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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.

"By combining multi technologies in the right place, in the right way, at the right time, with intelligent design, we can make the technology disappear and it becomes about the conversation not the device," promises Buxton. "But we need to start considering a society of devices and how they come together."

Buxton has plenty of examples of ways we ought to be able to make life simpler as we get more sensors and smart objects. Imagine you're in the middle of a call on your smartphone and you walk over to your Xbox One and Kinect; why can't you automatically carry on the conversation using the far better microphone in the Kinect?

Or if you're using your phone and Bing Maps to navigate as you walk down the street; do you want to be clutching your phone the whole way, swiveling your head from the screen and back to the street and dodging everyone else who's heads down gazing at their phone? Directions on a smart watch aren't any better.

Instead Buxton imagines you getting the navigation on your phone — and then putting it back in your pocket. "You just follow the blinking red dot that will appear in the left corner of any ad you walk past so you know you're going the right way. The ad people love this because I'm imprinting on all the ads because I have to look at them to find the dot. But I can also be having a conversation as I walk, I'm not going to step in dog doo, I can look around and enjoy the weather. We've turned the way ads work on its head; because now I have a 'popup' that gives me real value, rather than an ad that annoys me that I only bear with because it gives me something for free."

The Internet of making your life better

Done right, wearables and smart objects and the sensors in the Internet of Things will turn the way of lot of things work on their head. The important question, according to Buxton: "Now that we can build anything, what should we build?"

As Forrester's J P Gownder recently pointed out, a smartwatch can't just be a shrunken smartphone; it has to be a device that's natural to use in the "mobile moments" when you need something relevant, more quickly than you could get it by pulling out your phone. It's still not clear what we're going to use wearable devices for that our phones can't already do, and it's likely that they won't take off until what we get are natural experiences that make us more productive.

And productive doesn't just mean "getting more done at work;" it means getting more done in any way that makes your life easier. That's what makes Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant part of the "ambient intelligence" Nadella has been promising rather than just a friendly voice to text system. Getting a warning that the meeting you're scheduling falls in the middle of your child's football match, or getting the reminder to pick up milk as you walk past any branch of your favorite grocery (rather than at the time you'd predicted you'd walk past the shop when, in fact, you're still stuck in traffic) can make you a lot more productive personally.


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