The Agenda

Kinect Will Save Microsoft

That is my prediction, based on nothing more than this terrific article by Jenna Wortham:


Other creative uses of the Kinect involve drawing 3-D doodles in the air and then rotating them with a nudge of the hand, and manipulating colorful animated puppets on a computer screen. Most, if not all, of the prototypes were built using the open-source code released as a result of the contest sponsored by Ms. Fried and Mr. Torrone, which was won by Hector Martin, a 20-year-old engineering student in Spain.

The KinectBot, cobbled together in a weekend by Philipp Robbel, a Ph.D. candidate at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology, combines the Kinect and an iRobot Create. It uses the Kinect’s sensors to detect humans, respond to gesture and voice commands, and generate 3-D maps of what it is seeing as it rolls through a room.

Mr. Robbel said the KinectBot offered a small glimpse into the future of machines that could aid in the search for survivors after a natural disaster.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said of the wave of Kinect experimentation. “We are going to see an exponential number of videos and tests over the coming weeks and months as more people get their hands on this device.”

This reminds me of Razib Khan’s brief remarks on the increasing speed of institutional sclerosis:

I, like every nerd, have friends who work at Google. Great food. Awesome company. Smart people. But I do wonder if the cycle of institutional sclerosis is speeding up. IBM maintained hegemony for decades. Microsoft’s time in the sun really didn’t make it to the 20th year (I think 1990 is a good compromise year to peg the age of Microsoft, though it really got going with Windows 95 and had some juice in the days of MS-DOS. Facebook is already breathing down Google’s neck. This doesn’t mean that Google won’t be profitable, Microsoft is still making bank, and will do so for years to come. But It companies may be more and more ephemeral.

Not only is Microsoft making bank — it might actually be in a position to leapfrog Google and Facebook, starting the cycle anew, by making breakthrough advances in the realm of ubiquitous or pervasive computing, i.e., the fast-approaching future in which virtually all of the objects we interact with will be in communication. To name the most obvious example, our clothing will register the temperature outdoors and as we move through interior spaces. Advertising will, through a form of passive check-in, interact with us (if we want it to, I hope) as we enter brick-and-mortar stores, etc. 

There are many ifs in this scenario. But it’s important to remember that Microsoft has not been standing still, and that it has taken in the lessons of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, which Tim Lee has summarized very lucidly. The success of the Xbox prompted Microsoft to give a great deal of autonomy to the teams that created the Zune media player and Kinect. And innovators like Ray Ozzie, who is about to end his tenure as Chief Software Architect at Microsoft, have helped the firm navigate the rise of cloud computing. A recent essay gives us a glimpse of Ozzie’s thinking about the longer-term future. Consider his discussion of “connected devices” beyond the PC:


‘Connected devices’ will also frequently take the form of embedded devices of varying purpose including telemetry & control.  Our world increasingly will be filled with these devices – from the remotely diagnosed elevator, to the sensors on our highways and throughout our environment.  These embedded devices will share a key attribute with non-embedded UI-centric devices:  they’re appliance-like, easily configured, interchangeable and replaceable without loss.

At first blush, this world of continuous services and connected devices doesn’t seem very different than today.  But those who build, deploy and manage today’s websites understand viscerally that fielding a truly continuous service is incredibly difficult and is only achieved by the most sophisticated high-scale consumer websites.  And those who build and deploy application fabrics targeting connected devices understand how challenging it can be to simply & reliably just ‘sync’ or ‘stream’.  To achieve these seemingly simple objectives will require dramatic innovation in human interface, hardware, software and services.

Ozzie is too modest and too cautious to paint a science fiction scenario for us, but it’s not hard to imagine what at least some of these connected devices will look like. Facebook’s goal is to control the social layer of the web. But Microsoft might now be in a position to create something far more important. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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