CES 2018: Microsoft’s broad near-term vision of our very different technology future

The near-term future of personal technology strategy from Microsoft comprises five distinct areas.

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Blair Hanley Frank
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[Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.]

I got to sit down with Microsoft prior to the start of CES to talk about the broad future visions they’ve been sharing with folks all week.  As you would expect, given this is CES, focus was on personal technology.  This was separate from Surface or any other tightly focused effort and it was more Windows centric as well.  The near-term future of personal technology strategy from Microsoft is broken down into the following areas:

Lots of choice

This has always been a keystone of the Microsoft strategy in the 1980s/90s and why they so easily rolled over Apple and Sun last century.  They had the advantage of leverage because they had lots of hardware licensees while Apple and Sun had to go it alone.  (Strangely this strategy didn’t work with Smartphones but that was largely because Microsoft didn’t capture the developers like they did initially with Windows). 

This is sharp contrast with Apple in another way.  Apple’s strategy is customer/marketing focused while Microsoft’s is product focused.  Apple must spend (which they aren’t doing well now) considerably more on marketing to drive people to their offerings, while Microsoft (and the hardware OEMs) shoot out many products hoping they’ll hit customers current needs.  Apple’s strategy results in higher marketing costs while Microsoft’s results in higher manufacturing and logistics costs.  It is interesting to note, that with Surface, Microsoft has adapted Apple’s much more targeted strategy albeit with a broader line. 

This “lots of choice” strategy continues to be dominant in every PC vendor but Apple. 

Smart everything

Microsoft believes everything we have, in terms of devices, will eventually be smart.  It is interesting to note that both Amazon and Microsoft are on this track aggressively (though currently Amazon is more successful and dominant).  Apple, who, with Siri, got to critical mass first seemed to miss this meeting treating Siri as more of a Smartphone feature than an emerging platform.  This may be because much of the intelligence for this approach does, and must, reside in the cloud and Amazon with AWS and Microsoft with Azure are vastly stronger there than Apple is. 

This also drives toward where the market will eventually evolve.  We’ll each have a virtual digital assistant that will increasingly know everything about us and be able to, also increasingly, anticipate our needs regardless of whether we are using a smart speaker or autonomous car.  It’ll take us a good decade to get there but it is clear Microsoft is on that path with Amazon.  

Always connected

This is kind of interesting given Microsoft doesn’t do phones anymore.  Tied initially to their “Always Connected PC” effort this is a strategic change indicating they believe that in the future we will never plug into a network anymore.  And given the effort it is tied to, it suggests a WAN not WIFI future for much of what is coming.  This is consistent with what many 5G advocates believe, that once we have 5G and related plans virtually everything will have a cellular link to call home.  This isn’t a big stretch given our phones do, and our cars will increasingly, connect this way.  The promise with PCs is compelling in that they’ll increasingly act like big cell phones in that they are on all the time and you instantly get access to your stuff without waiting.  This means no more hibernate or suspend long term and given only a small number of laptops have 4G capability today, if successful, this should result in a massive change not only in how we connect but what we connect with. 

Mixed reality changing how we work

Microsoft’s Hololens set the pace here and they were really the first to get that this technology needed to move to industry, because they had the budget and use cases, before it spread broadly in consumer.  This promises a future where we may no longer have things like monitors or even dashboards in cars.  We’ll just have increasingly smaller glasses (and likely eventually contact lenses) that interleave digital images with what we see.  At some point we may not actually care that some of what we see isn’t real. 

I am looking forward to a time when events like CES are no longer necessary and we can digitally move from location to location rather than having to physically travel there.  But that should massively change the tools we use, how we collaborate, and, hopefully, massively reduce our need to travel.  

Evolve the gaming industry

Microsoft is again taking gaming very seriously and this technology doesn’t stand alone.  This not only means more gaming realism and engagement but a blend of the other strategic items.  These would include increasing choices in the hardware you game with, more mobile gaming, smarter game generated opponents and in game digital assistants, and a shift from traditional gaming to mixed reality.

In addition, expect game technology to migrate more and more into simulation and test.  The best example of this I saw was at an autonomous car demonstration by NVIDIA (disclosure NVIDIA is a client of the author).  The solution would take the car into what was basically a video driving game and train it to deal with the kind of things a car would need to deal with on the road but at computer speed not natural speed (going miles in microseconds).  This kind of thing could also be used by the DMV to certify autonomous car solutions.  But gaming technology is increasingly used for human training as well and this focus should push this forward substantially. 

Looking to the future is always hard because we can get so wrapped up in the present.  Blending these strategic imperatives, we begin to see the future that Microsoft is imagining.  One where we are mobile – but may not have to travel great distances. Where we blend rendered visuals with reality to create new worlds we can live an interact in. This is a place where not only are the tools we use increasingly smarter, but where those same tools go through the same training we are, albeit a lot faster. And, finally, it’s a place where we’ll still get a ton of choice. But, within that choice, we’ll be given consistency in how we interface with this ever-wider selection of technology solutions.

There is no doubt this future will be different. The hope we all have is that it will be better.


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