Microsoft’s Research arm, which spends much of its time pursuing “moonshot” projects, created a home automation software product before both Apple and Google did, but never capitalised on the idea.
The software, named HomeOS, was just that: an operating system for the home. The website is still available to view (but hasn’t been updated since 2012), complete with demo videos that show something that it had real potential and is very similar to today’s products.
Business Insider spoke to several of those involved with the project, which started in 2010, about why HomeOS was never turned into a real-life product.
The reason, according to multiple sources, is simple: ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
Ballmer was, according to those who worked for him, a genius at the things he knew: enterprise, the cloud, and productivity. This is why, even as Microsoft missed smartphones and tablets, the company continued to excel at persuading big businesses to give it money, offering them compelling office-focused software in return.
One of of the people who worked on HomeOS at Microsoft Research told Business Insider that HomeOS was, first and foremost, a research project to see just what was possible with home automation. “It was a project,” he said. “We did research projects all the time.” When BI asked them why this project — which is now an area Apple and Google have invested in — was never turned into a reality he hesitated … and then mentioned Ballmer.
Microsoft declined to comment when reached by Business Insider.
Other sources, who agreed to speak anonymously, were more explicit, arguing that Ballmer was so focused on other things — mainly pleasing enterprise clients — that he missed the opportunity that was in front of him.
“Steve did not capitalise on what was there,” said one source. “It’s a shame because it could have been quite big.”
The demo videos, which are available on YouTube, show a smartphone app that is programmable: a user can set certain things into action, depending on events. Opening a door can trigger a light, for example. It’s easy to see how this idea, with a little nurturing, could have become a consumer home automation product.
“Looking at Apple and Google now, I’m sort of annoyed we didn’t do that,” said another source. “It’s very similar technology.” This person, who wished to remain anonymous, again named Ballmer when asked why it didn’t happen.
Microsoft has missed many opportunities over the years, often by being too early.
Apple got serious about home automation with iOS 9, adding a software called HomeKit that can connect with third-party hardware to control anything, such as locks or lamps. Google’s Project Brillo launched in May 2015, offering a similar set of features for Android users.
Microsoft, if the vision had been there, could have pre-empted the market by at least three years and would now be sitting on a product that consumers wanted to use.
Another source was more forgiving of Ballmer, arguing that HomeOS didn’t fit in with Microsoft’s vision. Except, it does. The aim of Windows 10 is to be on one billion devices, and adding homes to that list would have made the job slightly easier.
Giving Ballmer the benefit of the doubt is hard, argued one source, as he missed so many other opportunities. “Do smartphones not fit into Microsoft’s vision?” the source asked rhetorically.
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