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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.