Foley on Microsoft

C'mon, Microsoft: Does Everyone Really Need 3D?

If Microsoft doesn't want to lose enterprise support for Windows 10, it might need to pump the 3D brakes just a bit.

Contrary to its reputation, Microsoft isn't always a follower. In many cases, Redmond has been and remains too far ahead of the curve in introducing new products.

There's no shortage of examples of lateness causing turmoil for the company, its partners and customers. Exhibit A: Windows Phones were too little, too late. As a result, Microsoft is now on the "make iOS and Android great again" bandwagon. Others include the original tablet PCs, the Kinect motion sensor for Xboxes and PCs, and the "metro-style" GUI in Windows 8.

Lately, I've felt like Microsoft is veering too far into the "too early" category on more than a few fronts.

Microsoft came strong out of the gate with its Cortana voice assistant. But its mobile phone and fitness Band missteps, plus the lack of anything like an Echo or Google Home device, has left it trailing in terms of third-party skills and device support. The first OEM-made Cortana-enabled devices, the Harman-Kardon Invoke speaker and Johnson Controls GLAS smart thermostat, are due later this year.

Then there's HoloLens, which leap-frogged its tethered virtual-reality competition when it was first announced in 2015. The HoloLens augmented reality goggles continued to lead the way when they debuted with support for a handful of targeted business scenarios in 2016.

By mid-2016, however, Microsoft was dialing things back. The company had decided to pass on delivering a new HoloLens model in early 2017, with sources whispering that the next HoloLens -- which will feature an AI processor -- is looking like late 2018 or maybe even early 2019. In its place, Microsoft execs started talking up mixed reality -- a far less ambitious and more price-friendly approach that seems to me (and a number of my colleagues) to be a solution in search of a problem.

Another related area where Microsoft is pushing full steam ahead but to questionable avail is 3D. The Windows and Devices division has a team initiative known as "3D for Everyone." Its mission is to get users onboard with the idea of creating and consuming 3D objects as the norm.

Microsoft is promoting 3D as a key differentiator for Windows 10. It has made 3D-centric experiences such as "Paint 3D," the-still missing-in-action "Capture 3D" mobile app, the "Story Remix" photo/video app and the Remix3D.com content-sharing site its new attractions. Microsoft is trying to move the 3D ball into the business court, as well, by adding support for adding and editing 3D objects to Word, Excel and PowerPoint by year's end.

HoloLens, mixed reality and 3D for Everyone aren't entirely just demoware. Microsoft is all-in here; the company is hiring lots of people with expertise in these spaces. Company brass seems to genuinely believe that if it creates 3D worlds, users -- and OEM partners who are interested in selling the pricier higher-end PCs, consoles and peripherals needed for these experiences -- will come.

Some consider HoloLens and mixed-reality devices to be "aspirational." I've heard a number of company watchers say that Microsoft isn't actually counting on these to become cash cows. Instead, it's showing the world it still has some innovative tricks up its sleeve. Tech companies can't rest on their laurels. It takes years of planning, development and prototyping before something new is ready for its close-up.

But focusing too much on the future can leave companies with some big blind spots.

It's still astounding to me that Microsoft -- which continues to make most of its money from business users -- released Windows 8 as a touch-first OS. The thinking was that the world was going touch-crazy, with every­thing from phones and ATMs to tablets and home electronics being touch-first if not touch-only. But the majority of Microsoft's user base was -- and remains -- dedicated keyboard and mouse users for whom touch was a nicety at best, and a nuisance at worst.

I'm not predicting that HoloLens and 3D for Everyone will become Microsoft's next Windows 8. But it's important that even a company with a (at least partially undeserved) rep for being slow out of the gate doesn't rush into a future it hopes will come to pass while leaving its core user base behind.

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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