From when I joined Microsoft in 1997 until I left in 2004, and even since then (but especially during the heady days of the DOJ lawsuit), accusations flew fast and furious accusing Microsoft of misusing the word “innovation”, that Microsoft couldn’t innovate, or didn’t innovate.
To a large part, I don’t agree with that. Sure, you can say that Windows Phone 7 was a reaction to the iPhone and Android, but it wasn’t a clone, and it attempts to offer a unique usability value proposition versus iOS or Android. Even Windows 8 and the WinRT framework, while in some ways surely inspired by the iPad, it does so in a unique way as well, and will likely be seen in a diverse breadth of devices, versus the iPad’s “one size device fits all” strategy.
However, the past is littered with what I have sometimes referred to as “premature innovation”. Technologies created by Microsoft (or sometimes acquired by Microsoft) way ahead of their time. So far ahead, in fact that to many people, they don’t make sense – and as a result, either die on the vine or fail to sustain themselves in the market after release.
Voice (1995-Present) – TTS and SAPI. Do those mean anything to you? They do to me. Text To Speech and the Microsoft Speech API. Before I joined Microsoft in 1997, I built a PC for the first time. It had a sound card, a horrible microphone, and some speakers I had kept from an old Acer. At Slate, I helped build a custom audio version of Slate, generated using text to speech. It was shelved after I left since it sounded so robotic. Microsoft has been beating the speech and text recognition drums for decades, only to see Siri, a quirky, accent-fussy smart agent (there’s a term you probably haven’t seen in a while) steal any and all thunder that Microsoft had even thought of years before, but not in a mobile context. Speech is complicated. Speech recognition (hearing) and text to speech (speaking) are also two separate problems. Microsoft has moved these so far forward since 1997, it’s truly amazing. But frankly we’re still at a point where text to speech still results in inhuman vocalization (“Robby the Robot”, as Kinsley called it at Slate), and speech recognition is most usable for short form commands (Siri, or Sync), not reciting out a novel. SAPI was also used by the Microsoft Agent technology derived from Microsoft Bob (another conversation for another time), and is still used by Speech Server. The emphasis of Microsoft’s speech technology development appears to be on the server side today, but SAPI still works on client operating systems.
Killer? Not dead.What has held it back? Processing power, and the fact that computers interacting with speech is just a complicated problem.
WebTV (1997-~2002) – In 1997, Microsoft acquired WebTV for $425M. The idea of the Web on television surely appealed to many, and when combined with a DVR, conceptually made sense. But the fact that Web content for WebTV was custom, the amount of the Web actually available, and then how usable it actually was, given the state of televisions in the late 1990’s, led to low adoption. Today, the product is effectively dead. Yet here we are, 15 years later, and Google is still trying to resuscitate the idea, with multimedia content and apps intertwined. If Microsoft had run a different course with WebTV, it could have possibly gone further and might be something today. What’s left of WebTV? Well, in many ways, WebTV was the progenitor of UltimateTV and Mediaroom (the IPTV infrastructure solution licensed from Microsoft for BT, DT, AT&T U-verse, and several other telephony-based broadcast solutions. Not dead, but not mainstream, and most people wouldn’t ever associate Mediaroom with WebTV.
Killer? TV resolution, need for custom content, lack of broadband, lack of ubiquitous streaming video standard.
Mira (2002-2003) – One of my favorites, because I held out so much hope for it. You don’t remember Mira? Mira, also called a “Smart Display” as Mira was a code-name, was an attempt to create a tablet-style computer that you could use anywhere, but that featured the power of your Windows desktop. Using wireless connectivity, you can undock your “Smart Display” and take it with you around the house, using Windows Remote Desktop from the version of Windows CE built into the device. In many ways, Mira was cursed to begin with. Due to the state of technologies at the time (wireless, LCD displays, memory, CPUs), it was far too expensive in 8″, 10″, or 15″ models. It also couldn’t serve as your primary monitor because it was both too small, and when you disconnected it, nobody else could use the PC, since there was no monitor. Even if you had another monitor, because Windows client operating systems have only ever allowed one interactive user at a time (a rule that was bent for Media Center Extenders, which enabled more than one interactive user at a time, but in a very fixed function user interface), it was still limited to a single user at a time. Mira shipped, and you can even find used models around (that still cost too much, frankly). You could build Smart Displays today and, if packaged well, might even sell. But I’m not sure users today would want tablets that require a tether to a Windows PC in their home, as well as the difference between useful tablets (7″-11″) and home displays (generally 19″+).
