Looking forward to gadgets

It’s been a good couple of years for Microsoft in terms of products. After the Vista debacle and Office 2007 ribbon complaints, they’ve really turned a corner. They’ve listened to users of all skill levels to produce some cracking products. Yes, I am a Microsoft shill, but unapologetically so. They are a developer company, and I’m a developer – it’s a natural fit. Windows 7 was sublime, Visual Studio 2010 is “just right” and Office 2010 seems to have finally grown into its new ribbon UI (shame it has only just seen to supporting open data formats such as oData and .ICS).

There’s more to come, though. I’m excited about 2 products in the pipeline.

The first out is Windows Phone 7. What was the Windows Mobile platform suffered from Microsoft’s insistence that they should put the desktop on a mobile phone. Clearly, they were wide of the mark and it is odd it took them so long to realise this. Arrogance, I guess. The only benefit I can see of the iPhone – kicking innovation into what was becoming a stale market. The Windows Phone 7 platform is integrated with Facebook, is developer friendly and offers integration with XBox Live. Oh and Zune finally makes it to the UK – a DRM model that I could just get on with. The hard part is waiting for the right model to be launched – with a keyboard. If you want me to spend anytime with your smart phone, it needs a keyboard. Having seen the reviews and videos of the device, I look forward to that “Oh, that’s very cool” moment. Many phones offer integration with social media and a rich experience, but are scuppered by lack of support for Flash (need I say?), awkward user interfaces (BlackBerry) or under-powered processors (Nokia). Windows Phone 7 seems to be a best alternative to these and offers an open development platform, which is a refreshing change.

The second product is Kinect, formerly “Project Natal”. This has been in gestation for a few years both within Microsoft and in the original product developer, 3DV Systems. Microsoft have struck gold in their XBox Live and Arcade gaming platforms, gaming is now no longer just for the serious gamer. Buy an XBox and you can immediately start playing cheap and highly-playable games from the Arcade and involve the entire family. The so called “casual gamer” represents a serious opportunity and I regard myself in that group as someone who loses interest in games as soon as it gets hard! Even so, with the traditional Control Pad input mechanism, it still feels like a special language is needed to play the games. Kinect removes this barrier, allowing interaction with the games using your body as a controller. In truth, we’ve seen this before, the Playstation Eye Toy was a great product and a smart web cam to boot (if you could locate the drivers for Windows). But that’s not where Kinect is going to stay. Steve Ballmer was reported to (possibly annoying other product departments) say that Kinect is the most significant development for Microsoft this year, maybe because while Kinect is starting out in the home, it will soon become integrated into your Windows and Office experience. Authenticating and controlling Windows suddenly becomes more accessible for the disabled and “regular” user, Office becomes easier to navigate through large spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, etc. and video conferencing gets better thanks to the directional microphone-array (captions over people’s heads, anyone?).

That’s not to say Microsoft haven’t missed the mark or opportunity on other products, though. The Kin phone was a surprise and seemed to be a typical example of the company competing with itself. Luckily enough, it was canned weeks after but not before a shuffle of senior management. The XBox 360 has recently been redesigned to give it a fresh image in line with the Kinect. The price is attractive, the hard drive bigger and it has wireless – but so what? Still no Blu-Ray player, a real shame as Blu-Ray is starting to get traction – because of the PS3. Sony are giving the same kick to the Blu-Ray market as they did with the DVD market when they included a DVD player in the PS2. Clever – and obvious. And where are the Windows 7 slates? Seems odd considering Windows 7 is touch optimised in so many ways. Maybe (and probably) it is because putting a desktop OS on a battery-powered device is never going to work, surely one of Microsoft’s several embedded OS implementations would suffice? I sometimes feel like I should apologise for the stupidity of Microsoft in its product launches, but I guess when you’re as big as Microsoft, it’s slow to move and competing products within its mass would be inevitable.

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