Last November, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella hosted a small press event at the company’s Redmond, Wash. headquarters. The atmosphere was low-key, but the title–“Productivity: Reinvented“–set expectations high. Though the session did include some demos, it was mostly devoted to whetting appetites for a future in which Microsoft would reemphasize its original mission of creating innovative products that help people get work done.
Today, Nadella is keynoting a much larger event: Microsoft’s annual Worldwide Partner Conference in Orlando. Part of his presentation will be devoted to a new app called GigJam. Along with HoloLens and the Surface Hub, it’s among the first concrete examples of what Microsoft thinks reinventing productivity is all about.
GigJam, which was code-named “Magic Glass” during development, is a genuinely new idea. It’s a set of apps for PCs, tablets, and phones which let you call up business information–from your own emails to figures from corporate databases–using a built-in version of Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant. The apps format the info on cards. Then you can circle items you’d like to share–crossing out any which must remain confidential–and route them to one or more coworkers. You can choose to make the views you send them read-only or editable, and can annotate them with audio comments and on-screen notes.
If a colleague happens to be available at that moment, you can use GigJam to collaborate in real time. If not, others can work asynchronously and then send the results back to you. “Every task can potentially become a multi-user task at will, with almost no friction,” says Vijay Mital, Microsoft’s general manager of ambient computing and robotics. GigJam, as he puts it, has “the ability to share atoms and molecules of work.”
Microsoft still isn’t ready to tell all about GigJam. Still to be announced, for instance, are the exact time frame when it will be available and how much it will cost. But it’s not just a technological-pie-in-the-sky lab project: Mital told me that it will ship “soon.”
If Microsoft had announced something like GigJam a decade or two ago, you would have reasonably expected it to involve proprietary Microsoft technologies and a Windows-centric approach. But this is Satya Nadella’s new, aggressively platform-agnostic Microsoft we’re talking about. So the examples which Mital went over with me involved Android phones and iPads and MacBook Airs as well as Microsoft’s own Surface. It seems entirely possible that a company might find GigJam useful even if it didn’t have a single Windows machine on its premises.
Using these existing technologies, GigJam encapsulates data into intelligent, shareable packages. “When you say ‘Show me my calendar’ or ‘Show me my emails,’ all we do is create a mini-app,” says Mital. “It’s got a data connection, it’s got logic, and it’s got a user interface.”
Microsoft’s introductory blog post for GigJam explains it by saying it’s “in the spirit of screen sharing or casting.” That alludes to tools such as Join.me and Microsoft’s own Skype, and it’s true as far as it goes. The differences are more striking than the similarities, though. If you’re on the receiving end of a screencast, you’re part of a passive audience. GigJam, by contrast, is about handing off responsibility and getting the right information to the right people. Everyone who uses it can dig in and accomplish stuff.
In a less obvious way, what GigJam evokes for me are Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) and OpenDoc, two 1990s technologies designed to let you grab bits and pieces of information from word processors, spreadsheets, and other sources, and then assemble them into compound documents. It’s just that GigJam is focused on disassembly of data more than assembly. And instead of being built for the age of office suites on PCs, it was conceived in an era when people are using all sorts of tools to get at all sorts of information on all sorts of devices.
GigJam is such a big idea that one of Microsoft’s challenges will be figuring out which markets to focus on in the early days. Mital says that the most obvious applications will be ones “with a sense of urgency, or when people are just impatient with unnecessary delay.” One of the example tasks he walked me through involved aircraft inspection. Another concerned processing sales orders.
I wondered if the app is the sort of industrial-strength business software that requires an IT department to bless and roll out. Nope, Mital told me: Two or three coworkers who are intrigued by the idea will be able to download GigJam clients from the appropriate app stores and try it on their own.
Once GigJam is available, there are all kinds of places it could go. It might wind up a mainstream hit or a niche player or (like past Microsoft collaboration products such as Groove) a disappointment. For now, it looks like a striking effort, both as a concept and a piece of technology. And even more than HoloLens or the Surface Hub, its use of multiplatform software to create an experience which travels across devices feels like a real-world manifestation of the uniquely Microsoftian productivity vision which Satya Nadella has been talking up.