Killer? Cost of components, lack of ubiquitous wireless home networking, windows single interactive user limitation, and frankly, a confusing use case.
Tablet PCs (2000-Present) – Mira was in many ways an early, and yet late, foray into tablets for Microsoft. Tablet PC Edition was, of course, the big coming-out party for Microsoft. Like Mira, Tablet PC was significantly more than a traditional laptop, yet often required a compromise in display size or performance. It also required significant buy-in from the user in pen-based input. Ink searchability has gotten significantly better over time, but like voice, pen/digital ink still isn’t a way to write voluminous amounts of text. Tablet PC predated the iPad by almost a decade. Yet Tablet PC sold at a trickle, while the iPad has established a distinct market niche. Why did it fail? The exclusive bet on ink, while not evangelizing a framework for tablet-centric apps (the opposite tact of what we see happening with WinRT, where the framework, not the device, is the most important aspect), but again, cost was a huge factor. Consumers wouldn’t choose a Tablet PC over a traditional laptop, and while IT pros might, it was often a hard argument to make in procurement, “I need to pay more for a computer so I can use a pen”. I experienced that one myself. Pen-based Tablet PCs are still around today, bought by users specifically looking for them, and sold into verticals such as the medical industry or into other industries with specific point-of-service needs.
Killer? Not dead, but undergoing fundamental transition with Windows 8). Pen focus wasn’t on target. Pen input simply isn’t for every person, or for every task. Touch+pen may prove to be a strong selling point to Windows 8 tablets. What kept it on the sidelines for 10 years? High cost, pen focus, and confusing use case.
Reader (2000-2011) – The item that triggered this whole post was yesterday’s Apple announcement. Microsoft pre-dates Apple with eBooks. REALLY pre-dates it. I was lucky enough to work with the guys on the Reader team back in 2000, as we created a version of Slate for use with the Microsoft Reader software on Windows CE devices and Windows itself. Reader was eBooks before eBooks were cool.
Killer? You can pin the death on several things, but I believe fundamental problems were content acquisition and a lack of truly compelling form factors for eBooks. Windows itself makes for a reasonable reading format, but for the best display, ClearType in Windows relied upon LCD displays, which were not ubiquitous when it arrived – and reading a book at your desk isn’t always what you want to do. Conversely, Windows CE had clear, color screens, well ahead of Palm. But the devices were very expensive PDAs, in a niche of the market – and the small screens were hardly ideal for voluminous reading. I think the timing of Reader’s death was bad – as the lack of compelling reading content without relying on Amazon or other content partners won’t be a good selling feature for smaller Windows 8 tablets.
- application information
- profile information
- favorite websites
- wallet storage
Yes, that’s right. The 11 year old specification for .NET My Services is like the back-end API if you wanted to build your own version of Facebook. I’m not the only person to think that .NET My Services was ahead of it’s time.
Killer? Paranoia, development complexity (SOAP). Though the paranoia side may have not gone away, I have to wonder if Microsoft were to resuscitate .NET My Services all over again, with a REST-based framework instead of SOAP, if developers would be more interested. Problem is, it’s still a lot of work, and relies on the user base to fuel it. May be too late to try, since Facebook has such a hold on the “personal social networking” market today.
There’s a whole other series of “premature innovation” I could speak to in MSN back in the last century and early in the last decade – but to keep your sanity, I’ll save that for now, and perhaps do another blog post in the future on that.