Holograms suddenly make Microsoft cool again

An onstage HoloLens demo.


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If Microsoft ever needed a dose of the cool, it’s now. Fortunately, the company seems to have gotten the message.

The company’s rollout yesterday of a slew of new features for Windows 10 includes some pretty nifty features — and at least one big surprise.

In addition to a bunch of expected features (such as a single operating system that unifies Windows on tablets and PCs with its phone and the expected addition of the virtual voice-activated assistant Cortana), Microsoft showed off one especially cool thing: Its HoloLens, an augmented-reality headset that superimposes virtual “holographs” over the real world.

Another sign of coolness and integration: Microsoft said yesterday that people who had bought Xbox games would be able to play them on their Windows 10 PCs and tablets, too. If you’re a gamer, that’s pretty cool — and it helps to better integrate Xbox into Microsoft’s overall ecosystem.

The HoloLens has multiple sensors and a custom Microsoft chip called a Holographic Processing Unit to help it understand what you’re looking at and where you are in space. It’s connected to a new Microsoft product called Windows Holographic, which extends that augmented-reality capability to all Windows users. Holographic application programming interfaces (APIs) will be embedded within Windows 10.

Rather than a virtual-reality headset like the Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR, which block out the real world and replace it with a virtual one, the HoloLens add things to the real world that only you can see: Virtual display screens on walls, 3D objects you can model on your desktop with hand gestures, or playful little sprites that dance around your furniture as part of a game you’re playing with them.

The videos demonstrating the system are impressive, even if they leave me wondering whether anyone would actually want to use an interface like this once the novelty wears off.

But more important, it shows that Microsoft under Satya Nadella is finally starting to figure out how to pull together its considerable assets into a single, more cohesive whole. That’s something the company has struggled with for years.

“We want to move from people needing Windows, to choosing Windows, to loving Windows,” Nadella said yesterday. “That is our bold goal with Windows.”

Now, Microsoft has never exactly been “cool.” Even Bill Gates became a lot cooler when he left the company he founded, and that’s saying a lot. But with a mature OS business, threats from gigantic competitors, and a lackluster reputation among techies, coolness might be just what Microsoft needs.

As I wrote in October, Microsoft’s last big OS launch wasn’t exactly spectacular. Windows 8 was an ambitious attempt to introduce a new, touch-centric interface while maintaining compatibility with the massive number of old, keyboard-and-mouse Windows applications out there. It didn’t quite flop, selling 200 million copies in its first 15 months, but Microsoft hasn’t released any sales figures for the OS since February, and this is never a good sign. (If sales were good, Microsoft would be bragging about them.)

Worse, Windows 8 (including its incremental upgrade, 8.1) barely shows up in a measure of what kinds of computers people are using to access the Internet. That’s one way of finding out what kinds of computers people are actually using, and the signs aren’t good. Windows 8 and 8.1 currently account for about 12.5 percent of the computers connecting to the Internet, according to NetMarketShare. Windows 7, by contrast, accounts for more than half of the browsing public — while Microsoft’s ancient and long-obsolete OS, Windows XP, still holds more than 24 percent.

Microsoft bet big on the tablet interface with Windows 8, hoping to cash in on the increasing coolness of tablets from 2010-2012, but its bet failed. The new interface was too confusing for people — and tablet sales have actually slackened a bit, suggesting that Microsoft’s bet was poorly timed.

One cautionary note: People — including me — have been making dire predictions about Microsoft for years. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that more than 85 percent of the desktop computers people are using, according to that NetMarketShare data, are running Microsoft operating systems. (And desktop computers still account for more than 80 percent of overall browsing activity, while tablets and mobile phones have less than 20 percent.) With billions of Windows licenses out there, and robust businesses based on Office, Azure, Xbox, and more, Microsoft isn’t going to quietly fade away any time soon.

But if it can’t capture some of the cool factor, it will have a hard time inspiring employees and customers, and Microsoft will face a long, slow battle against companies like Google and Apple that don’t have such difficulties. That will, over time, erode the company’s dominance, no matter how much of a lead it has now.

