There is a great scene in the original Karate Kid, where Daniel has had enough with painting Mr. Miyagi’s fences, sanding his floors, and waxing his cars. Daniel believed he was learning nothing of any value, so when Miyagi tells him to return again the following the day, Daniel refuses. What happens next is a classic eighties movie scene, it’s worth catching it again on Youtube.
This scene reminds viewers of the importance of patience, and the need to see potential especially when the immediate rewards aren’t obvious. Steve Jobs alludes to this in his outstanding Stanford speech, when he explains that you can only join the dots looking backwards, not forwards. This notion of everything finally coming together is how I feel about Microsoft this past year.
The Windows Phone
Having watched the MIX keynote where the new phone was finally unveiled, I have to say that this is the first phone since the original iPhone that is genuinely interesting to me. It’s not likely I’ll switch, but credit is due to Microsoft for at least stepping away from the “grid of icons” style interface that the iPhone pioneered. It’s worth noting that this is one occasion where no one is accusing Microsoft of ripping anyone off. This phone didn’t come out of nowhere however, it is a descendent of the Zune, Silverlight, Bing and Surface. Four technologies that, to your average Slashdot reader, seemed about as useful as Daniel learning to wax-on and wax-off.
On the surface
When the Surface was released two years ago it was chastised by the public. The joke at the time was: “Apple and Microsoft both invest in multi-touch technology, Apple release the iPhone, Microsoft release a $15,000 coffee table!”.
But Surface wasn’t about “re-inventing the coffee table”, so much as it was prototyping a vision of the future of computing. There will come a time when “gathering around a laptop” will seem as ridiculous as connecting an ethernet cable; a time when everyone gathers around a multi-user computer to have a meeting or debate a design. With something like surface, Microsoft are preparing for that day.
Baby steps and the Zune
The Zune is criticised for it’s poor market share and is regarded as a failure. It’s important to remember that it took three years for the iPod to get market dominance, and it’ll take a lot longer than that for anyone to make inroads into it. To criticise the Zune for a poor market share misses the point. It’s like criticising a child because its first steps weren’t of olympic standards. By creating the Zune, Microsoft learned how to ship quality hardware, how to create a marketplace, and most importantly by competing in a market with Apple, the entire team had to up their game. For Microsoft the Zune wasn’t so much about the iPod market, as it was developing a product that competes on design, in a well-measured market. The Arc mouse, shown below, is one example of Microsoft flexing it’s new found industrial design muscles.
On Bing and the Web
At the same time, while developing their hardware competency, Microsoft have been busy building Bing as a realistic alternative to Google, Bing Maps as an arguably superior alternative to Google maps and Silverlight as the only viable alternative to Flash. But again, Bing isn’t so much about competing with Google.com as it is about developing search technology (which is used in the new phone), and Silverlight isn’t about beating Flash, more so it’s about a unified approach to building applications on the web, the desktop, the phone, the Surface, and whatever else is to come.
Potential versus Reality
I have no time for those who obsess over potential, giving it equal weight with reality. I admire, respect and buy Apple for what they produce, not any fancy demo videos they post on YouTube.
However the inability to see potential in technology is a poor character trait, especially for anyone claiming to keep up-to-date with technology. Microsoft have been producing products to verify each piece of technology they’re building, and with devices like the new phone they’re demonstrating the potential of their integration.
But Microsoft has spent the last 5 years researching industrial design, UI design, hardware, software, multi touch, voice recognition, gesture recognition, zoomable interfaces, and all the while the tech community can only see a Zune that’s no iPod, a Surface that’s no iPhone, looney image processing techniques that are only useful at a TED talk, and overall a company acting in despair.
Every piece of technology required for Courier has its origins in this research. Add to this what they’ve inevitably learned from other projects such as Natal and you have to conclude that that Microsoft have not been treading water. They’ve been making massive strides, not all of them visible.
You never know which Microsoft is going to show up, however. It could be the team who released slick Arc mice, Windows 7, HD Zunes, and Xbox 360s, or it could be the guys who held Microsoft’s future in their hands, and yet somehow named it “Windows Phone 7 Series”. You simply never know. You’ll just have to come back tomorrow.