Business Report

An Office on Every Surface

How Microsoft’s chief strategy officer views the future of our work spaces.

In a futuristic demo video that he showed in an internal sales meeting in 2009, Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, imagined what work and life might look like a decade hence. The technologies showcased included massive touch screens connecting offices around the world, computer interfaces in tabletops, and mobile devices that receive data seamlessly.

Since then, mobile devices have surged in popularity, and companies including Cisco are sketching future offices based on them. Major companies are also embracing cloud computing, with Microsoft itself recently releasing Office 365, an online version of its productivity software.

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In a time of such rapid change, Mundie recently described to Technology Review why his vision of data-driven spaces with interfaces built into every surface has essentially remained unchanged.

TR: What today is Microsoft’s vision of the future office?

Mundie: We will continue to see desktop computing. In fact, one of the things that I have predicted is that there will be a successor to the desktop, and I think it’s the room. There will be what I call a fixed computing environment, and it should evolve in quite dramatic ways to become a much richer and immersive experience.

We will see a lot more displays in the office, and they will be built into surfaces horizontally and also be on the walls or in the walls. I think that a kind of completely continuous model, where you are using speech, gesture, and touch in a more integrated way, will become more commonplace. There will be a subset of that fixed environment that you will want to take with you, called the portable office, and the evolution of the laptop will be that. And there will be a mobile environment, which is the phone and other devices [including] tablets of certain types.

Tablets are big right now. Why don’t you see that as a key trend? 

It isn’t clear to me whether the tablet, in that exact form factor, will be a persistent thing or not. There may be other display technologies that people may look at over that longer horizon. Tablets will still be important over the next five to 10 years, but there are still things that they are not great at, particularly in this area of lifelike collaboration and interaction.

So tablets and mobile devices become what, then?

If you walk into an office and there is a big screen on the wall, and even if you have a tablet or a phone, you may decide to use them in conjunction with one another. Or the computing that is in your phone or tablet may project something on the large screen while you are there.

And will we interact with these surfaces in the same way as today?

While the graphical interface won’t disappear—as it will still be optimal for a number of detailed types of tasks—I do think that you will start to look to the computer to provide assistance at a much higher semantic level of tasks. Computers in many scenarios will present themselves to you in a personified way.  You can see it happening with things like Avatar Kinect [Microsoft’s motion-capture gaming system for Xbox, which allows users to meet virtually with up to seven friends].

Where is Microsoft with this technology?

Some of the last things I talked about, such as Avatar-based telepresence, are here. Avatar Kinect went worldwide [in July]. For the very first time, there really is an ability to have meetings of up to eight people in a telepresence type of environment.

How soon will this technology emerge in the workplace?

In a decade, I don’t see a reason why the kind of technology that we have in Kinect cannot ultimately be miniaturized to a large degree, much like other cameras are, where you have one on the back of your phone or in the lid of your laptop.

What future-office technologies are your overseas research labs, in Beijing and elsewhere, working on?

If you look at Kinect and all the machine-vision stuff, that came from seven groups in three labs—Beijing; Cambridge, U.K.; and Redmond. For more and more projects, the research is blended together on a more global basis to create these next steps. I don’t perceive any dramatically different way that knowledge workers work in China than they do here.

What about offices and work in developing countries?

If you talk about mobile phones in developing countries, it is true that they have become very popular, but I would not tell you that [a mobile phone] is the computer for the knowledge worker. Today, the knowledge worker, even in the emerging countries, is using PCs. As phones become smarter, people will want to do more, but that will also require expensive data plans.

How do you plan to get back into the tablet market?

When Bill Gates and I pushed the company to do tablets—about a decade ago—the technology to use both pens and touch [interfaces] really didn’t exist. And the interface of Windows was optimized for high-def pointing, not finger pointing. What Apple showed—and coupled with the growth of the smart phone—is they got on that when touch was more viable and economical, and they created a family of products that were touch-first. Microsoft will have a version where it’s a touch-first model of interaction.

How does cloud computing fit into Microsoft’s vision of the future of the office?

The cloud is important in that it democratizes access to super-scale computing and storage facilities. Now any guy in the garage with a credit card can economically, for some period of time, get access to facilities that are larger than most companies historically had access to.

And what about Office 365?

When you talk about Office 365, I think the cloud will be a point of integration for the individual. All these different devices in their life, whether they are at home or at work or in their cars, will gradually become a more organized set of things that work together as opposed to a disjointed set of little computers that the user has to manage. And I think the cloud is an integral part of making that happen.

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The Future of the Office

The explosion of mobile devices, together with social technologies and smart apps, is creating a new distributed workforce. It’s transforming physical offices and how work gets done. This month, Technology Review examines the implications of this trend for business efficiency, productivity, and security.

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