Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft's Future Is ... Robotics?

Mary Jo talks with Microsoft about a world of robots.

While I'm a fan of futuristic/geeky projects as much as anyone, I just didn't feel all that wowed about Microsoft's announcement earlier this summer (late June) that it was launching a development platform for folks building robots. That is, until I had a chance to chat with Tandy Trower, the general manager in charge of the Microsoft Robotics Studio product.

Microsoft historians may know Trower as a 24-year-plus Microsoft veteran who has worked on a variety of Microsoft projects, ranging from Visual Basic to Microsoft Agent technology. He has also served as a member of Chairman Bill Gates' strategic planning staff during his tenure. It was in that capacity that Trower discovered the robotics community and its growing prominence in the tech landscape.

"There were a number of robotics community leaders coming to us saying they wanted to interact with us," Trower says. "Bill asked me to spend several months with the leaders and find out what was going on."

Trower found that the robotics community was keen on welcoming Microsoft as an active participant. Two years ago, he assembled a 60-page document on the state of the robotics industry and formulated a number of plans that Microsoft potentially could pursue in this space.

After reading Trower's findings, Gates and his research lieutenants, Rick Rashid and Craig Mundie, all agreed that Microsoft needed to jump on the robotics bandwagon. They decided to allow Trower to create a robotics project that would be incubated inside Microsoft Research.

Trower and his team of nine began building a programming model/framework that would be of use to developers working on anything from a Lego robot to an industrial-scale robot. In October, the team showed off to Gates what they were building. On June 20, Trower's band introduced the first Community Technology Preview (CTP) test build of that framework.

What's interesting is that the new robotics programming framework is based on many of the distributed programming model techniques developed by the BigTop/BigWin team. That was another incubated project, favored by Mundie, which aimed to deliver a grid computing-based operating system. While Microsoft is mum on the status of this skunk-works effort, I've heard from sources that the company decided to kill off BigTop earlier this year. But it seems that the spirit of BigTop lives on in Microsoft's Robotics Studio.

What persuaded the Microsoft power elite, which had just shunned a grid-computing initiative, to back Trower's robotics play? Two words: The future. Trower believes that robots are the natural successor to PCs, and he's convinced his bosses to adopt his view, or so it would appear.

To make it happen, Trower knows that robots must evolve beyond the limited capabilities they possess today. The new programming framework coming out of the Robotics effort is intended to do just that.

"It goes beyond robotics. There are implications for other areas," he says.

The framework could help Microsoft and others develop "remote presence" kinds of applications that could, for instance, help monitor aging adults who need around-the-clock care, Trower says, via some kind of "telepresence devices." Robotics programmers could develop new kinds of security sensors or maintenance applications for mundane chores, such as cutting lawns and cleaning pools.

While the Robotics Design Studio is Microsoft-developed code, the company is taking pains to make it work with non-Microsoft languages including JavaScript, Carnegie Mellon's Alice language and others, Trower says.

"The perception is that Microsoft focuses only on our core businesses," Trower notes. "Robotics is still five to 10 years away from realizing its full potential, but Microsoft's executives understand this. This is an investment in the future."

Indeed it is. And the future, at least according to Microsoft, can be boiled down to one word. Robotics. Do you think the Redmondites are right? Or are they off on a wild goose chase? Write to me at mjfoley@redmondmag.com.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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