer through a virtual environment having its own virtual file system, configuration files, and the like. In this way, the application can run in isolation from other applications, thereby avoiding application conflicts that exist on traditionally installed software applications.

It's a protocol for defining how a computer--most likely a mobile device--can be configured to the "persona" of the user at a particular time. If you're logging in to your mobile device as a parent in the evening, for example, it will reconfigure itself differently than if you're logging in as an executive in an office environment.

In particular, MS points out that companies who permit employees to use off-site computers may find a use for this because it can be used to prevent accidental or unauthorized access to business-sensitive data. It also means employees don't have to carry around multiple computers for different purposes. And with the explosion in Bring Your Own Device habits in the workplace, being driven it would seem by devices like the iPad, Microsoft may be onto something here. With Surface being so evidently aimed at enterprise users, but also carrying the easy-use cachet of the tablet computing paradigm, can we imagine a future edition of Windows 8 allowing this trick?

Visual Gesture Patterns For Controlling Scrolling, Etc.

One oddity you may have spotted on Surface's rather nifty touch-sensitive keyboard covers is a trackpad and cursor keys--which you may think unnecessary given Surface has a full-touch interface. MS has to include them partly to appease legacy users who've habituated themselves to a windows/icons/mice environment and also to help with controlling the more traditional UI of Windows 8 on the Pro version. But MS is aware that there are better ways of controlling some elements of a UI, and has filed patent 20120159404 "detecting visual gestural patterns" for this reason.

A little like the way Kinect works, MS thinks that by embedding sensors in a mobile device to solve the problem like when showing a bigger document on a portable screen "only a portion of the document may be displayed at any one time. To view an undisplayed portion of the document, a navigation command may be input to the portable processing device to cause the displayed document to be scrolled to the undisplayed portion of the document. Providing input to scroll displayed content on a small display screen of a portable processing device may be tedious and cumbersome."

MS's solution is to analyze how the user's hand waves on or near the tablet's screen to quickly navigate around a UI on a mobile device screen, and the patent is all about how this would work.

Workspace Control Using Gestures

Similarly, when using a portable device in a more traditional way to access multiple "workspaces" in which different aspects of the task the user is attempting are spread out in virtual space, MS realizes that a gestural interface for getting between them may be a great thing on a mobile device. Enter patent application 20120159401. It's basically a different take on the patent above, but designed to make business productivity a little easier on a touchscreen like a smartphone or, for example, a Microsoft Surface. 

Remote Control Futures

One of the successes of the iPad and iPhone is its ability to interact with Apple's TV product, serving as an advanced, intelligent control interface that puts most TV remotes to shame. Microsoft has it's own player in the TV game of course, courtesy of its Xbox systems which can also act as media centers, so the company has realized it too can tie its tablets and smartphones to "media serving" devices to act as super-smart remotes.

That's what application 20120159338 is all about. Specifically it's about "user interface presentation and navigation via a portable networked device in a media consumption environment." The initial example in the summary is one that "on a portable networked device, a method of selecting media for presentation via a media presentation device. The method comprises receiving media metadata from a server via a network, wherein the media metadata corresponds to media content available for viewing. The method further comprises displaying on a display of the portable networked device a user interface presenting the media metadata. The method further comprises receiving a user input via the user interface selecting a media item, and in response, sending a request for the media item to a media rendering device."

Dig through that language and you'll see that MS is imagining a tablet/phone will interrogate a media server as to what media it can serve up on demand, and then it will display the information--such as a TV schedule or a list of your stored movies--on the screen, which the user will interact with.

Essentially MS is planning its own smart remote functions. Interestingly one of Steve Jobs famous last promises included the fact he'd "cracked" the problem of redesigning awkward TV control interfaces. Can MS really have ambitions in the same direction? Stay tuned.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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