Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft's Device Future Will Include Big Displays

It's not jut Xbox consoles and tablets -- Microsoft also has it's eye on PPI displays (and they'll play into Redmond's services aspirations, as well).

Microsoft's turn-the-ship ambitions to remake itself as a devices and services company are well-known at this point. But "devices" doesn't mean Surface tablet/PC hybrids and Xbox consoles only.

There's a whole other category of devices that have caught the fancy of more than a few teams at Microsoft: Perceptive Pixel Inc. (PPI) displays. Microsoft bought PPI in the summer of 2012.

PPI devices aren't the same as the table-size devices formerly known as Surface that are now Samsung SUR40s using Microsoft PixelSense technology (for those trying to keep up with the Redmond name games).

The PPI displays are large (up to 82 inches), multi-touch, capacitive-pen-enabled glass screens that the 'Softies seem to believe will become an integral part of many users' home and work experiences in the not-too-distant future.

PPI's hardware has traditionally cost upward of $80,000. Microsoft officials said last year they were exploring ways to make the displays more affordable. The 'Softies also said they were considering whether to use OEMs to produce the devices or whether to add these kinds of displays to the increasingly longer list of Microsoft-branded hardware.

A number of the company's top brass, from CEO Steve Ballmer on down, regularly boast about the PPI displays hanging in their offices. When Microsoft bought PPI, the team was folded into the Office division. Given that tie-in, it's probably not too surprising that it's the Office team that's pushing the hardest on integrating PPI devices into every possible business scenario.

The Office team looks at PPI displays as key to improving collaboration and meetings. Pens and fingers, in Microsoft's new grand view, are both worthy natural UI (NUI) weapons. What makes OneNote even more compelling? Using it in conjunction with others on the big screen. What makes Lync livelier? Messaging and chatting with colleagues displayed larger than life. And what makes teaming on a PowerPoint presentation or Excel spreadsheet more useful? Swiping them up on a large display.

But the new Microsoft doesn't want to be just a devices company; it's also striving to be a services player. The big PPI displays figure into this aspirational view, too.

In Microsoft's recently revamped Envisioning Center, PPI displays are featured throughout the space where Microsoft shows customers, partners and other interested parties pre-orchestrated possible home/work scenarios that company execs believe could materialize in the next three to 10 years.

In these scenarios, sometimes PPI displays become desks. Other times they look more like entire interactive glass walls. Whatever their size, they function as kiosks where users can create and consume all kinds of cloud services. Big data -- hosted or purchased via the cloud -- becomes easier to analyze when it's dissected on a big display. Augmented-reality tools and voice-powered personal assistants become conduits for accessing more information stored in the cloud. At the Envisioning Center, nearly all the PPIs already have Kinect sensors built right into their bezels, making gestures yet another way to potentially interact with back-end services.

Yes, a lot of this is pie in the sky. Predicting what will be popular technology-wise in three to 10 years is quite the gamble. That said, I have a prediction of my own: We aren't going to have to wait much beyond 2013 to see Microsoft start putting the hard sell on PPI displays. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see some PPI-optimized features show up in new iterations of Office 365 this year.

Microsoft is increasingly keen on aping Apple and Google. However, Microsoft management hasn't totally abandoned the idea of trying to beat the competition in being first to new markets. None of Microsoft's archrivals is jumping feet-first into the big display space the way Microsoft is right now. It'll be interesting to see if Microsoft is -- as it has been repeatedly throughout the years -- too early to capitalize on its head start.

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's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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