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How Microsoft thinks of wearables and smart devices

Mary Branscombe | Sept. 3, 2014
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has talked about the opportunity of connected devices and the more than 200 billion sensors he expects to see. But so far, Microsoft has stuck to handing out developer hardware kits to build your own Internet of things devices. Those kits are currently based on Intel's Galileo board -- a cut-down PC system with no video and the ability to connect Arduino shields.

Buxton has been looking at the idea of making computing disappear into your everyday life since 1989, when he worked with Marc Weiser at Xerox PARC; Weiser came up with the term ubiquitous computing, suggesting we'd end up with big screens (boards), tablet size screens (pads), and tiny screens (tabs).

Smartwatches sound very like tabs, but ubiquitous computing isn't actually about having devices everywhere. It's about always being able to get what you need, invisibly. For that, Buxton says, you need "the right thing, in the right place, at the right time, for the right person, for the right price."

That's doable, but we have to get the context right. You don't pay attention to your dining room table unless it's got dinner on it, or it's in the wrong place.

"When ubiquitous computing works you don't even notice there's a computer there. But when things are everywhere, it's easy to make the mistake where I put the dining room table in the bedroom and the toilet in the living room," says Buxton. You don't want your personal email on your big screen TV where everyone in the family will see it if you're watching a movie.

And just having more and more devices, however great they are individually, quickly turns into a recipe for disaster. Buxton — who has been collecting gadgets for three decades and keeps a virtual museum on his web site — calls it the Crackerjack principle. "The more you eat, the more you want. The iPhone led and everybody followed and now we're making all these gadgets, all these apps... You keep eating them because it's so great but you get full. At a certain point I'm just going to be sick and throw up."

The way to avoid the gadget version of indigestion is to tackle the problem of complexity and how quickly we get to the point of frustration. Individually gadgets are getting easier to use, but using them together is just too hard. Using your phone to get your tablet online or to post photos from your DSLR camera could be far easier than it is. And just look at the pile of remote controls in the average living room.

Compare that to using your phone in your car: When it's done right, you can't do as much on your phone — like playing games or browsing the web — but you get much better phone calls thanks to the microphones in the car. And making a hands-free phone call is a much better fit when you're driving than playing games on a screen you can't look at. Put the two together right and they both become simpler to use.

 

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