Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft and the 'Internet of Things'

Mary Jo Foley on how understanding this concept puts Microsoft's future Windows Phone strategy into perspective.

Microsoft is a big believer in the importance of a concept called the "Internet of Things." I didn't realize why until the recent Nokia World conference. There, I experienced one of those "aha!" moments that helped me understand Microsoft's thinking.

The idea of the Internet of Things is shorthand for the concept that the number of smart devices is multiplying. Because it develops and sells several flavors of embedded Windows, Microsoft has a vested interest in seeing these kinds of devices proliferate. The company collects licensing fees on every copy of Windows Embedded and Windows Compact Embedded that it sells to OEMs.

But the 'Softies have other reasons for wanting to foster networks of intelligent devices of all kinds. Many, if not all, of these devices include sensors that allow the generation, collection and transmission of all kinds of data. Microsoft is building a number of its other products -- including SQL Server, System Center and even Bing -- to be able to store, manage and synthesize data from these intelligent devices.

What does all that sensory input get Microsoft, beyond a heck of a pool of big data? It provides the company with information it can use to make other products able to interact more intelligently in the real world. In other words, it's not so interesting that the devices in our world are getting more intelligent. But it's compelling that these smart devices are creating a network of datapoints that the 'Softies and their partners, as well as customers, can tap into and build on.

This point was driven home to me at Nokia World 2011 during a session on location-aware commerce. Nokia Executive Vice President for Location and Commerce Michael Halbherr showed off a capability that will let smartphone users to obtain locally relevant information. The functionality provides everything from whether there are any restaurants nearby that the user's friends liked (or that are similar to other restaurants the user frequents), to what time the next bus or train to the user's next destination will depart.

What makes these kinds of sci-fi-like scenarios possible is sensor data, and lots of it. Windows Phone devices, street signs, busses, appliances, gas-tank meters -- all kinds of "things" are going to include embedded sensors that constantly send and receive data. Using big-data analytics tools, Microsoft and other tech companies will be able to make sense of all these inputs and harness the information they provide to make the user experience richer.

In the extreme, this will enable the kinds of future computing experiences that currently are nothing but cool concepts in Microsoft "envisioning" videos.

I've seen Microsoft Research demos of augmented reality, via which a smartphone user can call up art gallery hours or restaurant menus while panning a local street. I've always thought those kinds of capabilities were still a decade away. But based on what I saw and heard at Nokia World, I'd say Microsoft and its partners see these capabilities as attainable in a much shorter term. In fact, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop has been touting for the past couple of months how Nokia's camera expertise may translate into advances in augmented-reality work.

I'm curious as to what kinds of sensor intelligence beyond the camera Nokia is bringing to its Microsoft partnership that could hasten and improve localization or local search on mobile phones. After all, Microsoft isn't the only one gaining from the billion-plus dollars it shelled out to Nokia in exchange for Nokia going with Windows Phone. Microsoft is getting something back, too. We just know less about that part of the equation -- for now.



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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