Microsoft: Grasping touch in enterprise productivity

The future could see touch gestures move beyond use in games and casual consumption to more applicability in business productivity tasks, such as executing commands on data sets by finger-drawing symbols.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Pinch, drag and zoom are now commonplace gestures, and could be the precedent to using the concept of touch for enterprise and productivity-related tasks. For instance, using one's finger to "circle" some data on a tablet that will automatically display the information into a detailed pie chart, without needing statistics know-how.

This is the possible future for touch-enabled technology, transcending games and consumer-centric applicability to being useful for businesses as well, said Hon Hsiao-Wuen, managing director of Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA). MSRA is one of Microsoft's 13 research and development (R&D) facilities around the world--and the second largest with about 220 staff.

Hon, who is based in Beijing where MSRA is located, spoke with ZDNet in an interview on Friday here where he was visiting to speak with industry partners.

Currently, touch gestures are largely limited to consumption purposes, he noted. If touch is to be useful for businesses and productivity, various motion gestures, from shapes to symbols and letters, will have to carry semantic meaning in order to serve as commands. It is an idea that is practical because of the advent of big data that companies want to leverage for business decisions and competitive edge, he added.

Hon explained that a person without any technical knowledge can instinctively know how to tap, drag, and drop pieces of data from various data repositories on an interactive screen. "You don't have to understand how to make a table or do any commands."

Another important area of research MSRA is focused on is contextual search, according to the managing director.

Contextual search is not new, but what is currently available today does not give a consistent user experience because search is limited to a single application or location, such as Facebook, he emphasized. In other words, a user still needs to get out of his own context to perform a search query, such as leaving a word processing application and hit the Web browser and open a Web search engine.

The reason is the concept of search is still synonymous with only Web-based search, he added. "This concept needs to change. Search should be [done] any place and time. Today, we just barely scratch the surface; there is so much more. [In the future], with better search mechanisms, you won't need to go to Web page to search, or require cookies to set the context."

The trend of mobile computing, wearable devices, and cloud is setting the stage for the "daunting task" of the ability to search across all contextual and sensory signals of a user, he pointed out.

Mobile is a "big thing" now and for the future, Hon said. The fact that the device is with a person and connected to the Internet all the time makes it "your sensor to the world", he said.

Bing, Microsoft's Web search engine, has crept up in US market share against main rival Google, but has not added much growth to the company's fortunes, compared to its other businesses. The online services division, where Bing falls under, generated the lowest revenue of US$869 million out of the total US$21.5 billion for the second quarter of 2013, according to figures released yesterday.

Asked if increased R&D on search would benefit Microsoft, Hon replied that the MSRA and the other centers worldwide focused on research and the future technology pipeline rather than products. He added: "If you serve the user right, you ultimately will help your business. You might not make lots of money off it, but it's important, helping users do what they want to do."

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