Piecing together Microsoft's 'people-centric' computing strategy

Microsoft's vision for how it can put people at the center of its future computing experiences pulls together everything from its coming Fluid Framework to more collaboration-friendly devices and furniture.

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Credit: O+A

Like most tech vendors, Microsoft can't get enough of buzzwords. One of Redmond's current favorites is "people-centric." Unlike some of Microsoft's other catch phrases du jour, there's actually something there with "people-centric" -- and it involves everything from lower level frameworks to office furniture (not kidding).

"We're not focused on devices or apps. We're focused on people," said Rob Howard, senior director of Microsoft 365 Apps Marketing, during an interview I had with him at Build 2019 this week. "And in the same way we are creating this for ourselves, we want to give our developers, partners and customers the same (experience)."

At Build, Microsoft no longer talks about a Windows developer platform or an Office developer platform. Officials now talk about a "Microsoft 365 developer platform," which works not only across Windows devices, but on iOS and Android, too. Until this year's Build, I thought the name change was simply a cover for Microsoft de-emphasizing Windows. But there actually is more going on here. 

Microsoft identity (meaning Azure Active Directory/Active Directory) is the anchor of the Microsoft 365 developer platform, Howard said. The unified Microsoft Graph API and another key piece, he said. The knowledge substrate, which enables Microsoft's new conversational engine, fits in here. And there's a coming new piece called the "Fluid Framework," which is still a work in progress.

Microsoft's Fluid Framework is a combination of a faster co-authoring environment and a compound-document type environment. Microsoft is promising a software development kit and the first Microsoft-built Fluid experiences will arrive late this year. If it sounds a bit like Microsoft trying to be all things to all people, that's because Microsoft was attempting to show off both the developer and the user experience enabled by the Fluid Framework during Build this week.

Once they get their hands on the Fluid Framework technology, developers will see that this is a framework for building web-based distributed apps, Howard told me.

"The state is going to be distributed across different peoples' machines. It's a dev technology for collaboration among multiple individuals and groups," Howard said. And it's not tied to Windows or Edge.

The reason Microsoft is obsessed about improving the speed at which people can collaborate is because different kinds of interactions happen when there's less latency in coauthoring, Howard explained. When users can collaborate at incredibly fast speeds and high scale, their interactions are far more fluid. (Hence the "Fluid Framework" name.)

"Fifty milliseconds is the threshold that changes how people collaborate. It's way more fluid when it's below," Howard said. When you add lots of people, plus intelligent agents which are recommending content, doing fact checking and designing things alongside you as "collaborators," speed and scale is even more important, he noted.

From a user perspective, applying this kind of distributed coauthoring technology in ways that can potentially increase productivity is where things get interesting he said. If a user could take a component of a document and have it move seamlessly across applications while remaining live and maintaining its context, users will see a whole new kind of computing experience.

"I won't have to leave my app to do multiple tasks or context switching," Howard said.

While these kinds of scenarios could be interesting on individual PCs and smaller screen devices, they really light up on bigger screens. And larger screen PCs, like Microsoft's soon-to-be-shipping Surface Hub 2S large-screen conferencing system and its Surface Studio are where scaled-up collaboration scenarios can really shine.

This week, Microsoft invited a number of journalists to tour its updated envisioning center on the Microsoft campus. (I guess my invitation was lost in the mail.) Over the past couple of years, Microsoft worked with Studio O+A on the design of the center, which features a hexagonal conference room, lots of wall-sized touch screens and touch desks as accouterments meant to encourage collaboration.

Microsoft has been working to articulate and showcase its vision for the smart office and smart meetings for a few years. At Build last year, company officials showed off how Cortana could play a central role in ambient computing  scenarios. The circular microphone array which Microsoft showed off at last year's and this year's Build shows is going to be packaged up as a reference hardware developer kit which the company will sell, officials said this week. (If you don't have your own smart speaker, I guess this is the next best thing to try to get more people to use voice to interact with their apps and services.)

If you weren't 100% sure that Microsoft's going back to its roots as an enterprise-productivity-focused tech company, this week's Build demos and announcements should convince you.