How Microsoft Researchers Might Invent a Holodeck

My final story for appeared August 31. It’s a look at some of the work that the scientists and engineers in Microsoft’s research division are doing to create the computer interface — and communications screens — of the future.

REDMOND, Washington — Deep inside Microsoft is the brain of a mad scientist.

You might not think so, given the banality of the company’s ubiquitous products: Windows, Office, Hotmail, Exchange Server, Active Directory. The days are long past when this kind of software could light up anyone’s imagination, except maybe an accountant’s.

But Microsoft has an innovative side that’s still capable of producing surprises. In fact, Microsoft spends more than $9 billion a year, and employs tens of thousands of people in research and development alone. While most of that goes toward coding the next versions of the company’s major products, a lot gets funneled into pure research and cutting-edge engineering.

Much of that work happens in Building 99 and Studio B here on Microsoft’s campus.

Building 99 is a think tank in the classic sense: It’s a beautifully-designed building packed to the gills with hundreds of scientists — about half of Microsoft’s researchers work here. In the middle is a tall, airy atrium designed by the architect to facilitate collaboration and the kind of chance meetings that can lead to serendipitous discoveries.

Many of the brainiacs who work in Building 99 are researching areas of computer science that may not have relevance to Microsoft’s bottom line for years, if ever. Heck, they may not have relevance to anything, ever, but the fundamental premise of basic research is that for every dozen, or hundred, or thousand off-the-wall projects, there’s one invention that turns out to be fabulously important and lucrative.

In fact, you only need one hit to make billions of dollars in research pay off, even if you waste the rest of the good ideas. As Malcolm Gladwell argued recently, Xerox, which is often derided for failing to take advantage of a series of amazing inventions at its Palo Alto Research Center, actually saw huge returns from just one invention: the laser printer. Against that, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Xerox PARC was home to hundreds of useless research projects, or that Xerox never figured out what to do with some of its research, like the graphical user interface.

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How Microsoft Researchers Might Invent a Holodeck

Apple is working on a television for 2012, sources say

Apple is almost certainly working on a digital television based on its iOS operating system, according to multiple sources in Silicon Valley.

An Apple-based television makes sense in light of Apple’s continued expansion out of the computer industry into the larger consumer electronics market. But is it real?

Multiple reports, as well as sources interviewed by VentureBeat, support the rumor, which is widespread among the gadget industry.

full story: Apple is working on a television for 2012, sources say | VentureBeat.

Apple is working on a television for 2012, sources say

Steve Jobs’s most ambitious product: Apple Inc.


The list of iconic designs Steve Jobs made possible is long. But his most brilliant and ambitious design may be Apple itself.

Jobs, who announced his resignation as Apple’s CEO yesterday, is rightly hailed as one of the most design-savvy executives in the electronics industry. He’s also an impressive architect of business structures.

In the coming years, with Jobs out of the leadership role, we’ll see just how well-designed the company he spent 15 years assembling really is. My guess is that it’s very well put together indeed.

Jobs has been working on this “product,” Apple Inc., for a long time.

Full story: Steve Jobs’s most ambitious product: Apple Inc. | VentureBeat.

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Steve Jobs’s most ambitious product: Apple Inc.

What the !@#$ is marketing automation?

VentureBeat inadvertently stirred up a storm of controversy when we published a guest post about marketing automation.

The guest post, by Justin Gray of LeadMD, looked innocuous enough at first. To our editors, it at first seemed like a straightforward list of the pros and cons of several different marketing automation solutions: Eloqua, Genius, Marketo, Pardot and Silverpop.

Unfortunately, when we published the post we neglected to mention one important fact: Gray’s company, LeadMD, is a reseller of one of those services, Marketo.

For the full story, which explains what happened and includes a Q&A with Joe Chernov of marketing automation vendor Eloqua, see What the !@#$ is marketing automation? | VentureBeat.

What the !@#$ is marketing automation?

A toast to Chris and Leila.

One of the things about having a younger brother, if you are a scientifically-minded child, is that you have a guinea pig for many of your experiments. And Chris was a willing or unwilling guinea pig many times.

Let me tell you about one of those times. One day, we were down in the basement of the Nortons’ house, and Thane and I noticed that you got a little shock when you touched the knob of their TV. It was an old, black and white TV and there was something wrong with its circuits. You had to use a pair of vise grips to change the channel, actually, because the knob was gone. We thought, well, if you get a jolt touching it with your body, what would happen if you grounded the connection?

Fortunately, the furnace was right next to the TV. And for a conductor, we found a metal vacuum cleaner tube.

So we had a power source, a ground, and a connector. All we needed was someone to make the connection. Of course, neither Thane nor I were willing to do that. So we talked Chris into doing it. All he needed to do was to touch one end of the metal tube to the tuning knob and the other end to the furnace.

When Chris did that, there was a loud popping sound, a shower of blue sparks, and the picture on the TV dwindled down to a point. It never worked again.

Fortunately, Chris survived that experiment. (And for those of you who are small children: Don’t try this!)

It is  possible that this experience contributed to his later lack of judgement. For example, a difficulty distinguishing between penguins and dolphins. And he did have some wild years in his youth.

After awhile, Chris wised up enough to stop being my guinea pig. Instead, he let me go first. I went to St. John’s for high school, and when that worked out, he did too. Then I went to Williams for college, and he did too. He even followed me into a useless major in Religion — although he added a far more practical Philosophy major to that. And he watched as I got married and had kids before he did.

Eventually, Leila came along. She was (and is) a woman of great beauty, excellent cooking skills, and sufficiently iron will that she was able to straighten Chris out.

Now I am very happy that Chris and Leila are getting married and looking forward to a child of their own. And I just want to say that, although there may be some sparks and loud popping sounds, it’ll be just fine and you’ll survive.

To Chris and Leila!

A toast to Chris and Leila.