There’s no escaping Microsoft, even if you’ve already swore yourself to another company’s ecosystem.
And by the time you notice, it’ll be too late, and Microsoft will have invaded everything. Not just PCs, but iPhones, Android devices, drones, smart speakers… everything.
If there’s any grand takeaway from this year’s Microsoft Build developer conference, it’s the tech giant’s slow and stealthy plan to weave itself, sometimes subtly or invisibly, in everyone’s lives.
“The world is a computer,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during Microsoft Build’s day one keynote.
Computers are no longer limited to laptops, tower boxes that used to sit underneath our desks, or the metal-and-glass rectangles that we now carry around in our pockets. What we traditionally know as a computer — a device with a screen and graphical user interface — is being redefined right now.
No other tech company appears to be more aware of this than Microsoft.
With the connectivity of the cloud and intelligence of AI, everything really is transforming into a computer. Speakers are now infused with intelligence and voice recognition. Consumer drones currently only capable of capturing photos and videos will soon be able to not only see, but understand objects in its field of view, thanks to machine learning.
For once, Microsoft’s finally looking at the bigger picture.
Rather than try to convince users to join its own walled ecosystem like Google and Apple, Microsoft has accepted its reality: To be the backbone that’ll invisibly power, connect, and enable some 20 billion smart devices by 2020.
Instead of fighting everyone for a slice of the pie, Microsoft’s saying, screw it, let’s go for the whole damn pie.
To get there, Microsoft isn’t following its old playbook of trying to put Windows everywhere. During two days of keynotes, top executives from Nadella to Joe Belfiore, Corporate Vice President in the Operating Systems Group, repeatedly reminded everyone that the world is a multi-device place.
As such, Microsoft has realized its future lies in swallowing its pride and playing in other companies’ playgrounds in order to get its technologies into as many devices — even ones that compete directly with its own — as possible.
That means leaving its failed mobile ambitions in the past and bringing its apps and services, like Windows 10’s Timeline feature, to iPhones and Android devices. Or partnering up with Qualcomm to create a “Vision AI” kit to deliver more intelligent security cameras that leverage the power of Microsoft Azure Machine Learning. Or teaming up with drone leader DJI to use Azure to intelligently augment drone footage for industrial applications.
Microsoft’s new mission also means connecting its own services with others. Cortana talking with Alexa is one example of this interoperability.
Because what good is your technology if people aren’t using it?
Perhaps most interesting is how invisible Microsoft’s AI and services are becoming as they march toward this new mission of being everywhere. Most people probably aren’t even aware Microsoft is powering some aspect of their lives.
Chatbots and on-device computing
Take XiaoIce. The what? Unless you live in China and use Weibo (China’s microblogging social network that’s the country’s equivalent to Twitter), you probably have no clue what XiaoIce is. The natural-language chatbot is made by Microsoft and boasts over 20 million active users.
Users engage with XiaoIce for an average of 23 “turns” (aka requests) for almost 30 minutes a day, Dave Forstrom, Microsoft’s Senior Director of Comms, Artificial Intelligence and Research group, told me.
In comparison, the average user interaction with a current digital assistant is only about 3-5 turns, Forstom says. From a brand perspective, XiaoIce isn’t as well-known as Cortana (at least not outside of China), but it’s clearly weaving its way into peoples’ lives in such a meaningful way that they’re engaging with it frequently.
Another example where Microsoft is invisibly embedding its technologies is on Huawei phones. New flagship phones, like the Mate 10 Pro, have a special NPU (neural processing unit) chip that’s responsible for AI computations. This chip lets the pre-installed Microsoft Translation app perform faster and more accurate on-device language translations without the need to connect to the cloud.
Does it matter to users whether Microsoft branding is front and center? Not at all. All users care about is if the application works fast, accurately, and offline.
Microsoft is present while simultaneously fading in the background. This is a shift from Microsoft tooting its own horn every chance it gets to show how innovative it is; it’s a humble new company with a more holistic vision of a connected world.
So like it or not, it’ll soon be impossible to avoid Microsoft because its technologies will likely be embedded invisibly into some or all of your devices.