"Technology is the enabler, the goal is the experience," said Jim Allchin, Microsoft group vice president of platforms, speaking at the Windows Hardware and Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle Wednesday.
I have always wondered why such pronouncements are made, given that it's obvious that technology is not an end unto itself. "The goal is the experience" is a bit squishy, but it's a good development gestalt. How about the "journey is the reward," one of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' favourite mantras? And, what happened to Microsoft's "information at your fingertips" or "seamless computing?" (More on that later.)
Improving the user experience has been one of the most vexing problems in transforming computing from a great invention that sits on a desk or in an air-cooled room into software services that live in computing devices, walls, pockets, everyday objects and even brains.
For the last 20 years Apple has been leading the charge in making computing easier for mere mortals. Microsoft has always strived to attain the kind of elevated status Apple has for its user experience and emotional attachment, but has consistently fallen short. Some of the compelling user interface features found in Mac OS X, such as the underlying graphics foundation, won't be available in Windows until Longhorn ships in a few years.
Nonetheless, Microsoft's lagging behind Apple in some areas of user interface design and experience hasn't adversely impacted Windows dominance. You can conclude that the Windows user experience is "good enough" for at least 90 percent of computer users.
But, the stakes are getting higher as digital convergence becomes more of a reality. The gap between personal and professional technology is closing, and the difference between a PC and a TV, set-top box, and phone is narrowing. You'll want to access your music, photos, contacts, lists, calendar, TV and even e-mail from in a variety of locations and devices without having to remember different commands, file names or access and synchronisation procedures.
Even in the data centre, the expectation is that the configuration and deployment of applications, servers, storage and other elements must become more automated and intelligent. At the center of the total digital experience is software, and Microsoft hopes to carry its dominance from the traditional PC world into this new era of converged digital, IP-based infrastructure.
Apple and Microsoft, as well as Sun with Solaris, believe that their control of the software on standard hardware platforms is the best way to deliver superior user experiences to end users. It remains to be seen whether the open source community can pull together an integrated platform that rivals the two personal computing leaders, but a software platform consisting of multiple parts from multiple vendors will prove to be difficult to deliver as a "seamless" experience. As you would expect, at WinHEC Gates said, "You can only do this around one unified architecture."
It could be that you have different software platforms for different parts of your digital life, such as your office, home, music collection, and games. But, unifying the management, storage and delivery of the content will be the key driver of a more simplified, secure and reliable experience -- and Microsoft has a big advantage over competitors with its share of market and ability to spend lots of money over many years to enter new markets with viable products.
Microsoft, as well Apple, IBM and others, now talk about scenarios and people- or customer-driven design as the path to make technology connect with how people work and play. At WinHEC, Allchin talked about creating scenarios that are "deeply immersive," in which the technology is mostly invisible. "You have to think about it end-to-end," Allchin said. "You have to be thinking the way [users] will think, and the software and hardware have to work together or [users will] have jagged experiences."
The issue is that software isn't yet very good at doing what people want to do. It typically dictates how tasks are performed.
Gates reprised his seamless computing presentation, which he first unveiled at Comdex last November, and pitched Microsoft's efforts in moving to Longhorn, Web services and 64-bit systems as important to the future of computing. In fact, Gates said the big headline from his presentation was that the move to 64-bit computing is going to be a "really wonderful transition," and a "smoother transition than any that came previously." Gates said, "Between now and the end of 2005, we will go from very few [64-bit processors sold] to 100 percent of what AMD ships and the majority of what Intel ships." At WinHEC, Microsoft will campaign to get developers on board to develop drivers and applications for Microsoft's 64-bit Windows and Servers 2003, which are expected to ship by year end.
Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds believes that Gates is too aggressive in his predictions for 64-bit systems. "I expect to see 4-gigabyte, 64-bit systems become more mainstream in 2007, when memory prices decline sufficiently."
Gates also said a fond goodbye to the floppy disk. "For the first time, I can say that the floppy disk is dead." The future is USB flash, which, according to industry reports, is expected to ship in volume of between 67 million and 120 million drives in 2005. Microsoft is also promoting the drives as a method for simple configuration of wireless network security.
Fundamentally, Microsoft is thinking about the "experience" problem in the right way. A majority of the company's US$6.8 billion R&D budget for this year is going into fixing the user experience, working on speech input, file systems, graphical users interface, security and other elements that are critical to the seamless computing effort. But, it will take far more than throwing money at the problems and coming up with another version of the Windows XP Media Center or Tablet PC.
Allchin said that success depends on getting the fundamentals right (simple and reliable), developing end-to-end scenarios and people-centered design. "If we follow this experience direction, I believe we will make the PC much stronger than today and take it into the living room, garage and wrist watch," Allchin said. He's right: Without getting the fundamentals under control, the Microsoft platform will fall on its face. Longhorn represents the company's biggest bet in its history, and it's no sure thing.
Allchin talked about how Microsoft aspires to become more emotionally connected to users. He described how Starbucks makes coffee drinking a compelling experience and has a brand allegiance that garners premium pricing. It's hard for me to think of a $3 cup of coffee as compelling, but the Starbucks coffee empire is growing at three and half new store openings per day, Allchin said. You can imagine Microsoft boardroom discussions about what the company needs to create a brand and a user experience that elicits positive feelings and emotion.
Microsoft has the time, talent and money to push Windows deeper into the business and consumer environments, but becoming relevant to people on a personal level that evokes emotion will continue to challenge the company's brain trust. Right now, Microsoft is branded as the company that has virus- and worm-infected code. Until that problem is resolved, Microsoft will have a hard time convincing the masses that it has mastered the fundamentals.
Dan Farber is editor-in-chief of ZDNet.com.
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