Is this week’s news enough to save the company from a long, slow decline into irrelevance? Let’s be clear: The HoloLens alone won’t make the difference between Microsoft undergoing a renaissance and Microsoft fading into a comfortable obscurity.

But as a sign of the company’s more strategic, integrated thinking, it’s promising indeed. And a little cool factor doesn’t hurt at all.


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Holograms suddenly make Microsoft cool again

Dylan’s Desk: The best of CES, from selfie sticks to smoke alarms

Look at these people using a selfie stick. They're so happy!

What will be hot in consumer electronics and computing in 2015? Read VB’s full coverage of International CES 2015 to find out.

The best things at CES, an annual festival of consumer electronics and excess in Las Vegas, were not what you’d expect. Giant televisions were everywhere, of course, along with the usual forest of cellphone cases, Apple product knockoffs, tablets no one wants, and cheap cameras.

But what I was most excited about were a handful of products that people will actually use.

Disclaimer: I didn’t go to CES myself. For the third year in a row I’ve escaped the mayhem by sending less jaded members of the VentureBeat news team to Vegas. But as a longtime gadget nerd, I wasn’t able to peel my eyes away from the ongoing spectacle, even from afar.

Here’s what CES tells us to look for in 2015.

Selfie sticks

There will be more selfie sticks. And, just as we did with people taking photos with their iPads, techies will mock them. But, just as with iPad photography, the joke will be on us. Because selfie sticks are genuinely useful — they are a simple hack, an inexpensive gadget that lets people take better photos. And not only solo selfies, but group shots — which means selfie sticks are in fact a very pro-social invention.

Over the holidays I walked past a group of three young women on the San Francisco waterfront, obviously all friends, each taking her own individual selfie with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Each one held her own individual phone and gave it her own individual fake, selfie smile. It was so sad. What these women needed was a selfie stick.

USB Type C

The people who designed the original USB plug specifications should be forced to spend their retirement years doing jigsaw puzzles, because that’s what I feel like every time I try to plug something in. Who in their right minds thought it was a good idea to create a plug-and-port combo that is asymmetrical, but looks entirely symmetrical? It’s even worse given that many USB ports — in the past anyway — were situated on the backs of computers, in the dark, against the wall, where you can only feel your way to them. This disaster of industrial engineering has been pithily summarized with a graphic explaining how you need to rotate USB plugs three times before they work, which is explained by reference to quantum physics.

Enough complaining, though: USB Type C fixes this problem by making a USB port that is, at last, symmetrical — so it doesn’t matter which way you put the plug in. HALLELUJAH!

As a bonus, USB-C recognizes that people use USB as a power port as much as — if not more than — they use it as a data connection. So the new spec can deliver electricity in both directions: You can use a USB-C port on your computer to power up a phone, or you can connect a power adapter and use it to power up your computer. Slick! I can’t wait.

Terrycloth gadgets

FashionComm's terrycloth wearable.

This fitness gadget embedded in a terrycloth sweatband may be the most ridiculous-looking thing that Harrison Weber put on his body at CES — and he put a lot of things on his body. I personally think it’s incredibly ugly.

But the terrycloth is a sign that gadget makers no longer have to limit themselves to hard plastic thingies. If fitness gadgets are huge this year — and they probably will be — why not make them comfortable to wear? Why not start incorporating materials that feel good against your skin, like cotton, silk, and fleece?

The real problem with this dorky “smart sweatband” is not the terrycloth, it’s the protruding screen. That part needs to disappear.

Quantum dots

The problem with quantum dots is their name. As I was describing them to a new acquaintance earlier this week, he pointed this problem out. He said, “Every time you said the word ‘quantum dot,’ I imagine the word ‘asshole’ appearing across your forehead.” And you know what? He’s right. It’s one of the most ridiculous-sounding tech marketing terms to come out since “deep learning.”

But quantum dots are the rare example of a TV technology that you might actually want. (Unlike 3D TV.) It’s a technique for illuminating an LCD screen’s pixels with brighter, more natural light than you can get with the usual LED backlights. Quantum dots could make screens that are almost as vivid and gorgeous as OLED screens, and which use less power than current LCDs, but which are much more cost efficient. I want one.

