When Microsoft goes shopping for new technology, Israel's often one of the places it looks. And what Microsoft is looking for right now, according to its CEO Steve Ballmer, are experts in machine learning to help with the challenge of big data.
"How do we use mass amounts of data to figure out what customers want?" the Microsoft CEO asked an audience in Israel on Monday. With machine learning, according to Ballmer — an area in which Israel has expertise.
"I use the term 'machine learning,' but it's the same thing as big data," Ballmer said. "Many companies in Israel have extensive experience in big data," he added, "and we expect a lot of leadership from Israel in this area."
"Until now we have been a software company, but now we are moving towards devices" — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft
Ballmer said he was "thrilled to be in Israel" telling the local audience that "there is a wide range of exciting things going on here." The CEO, who called the country's start-up scene "remarkable", was in Israel for Microsoft's own tech start-up event, called ThinkNext — a sort of combination start-up contest, where 15 companies chosen out of hundreds displayed their innovations, along with a series of TED-type talks about everything from computing, to art, war and peace.
Ballmer himself participated in one of those talks, taking part in a conversation with Israel's chief scientist, Avi Hasson, and discussing a range of topics, including big data and its impact on enterprise.
"A venture capitalist told me that in his opinion we are going to see a complete revamping of enterprise software. Right now we have a problem: on a company's website you can see all the wonderful things they do, but you can't find the thing that you are looking for. How can we bridge the gap between what's available and what's needed," weeding through the huge amounts of data to get to the useful pieces? The answer, said Ballmer, lies in machine learning, which will sort through the data to get the answers.
The power of suggestion
An example of how that would work in real life is the XBox suggestion platform, which has since been expanded for use throughout Windows 8. The platform looks at the user's preferences and recommends music, movies, games, and other items, and was developed at Microsoft's Israel R&D centre. In the same way, said Ballmer, "customer interaction and service will improve based on machine learning."
The just-released Windows 8 was unsurprisingly also a major part of the discussion, with Ballmer reiterating how the operating system marks a real change of direction for Microsoft. It's no accident that Windows 8 was introduced along with the new Windows Phone platform and the Surface tablet.
"Until now we have been a software company, but now we are moving towards devices. A lot of innovative software will be delivered through devices, and many services will be delivered through the cloud," he said.
Devices, cloud, new forms of user interface such as touch and voice, and big data are four trends getting Microsoft's attention at the moment, and Windows 8 is the company's first foray into shaping the future around those trends — with an operating system "completely rebuilt from the ground up to be consistent across a range of devices, from phones to tablets to laptops and desktops", said Ballmer. "Touch is already considered old, even though it is still very new and under-utilised, while voice has hardly been tapped at all."
While voice might not be appropriate for a laptop in a work setting or an e-reader on the subway, Ballmer said — "I don't see us yelling at our devices like that" — it would do just fine in the living room. Israel has already made a contribution to Microsoft's UI development, via PrimeSense, the company whose 3D camera technology is behind the Kinect.
And the cloud is another area where Israel's tech can be used by Microsoft, said Ballmer.
"The cloud isn't just about writing apps in a new way, but it's about writing new kinds of apps," he said. "Much of what we discuss in our company is about core tech, while app innovation is paid less attention to."
"What I have seen here in terms of apps is amazing," Ballmer added.