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Microsoft’s ambitions are huge and surprising, because they have to be

Microsoft’s ambitions are huge and surprising, because they have to be


Having lost on mobile, Microsoft is determined not to miss the next big transformation

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The one giant of the American tech industry that's transforming faster and more violently than all the others is Microsoft. Today's Build 2016 event was a marathon two-hour affair, but it was almost completely devoid of incremental or iterative improvements. Dead-end projects like Windows Phone didn't even get a mention. Everything Microsoft showed was about addressing the next big change in how we interact with technology, whether that comes in the form of virtual and augmented reality, the development of more natural inputs like handwriting and conversation, or the eyebrow-raising concept of AI bots talking to other AI bots. It was an event filled with uncynical enthusiasm for the potential that lay beyond the immediate horizon.

Microsoft's vision of the future is expansive and exciting

If they aren't already, mobile devices will soon be the most widely used and important portals through which we access the internet and do anything technological. Having until recently competed to own a share of that all-important platform battleground, Microsoft now has its gaze fixed firmly on the future. Today's presentation reiterated the demise of Windows Phone as the aspiring third mobile platform after Apple's iOS and Google's Android. That fight is over, Microsoft lost, and now the company is transitioning to being platform-agnostic.

Microsoft very deliberately gave equal stage time during its Build keynote demonstrations to Android, the iPhone, and its own Windows 10 for mobile. Each device was just the background on which Microsoft's innovations were being staged, whether they were machine-learning APIs for helping the blind get around or a smarter and more capable Cortana. It was a signal from the Redmond giant that its core service proposition is going to be ubiquitous and unaffected by the underlying operating system. Having failed to be the cardinal mobile platform, Microsoft is erecting cloud-based service platforms that inject themselves between the user and the device.

Bots are going to be the new apps

Microsoft spoke in similar terms when setting out its aggressive plans for developing AI bots that can be integrated into messaging apps. Skype, GroupMe, Slack, Line, and any other messaging app would serve as "conversation canvases" upon which Microsoft's bots will do their magical work. To hear Microsoft describing these automation bots — one example given was having Cortana contacting a hotel's bot to book accommodation for the user — you get the sense that bots are essentially the next big thing after apps. If they are, Microsoft is positioning itself to be a leader in their development. Satya Nadella introduced himself as CEO of Microsoft with the mantra of "mobile first, cloud first," and these latest moves from his company illustrate what that plan is about: reaching mobile users via cloud services.

The HoloLens augmented reality headset also made an appearance at Build 2016, this time in a box ready to be shipped out to the first developers looking to try it out. This is Microsoft's effort to establish an entirely new platform. That's always been Microsoft's strength, being the platform provider, and all of its strategic moves appear geared toward recreating the Windows desktop prepotence in a new and changing world.

To counter Apple's evolutionary changes, Microsoft is aiming for a revolution

Every company spends time and money on research and development, of course. But with Microsoft the difference seems to be that it's going after the most aggressive and ambitious projects it can fathom. This company is demonstrating holographic communication, handwriting recognition that turns scribbles into calendar appointments, and AI that can tell if a person looks happy or sad.

Being extremely ambitious also makes Microsoft one of the most exciting tech innovators around. At a time when Apple is re-releasing its iPhone 5 design and merely evolving its product lineup, Microsoft is trying to instigate the next big revolution. That's great for driving competitive innovation, especially because Microsoft has the resources and developer reach of an established giant to match the bright-eyed and youthful optimism it's showing with its new initiatives. Samsung recently said that it wants to act more like a startup, but Microsoft is already doing it. Wildly ambitious projects, openness to working with all parties (including Linux!), and dudes hugging each other and saying "I love you" on stage — Microsoft seems infused with the same passion and energy that animates moonshot startups that eventually become multibillion-dollar businesses.

There are no guarantees that Microsoft's strategy will pay off. The Redmond company has regularly been able to identify the paths toward the future of computing, and has led the entire tech industry forward, but it's often fallen short of producing the coherent, comprehensive product that enjoys the ultimate commercial success. That could still be true with the AI bots, the HoloLens, and the integration of machine-learning into everyday life, but Microsoft doesn't really have any other option than to push forward into the future. This is the mobile age dominated by Apple, Google, and increasingly Facebook, so the sooner we move into a different future with different platforms and paradigms, the better off Microsoft will be.