Washing machines, door locks, and smoke alarms

Gadget bloggers made fun of Samsung and LG when they announced new washing machines. I made fun of LG when it touted a “smart refrigerator” last year. But LG and Samsung will have the last laugh, because they will sell billions of dollars worth of these appliances — since such appliances actually do something useful.

You can forget about the ugly phrase “Internet of Things” and its even uglier abbreviation, “IoT.” The sooner we leave these terms behind, the better. What they’re really about is connecting ordinary gadgets to the Internet, giving them IP addresses and APIs. Forget putting a screen on your fridge. Nest (now owned by Google) has the right idea about how to incorporate home appliances into the Internet: Give a gadget a modicum of intelligence, get it on the Internet (maybe by using Nest as the central hub), and let it communicate with an app on your phone.

I don’t need a dishwasher that can talk to me. It doesn’t need to use neural networks to figure out the optimal time to wash my dishes. Just a little bit of intelligence — like letting me monitor its energy and water consumption via my phone — would be enough to make me happy.

Dylan’s Desk: The best of CES, from selfie sticks to smoke alarms

Dylan’s Desk: Four trends to watch in the coming year

Happy New Year, dear readers.

It’s the traditional time for journalists to take a look at the past year, extend the trendlines forward, and make some predictions about how the coming year will play out.

Unfortunately, journalists’ track record on that score is not so great.

For instance, three years ago, I predicted five gadgets would dominate headlines in 2013: the Lytro camera, the Kindle Fire 2, the Tesla Model S, Nokia’s Lumia phone, and Apple’s iTV television set. Of those five, only one did really well — the Tesla — while the Kindle Fire took its sweet time about becoming a big deal, really taking off only in 2014. Lytro is all but out of business, Nokia sold itself to Microsoft after failing to take the world by storm, and Apple’s long-awaited television still doesn’t even exist.

In my defense, I’ll say this: All five were really cool ideas. But sometimes “cool” isn’t enough to make a product a stunning market success, or even a reality.

I also predicted, way back in 2000, that by 2010 we’d have glasses with heads-up displays capable of identifying people’s faces for us. I had no idea it would be Google bringing us that futuristic vision, of course, and I was off by a few years, as it turns out. Still — not bad, eh?

So with that mixed record in mind, I’m making these cautious predictions about what trends to watch in 2015. All four of these are pretty solid bets, I believe. Still, take my words with a grain of salt.

And I’ll see you in 2016.

Apple Watch

Apple has said that it would release its wearable device in early 2015.

When it comes out, the Apple Watch will be a significant test of the market’s appetite for smart watches. Its specifications put it miles ahead of any other wearable currently on the market, including as it does both fitness-monitoring features (including heart rate sensors) and smartphone-extending features (like wrist interfaces to popular apps, text messaging, phone calling, and so forth). But even more significantly, it includes support for Apple Pay, which promises to let people pay for stuff they’re buying at a store just by tapping their wrist against an NFC reader next to the cash register.

The Apple Watch has a couple of big strikes against it: At $350, it’s expensive; and it requires an iPhone 5S or later to work. As we saw in 2014, the iPhone has a shrinking share of the smartphone market, and that limits the potential audience for the watch by a lot.

My prediction: The Apple Watch will sell well, but not stunningly, in 2014. It won’t make a major difference to Apple’s revenues. But it will spur a lot more competition from other makers of wearables, particularly fitness bands and smart watches. And if Apple releases a second version, it’ll be sleeker, better-designed, and more successful in the market in 2016.

Virtual reality

Facebook turned virtual reality into a big thing this year by acquiring VR headset maker Oculus for $2 billion. Google responded with a $500 million investment of its own into VR company Magic Leap. Even Apple may be eyeing the VR market. Samsung has its own phablet-based VR system called Gear VR, and the Oculus development kit works with Samsung’s hardware.

None of these products are shipping in volume yet. The Samsung device is geared toward developers and early adopters (and is sold out of most outlets), while Oculus has been shipping developer-only kits for awhile. The demos are impressive, but we’re still at the stage where manufacturers are honing the experience and developers are busy creating content. In other words, early days.

