Microsoft spent two and a half hours announcing the newest version of Windows, Windows 10, at its campus in Redmond, Washington this week.
That’s a long time. That’s about as long as a “Lord Of The Rings” movie. But Windows 10 doesn’t have the narrative pull or plot twists of “Lord Of The Rings.”
And yet, the traditionally cranky, crabby tech press didn’t seem to mind. In fact, the folks that were dragged to that remote Northwest town of Redmond seemed to — shock — enjoy the presentation.
That’s because at the end of the presentation, Microsoft unveiled a genuine surprise: “Windows Holographic,” which is a new computing platform.
You put on Microsoft’s “HoloLens,” which are goggles with a glass lens in front of them. Through the goggles you see images in front of you that you can manipulate. This is what the HoloLens looks like on people.
Words don’t do it justice, so here’s a GIF to illustrate how it works. With goggles on, you see all sorts of things appear in your world.
Microsoft let the press do a brief demo of the HoloLens, and the initial reactions were overwhelmingly positive.
Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times called it “wondrous,” saying, “it blew me away.”
Our own Matt Rosoff tried them and came away declaring, “I’m convinced that personal computing is on the verge of a major change.”
There was no word on pricing, or a release date for Windows Holographic. So for now, this is mostly just a cool demo of something that could someday be in our homes.
This is a nice win for Microsoft. For years, Microsoft has been the tech industry’s punching bag. It’s been trashed for not being innovative.
Yet it’s always been an innovative company that produced interesting technology products.
In 2013, I was invited to Microsoft’s headquarters for a bunch of briefings with its executives. As part of those briefings, I got an off-the-record look at some of the things Microsoft was developing in its experimental labs.
I don’t think I am breaking any codes or trust by saying the things Microsoft was developing were cool.
And yet, in 2013, Microsoft wasn’t getting any credit from anyone for being a company capable of doing cool stuff. In 2013, all the love went to Google for Google Glass, and other projects coming out of its Google X labs like self-driving cars.
While I was at Microsoft, I said to someone, Why do you think Google gets so much credit for its innovations compared to you, even though you do just as much innovative stuff?
This person speculated that Google was at a different point in its life as a company, where it was rewarded for showing off zany ideas. In 2013, people thought Google could actually accomplish everything it said it could. This person said that at the same period in Microsoft’s corporate life, it was just as proudly ambitious as Google is today. It announced tablet computers, TV stations, and all sorts of other things that ultimately fizzled.
While that might be true, I believe that part of the reason Microsoft didn’t get credit for the innovative things it was doing was that its CEO was Steve Ballmer.
Ballmer is a bombastic, larger-than-life character. He’s also really old-school in his view of technology.
For instance, last October he said Amazon is “not a real business” because it doesn’t make money. This is such an absurd statement it’s hard to believe it’s real. And yet, it is.
Meanwhile, as Ballmer scoffs at Amazon, Amazon’s web-services business is crushing Microsoft, taking away customers, and driving down prices.
This is not some isolated incident from Ballmer. His most famous business gaffe was laughing at the iPhone. When it was first released, Ballmer said: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $US500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.”
Apple is now the most valuable company in the world, and the iPhone is a bigger business than all of Microsoft. The iPhone is expected to generate $US39.6 billion in revenue for the December quarter of 2014. Microsoft is expected to generate $US26.3 billion.
Here’s Ballmer on the iPhone. This video is stunning to watch. It tells you a lot about Ballmer’s Microsoft.
Ballmer is not a dummy. He’s actually whip-smart, and had a mastery of Microsoft’s businesses. But because of his oafish behaviour and his tendency to incorrectly dismiss Microsoft’s biggest rivals, Microsoft itself came to be seen as an uncool, oafish company.
If Ballmer were still the CEO of Microsoft, I believe the press reaction to Windows Holographic would have been completely different. I think it would have been more negative.
But, Microsoft has a new CEO, Satya Nadella. Nadella is more considered in his approach to the business world. He released a touch version of Microsoft Office for the iPad before he released a touch version of Office for Microsoft’s Surface. He’s bridged the divide with long time Ballmer nemesis Salesforce. He’s shut down Microsoft’s hamfisted attack on Google called Scroogled.
And as a result, the perception of Microsoft is changing.
That’s what Windows Holographic is about, more than anything else. It’s Microsoft’s attempt at rewriting the story of Microsoft. Microsoft no longer wants to be seen as a lumbering dinosaur. It believes (correctly) that it can innovate as rapidly as Google. And it believes it deserves credit for inventing the future just as much as any other major technology company.
Windows Holographic might be a great product. It might be a dud. It doesn’t matter right now. What matters right now is that people see what Microsoft is capable of doing.
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