Imagine drawing on floor-to-ceiling office windows with your finger, using them like a whiteboard, aided by contextual information right at your fingertips, translated as necessary. You haven't lost your marbles -- you're participating in a global corporate meeting, and your colleagues are doing the same thing on four other continents. Your son calls your office -- but you don't have a phone. Instead, the call routes right to the office windows you are drawing on, which happen to be in a public meeting space in a Brussels airport. As you talk, you reach for your coffee mug, which shows -- digitally and in real-time on the porcelain surface -- that your beverage is cooling down from the 114 degrees it once was.
This isn't the film Minority Report. This is the future. And it's coming 10 years from now, said Microsoft Business Division president Stephen Elop today in the opening keynote of Wharton Business School's 13th annual business technology conference, "Future Unleashed," in Philadelphia.
Taking the stage to talk about the recession, the future of technology and Microsoft's role in it all, Elop kicked off the conference with a bold display of technology in the Microsoft pipeline that he says will ultimately connect office to office, school to school, office to home to school and all of it to person.
"Our vision is to fundamentally reimagine productivity," Elop said. "It would be very easy to hunker down and wait for the [economic] storms to pass...we have chosen a different path."
To do so, Microsoft is spending $9 billion per year in R&D to take advantage of this "remarkable moment for businesses" focusing on "economic, demographic, and technological trends" in the industry.
Economic, as in focusing Microsoft's vision and execution.
"Businesses that take advantage of secular trends and place fewer and bigger bets...those are the companies that thrive," Elop said.
Demographic, as in taking advantage of the sobering statistics that, in 2012, 10,000 people in the United States will turn 65 every single day, and by 2050, more than 30% of the workforce will be over 65.
"Real time collaboration across global boundaries is what is going to define the millennial generation," Elop said, noting that the U.S. is trending toward "blended generations" with different values and perspectives working together.
Technological, as in the explosion of the Internet from rudimentary to essential, the development of social networking from novelty to work tool, the emergence of voice and touch as real input methods, and the unification of different devices and platforms.
"The traditional desk phone is on its way out," Elop said. "It may be gone before you leave the workforce."
To prove all this, Elop showed a five minute video of the technology brewing in Microsoft's labs -- a video showing off all of the technology listed in the first paragraph of this article.
"This is not science fiction," Elop said. "Everything here is something that could be real. All of this is within reach."
For example, Microsoft's "Touchwall" prototype with "Plex" software that serves users as "a compelling virtual canvas," which Elop said is available for download at OfficeLabs.com.
"When composing a document, you will become more of an orchestrator than an operator," Elop said. "Data will offer itself up."
Or the aforementioned office scene where workers "draw" on the interactive windows and other surfaces.
"Flexible, transparent and large-format technology," Elop said. "People are working on bendable, unbreakable, transparent displays. Large-format displays. These are the types of things that are really beginning to happen."
Or an airport scene in which a businessman uses location-based services on his transparent mobile device to find his way through an airport to a public meeting space so he can meet and collaborate with a colleague.
"Imagine living in a world where you spend significantly less time searching for your data," Elop said. "Information will always be contextually relevant provided at the right time and in the right format."
Like marrying Pico projection technology, which projects presentations on any surface, to global navigation technology, Elop said.
"Just imagine the meeting itself is an intelligent participant...you will walk into the meeting room and pick up last week's brainstorming session right where you left off," Elop said. "We envision in the near future software running in the cloud....seamless and secure."
Or using the non-emissive, low-power display technology e-Ink for flexible digital newspapers and other devices.
"Newspapers, credit cards, pill bottles," Elop said. "Power is only needed to change the image. This makes it an excellent enabler for electronic signage solutions."
It's ultimately about letting information flow easily to displays and devices, Elop said.
"Wherever you are, you have the software, data and rich collaborative tools you need," he said.
"For those of us who choose to lead, we will have emerged having earned the right to [dictate] what the next chapter [brings]," Elop said.
Elop said that Microsoft is aware that it must change with the times to seize the next multi-billion dollar opportunity.
"Office is the majority of our revenue, but it's not the majority of our growth," he said. "[SharePoint] is a billion-dollar business that's growing very rapidly, even during these tough economic times," adding that he doesn't have a traditional telephone at his desk at Microsoft HQ, and when someone calls him, they can reach him in the office, at his homes in Redmond and Toronto, or at a hotel room in Philadelphia in one effort.
"I look at our opportunity to impact or disrupt the market for the benefit of our customers," Elop said.
Microsoft's reputation as a follower and not an innovator isn't accurate, Elop said.
"When you actually get into Microsoft, and discover the innovation and patents, it's truly incredible," he said. "Right now, there's an internal conference at Microsoft to show off new technology. You have to look at the facts."
Elop conceded that Microsoft has been a follower in the past in some segments of the industry. That's why Microsoft employees are out talking about new technology, he said. "We're saying it's time to charge forward," he said.
"We are making fewer, bigger bets, he said. "We're investing hard and we're going to continue investing hard. But we are being deliberate."
Elop also noted the convergence between the business and consumer markets.
"Business computing and personal or consumer computing are increasingly becoming enmeshed with each other," He said. "We believe that the consumerization of IT is here to stay. Consumer quality is being pushed into the enterprise and vice-versa...there is going to be quite a market shift that consumer trends are going to affect the enterprise."
As for e-commerce, Elop said that a successful business model hasn't yet been hatched.
"The shift to online spending continues to grow at great rates...[what's interesting] is that we are unable to predict what the economic model is going to be. 'Oops -- how are we going to make revenue?' Some new models emerge: Google's search and advertising. They've captured a dominant place in that market, one that's difficult for companies like us to disrupt."
Part of that means embracing software-as-a-service.
"We are fully embracing software plus services, even if we don't know what it all means," Elop said. the [desktop model] is not sustainable."
"We don't know if the water's fine but we know we need to be in the pool."
Finally, Elop said that the company's "Quest Process" ensures that the vision of the company isn't all top-down or bottom-up.
"It's not some magical 'Bill Gates hands-the-tablet-down and we all read it," Elop said. "We go through a formal process. By having so many participating, the degree of buy-in is very strong...it's important for me to stand in front of people and say we believe in it."
Microsoft's Business Division is responsible for Microsoft Office programs, servers and software-based services; Microsoft Dynamics, business applications for small and midsize businesses large organizations and divisions of global enterprises; and MIcrosoft's Unified Communications, products that provide complete software-based communications tools to business.