I expect a lot to happen in virtual reality in 2015. Both Samsung’s and Facebook’s headset products should be more widely available in the coming year. While they’re going to find almost all of their initial usage by gamers, there are rich possibilities beyond video games. VR-based social media interactions (3D avatar, anyone?) are undoubtedly a big part of why Facebook was interested in Oculus. And there are possibilities for futuristic Minority Report-style interfaces implemented through VR goggles instead of big, expensive displays.

Still, growth will be slow, largely because of the expense of these devices, the fact that it will take time to develop much VR-optimized content, and the fact that you look really dorky when wearing a VR headset.

My prediction: Everyone will be talking about VR in 2015, but it won’t find major market traction until 2016 or later.

IPOs

The definition of a “startup” has expanded to realms not seen since 2000. Uber and Xiaomi, the latest beneficiaries of venture capitalists’ largesse, have valuations of $41 billion and $46 billion, respectively, according to the Wall Street Journal’s chart of billion-dollar startups. To date they’ve raised $2.8 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively.

With valuations like that, there’s only one realistic exit that will generate acceptable returns for these companies’ investors, and that’s an initial public offering. Both companies are well-positioned for an IPO, and in both cases the IPOs are likely to push their valuations into the $100 billion range, at least temporarily, satisfying investors and adding to the companies’ war chests.

The next tier of companies in the billion-dollar club is slightly more complicated. Dropbox, Airbnb, and Snapchat are all valued at about $10 billion. The first two are IPO candidates in 2015, but Snapchat remains essentially revenue-free. Unless the public markets have started to succumb to the same kind of madness they spiraled into in the late 1990s, that means Snapchat’s probably not a good IPO candidate in 2015. Groupon ($GRPN) and Zynga ($ZNGA) have both gone public in the past few years despite sketchy revenues, and both have been heavily punished by the stock market. So if Snapchat does try to IPO, everyone will be watching it closely for signs of irrational exuberance.

My prediction: Uber and Xiaomi IPOs will contribute to talk of a bubble, but don’t worry — the actual bubble is elsewhere.

Big data

Big data tools like Hadoop have finally hit the mainstream, as the IT world undergoes a once-in-a-decade architectural shift, this time moving toward clustered servers and distributed computing, storage, and network resources. But it’s the applications of big data that VentureBeat will be watching most closely, as data analysis tools enable companies to understand their markets and customers better than before, conduct ever-more-targeted marketing campaigns, and make more informed decisions than ever.

VentureBeat has a particular focus on marketing tech thanks to our new research arm, VB Insight. We’ll also be talking about these technologies at many of our upcoming events, starting with our Mobile Summit in February. But this isn’t just a VentureBeat thing: We’re focusing on marketing tech because it’s an expanding industry, with thousands of companies competing for attention, lots of confusion, and lots of complexity — yet it’s one where making the right technology choices can have a huge impact on your company’s top (or bottom) line.

My prediction: Consolidation will hit marketing tech, starting with ad tech companies, in 2015. But the overall market will continue to grow as many companies look for ways to target their customers more effectively and efficiently.


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Dylan’s Desk: Four trends to watch in the coming year

Body cameras are the first step to reducing police brutality

hugs

Let’s get one thing clear: No gadget will fix bad policing. There is no app to cure racism.

But putting body cameras on police officers is one hell of a start. It is one of the few areas where a new technology offers a clear, unambiguous social benefit.

Usually there are tradeoffs and unintended consequences to any new tech: We get smartphones, but they hurt our spines. We embrace social networks, but they contribute to the disintegration of real-world relationships. We love Amazon, but it makes it hard for local businesses to compete.

In this case, though, I don’t see any real downsides. If we put video cameras on police officers’ uniforms, we’ll get greater accountability, more data, and hopefully better policing. That’s why U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan, announced this week, to help equip police departments with body cameras is a great start. Every state and local government should embrace this initiative with all speed.

Will body cameras change police behavior? Probably not immediately, especially if grand juries continue to refuse to indict police officers, even in the face of overwhelming video evidence. But I believe the longterm effects will be profound.

