One of the pre-announced surprises of the event was the fact that every fully paid attendee would receive an HP MiniNote 2140 netbook, with around 2500 units needing to be imaged with Windows 7 Ultimate RTM, the Office 2010 Technical Preview, Visual Studio and a host of marketing materials and info, along with an XPS file of the Tech Ed guide.
Attendees who weren’t full paying customers, such as technology journalists, or attendees whose company policies prohibited them from accepting gifts, could still also receive HP loaner netbooks if they wanted to try the Windows 7 netbook experience.
Naturally, these loan units needed to be signed for and must be returned, with returned units to be donated to charities.
This safeguard neatly sidesteps any repeat of the Vista laptop loan scandal that engulfed some journalists, bloggers and Microsoft itself a couple of years ago, while allowing Microsoft to offer its boldest extra incentive ever for full paying attendees to come along to Tech Ed, and from what I’ve seen, it’s been a resounding success.
It seems like virtually everyone has left their regular notebooks in their hotel rooms and is happily using the HP netbooks to take notes, check emails, surf the web, test out Windows 7, Office 2010 and more, being connected to a free Microsoft-provided Wi-Fi network that has held up pretty well - despite being hammered by so many simultaneous users.
The imaging and deployment of the 2500 or so netbooks was also an interesting learning experience for Microsoft, and again, it has proved to be a very successful initiative.
It also demonstrated Windows 7’s strong performance on netbooks, which with the RTM version is as fast and as smooth as promised. Microsoft keeping its promises – can you imagine it? Thank goodness that, this time, it’s true.
Regular readers might remember my May 25th article earlier this year, where I noted my disappointment with the performance of the Windows 7 Release Candidate as compared to the earlier Windows 7 beta, but thankfully Windows 7 RTM has erased the slowness.
The only sad part of the netbook equation is that many upcoming netbook owners will be lumbered with the older Windows XP or the Windows 7 Starter Edition, and not the Windows 7 Ultimate version on the netbooks we’re all using at the conference, but unlike many in the world of open source, Microsoft actually needs to make money, so I don’t think too many people are surprised.
So, what’s all this about Windows 9 already, who did I speak to about that – and what else is in store for Microsoft’s future?!
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My first interview took place with Phil Fawcett, Microsoft’s Principal Research Program Manager. Phil will be giving the “Locknote”, which is the final closing showpiece of the event, and will be talking about the research and development efforts that Microsoft undertakes while showing some real prototypes for tech that’s still a few years away from retail.
Currently, Microsoft spends US $9.1 billion on R&D every year, a phenomenal amount but one that has produced winners such as the Surface “coffee table” multi-touch PC and the upcoming Project Natal for Xbox 360 (and presumably one day for PCs, too).
There are several locations for research worldwide, including China, Cambridge, Bangalore, Silicon Valley, the MIT campus and naturally, Redmond itself.
While some of the developments the R&D teams directly end up as new products, a lot of extra work is usually needed to take R&D concepts and turn them into shipping products, software or services.
One example is the aforementioned Project Natal, the camera based motion sensing system that uses the human body as an “input” device for motion control and more, rather than forcing users to hold a controller as is the case with the Nintendo Wii and the upcoming motion controller for the PS3.
Natal was based on vision research from the Cambridge R&D lab, and helps computers to “see like a human being”, able to recognise patterns, gestures, intonation, skin colour, moods, face recognition, speech recognition and much more – with at least 50 different attributes Natal is able to look at.
Natal has even been touted for use in health applications, linking Natal with things like MRI scans in the future. I asked when users might see Natal for PCs, but given Natal is yet to arrive for the Xbox 360 itself, Fawcett was unable to elaborate – he does look after the research side of things after all, not products ready to ship to end users.
When I asked how long it takes for R&D projects to become products, Fawcett said that typically, it took anywhere from four to seven years, but that his teams were always trying to speed up the time to market, where possible, with some labs groups working on technologies that are 1 to 3 years out.
An example given of trying to speed up the R&D process was Microsoft’s video for its 2019 vision on what technology could look like. While this video is set 10 years in the future, Fawcett hopes to bring the technologies seen in this video to users within 5 years.
And while Windows 7 is a large part of Microsoft’s focus right now, with the official October 22 launch date drawing ever closer, Fawcett’s teams are already thinking about what Windows 9 and Office 15 will look like, while the non-R&D product teams work on completing Office 2010 (Office 14) and have already started work on Windows 8.
Indeed, R&D is all about the future, with Fawcett saying the R&D division is about “making sure that we have a future, that Microsoft and its customers have a future”.
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Another interesting and unexpected development is in the area of computer science and medicine, which we briefly touched on before. Here, Microsoft’s David Huckerman has “taken the attributes of a spam filter and applied that to how HIV mutates and works” with the goal of “looking at a way to create a [future] customised vaccine for each person”.
There’s also work being done on software networking radios, gigabit wireless, white spaces networking (which uses existing analog TV spectrum, a wireless frequency that easily goes through walls), indoor GPS for in-building navigation, and augmented reality (something also seen in that 2019 video!).
And, while Microsoft has already previously announced work on robotics, Fawcett has some of his 850 R&D people working on a personal flying robot, something already in existence as a prototype in China, which will be a personal companion, able to record parts of your life you want recorded, able to project images onto a wall and even use multi-touch Surface PC elements on those projected images.
Work on a “universal translator” able to instantly translate between English and Spanish as two people converse on their mobile phones has also been done, with a laptop PC in the middle doing the translating.
While the system worked in the lab, it also crashed the PC after a while, so while much more work is yet to be done, instant and accurate universal translation, along with natural sounding computer voice pronunciation means that the elimination of the language barrier is something we’ll all one day enjoy just as we’ve seen in sci-fi stories.
There’ll be more to report on all of this once the “locknote” with Phil Fawcett occurs in a few hours time, with an article on other Tech Ed interviews I conducted to come. See you then!
Disclosure: Alex Zaharov-Reutt is attending Microsoft Tech Ed 2009 as a guest of Microsoft.