Body cameras will help provide documentation and accountability. When things do go terribly wrong — as they did with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Levar Jones, or John Crawford (WARNING: These links go to videos that contain disturbing images of actual people being shot and killed) — there will be additional video that can help grand juries (and regular juries) figure out what happened.

Body cameras will encourage more responsible law enforcement. Police already must know that any passerby with a cellphone could start recording their actions at any minute. But for some reason, this still often comes as a surprise to them, provoking some cops to anger. Putting a chest-mounted camera on an officer’s uniform will be a constant reminder that their actions are in the public eye. Maybe that will help remind them of their training, encouraging them to act like responsible law enforcement officers.

Body cameras will provide a rich source of video data for analysis. Advocates of open government data might use declassified police camera data to understand how police actually do their work. Anti-racism activists might be able to conduct statistical analysis of who, exactly, gets stopped and frisked in cities that still do that. Law and order types could use video evidence to show how police really are protecting us and stopping crimes. Police departments will be able to use video in their own evaluations and in training, helping improve the skills of their officers.

And body cameras will give the public some reassurance. Police officers are public employees, after all. A camera should be a reminder that the police work for us, and that we have a right to know what they are doing, particularly when things have gone wrong.

There is one potential downside, and that’s the specter of even-more-ubiquitous surveillance. But I think that’s a pretty mild drawback, given how widespread fixed surveillance cameras already are. In many ways a camera strapped to a uniformed officer’s chest is less of a privacy threat than a camera hidden on a high wall or next to a street light.

Given all these advantages, I think there’s no serious argument against body cameras.

For me, this is a particularly personal concern. I’m a white man, as you can tell by my author photo, but my children are black. My son, now eight years old, is just four years younger than Tamir Rice was when he was shot and killed by police officers in Cleveland — for playing with an Airsoft pistol, the kind of toy that is freely sold in Walmart and which generations of American boys have played with. In 10 years he will be the same age as Michael Brown was. In 14, he’ll be John Crawford’s age.

All of these individuals were shot by police who believed they were facing a terrifying threat, and who responded far too quickly to assess the situation accurately. Rice’s killer shot him about two seconds after getting out of the police car, sooner than he could have reasonably issued a warning or established the reality of the threat. We know this because it was caught on a surveillance video.

The heartbreaking fact is that for most police, as for most people in America, young black men are frightening figures, regardless of how they dress or act. Holding an Airsoft gun in a Walmart isn’t terrifying. Holding an Airsoft gun while being black is. We can’t change that through any technology. Sadly, my son will need to learn to live with that reality.

But we can provide greater accountability, and that will help keep people — especially those we equip with lethal weapons — from acting hastily out of fear, anger, and racism.

While videos may not lead to convictions — or even indictments — they’re a start. Maybe by the time my son is old enough for police to perceive him as a threat, there will be cameras helping to keep them honest, and him safe.

Body cameras are the first step to reducing police brutality

What Uber tells us about tech startups vs. journalists

Adam Tinworth via photopin cc
Adam Tinworth via photopin cc

We know this much: Uber has a huge public relations problem on its hands.

On Monday, Buzzfeed reported comments made by a senior vice president on Uber’s team, Emil Michael, at a private dinner. Michael’s comments suggested that he felt Uber would be justified in hiring an opposition research team to dig up dirt on journalists, such as Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy.

Lacy has been pretty vocal in her criticisms of Uber and other representatives of what she rightly calls Silicon Valley’s “asshole culture.” She called out Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick as an example of the kinds of “assholes” who may be abrasive, but also cultivate a culture of abrasiveness, jerkiness, and — in Uber’s case — misogyny. Lacy wrote that she no longer felt safe riding in Uber cars, because the company had done too little to vet its drivers and cultivated a culture that seemed to treat women as sex objects.

So you can imagine that Uber might be feeling a little uncharitable toward Lacy. But digging up dirt on a journalist in order to get even with her — well, that’s just not something most companies would contemplate.

Read the rest on VentureBeat, and find out what this all means for Uber — and for tech journalists and tech PR people.

What Uber tells us about tech startups vs. journalists