Microsoft unveiled its latest HoloLens 2 headset at an event at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona yesterday. While the headset has all the tech improvements you might expect, Microsoft surprised the industry with some solid commitments to being open in what it calls “the third era of computing.” Microsoft technical fellow and HoloLens inventor Alex Kipman made three key commitments for the company’s Mixed Reality platform:
- “We believe in an open app store model. Developers will have the freedom to create their own stores.”
- “We believe in an open web browsing model.”
- “We believe in an open API surface area and driver model.”
These significant commitments see Microsoft returning to a more open platform for Windows. “As leaders in mixed reality, we want to do it differently,” explains Kipman. “We want the third era of computing, the era of mixed reality, to be future forward and more culturally relevant. As members of the mixed reality community, we want the future to be open.”
It’s a big change from Microsoft’s recent pursuits, with its tight control of Universal Windows Apps through its own Microsoft Store. Microsoft’s previous walled garden approach generated fierce criticism from Tim Sweeney, Epic Games CEO. Sweeney wasn’t happy that Microsoft was building a closed platform within Windows 10, and its attempts to force developers to distribute these apps through the Microsoft Store. Microsoft even created S Mode versions of Windows and a Windows RT operating system that were locked to store apps by default.
Sweeney joined Microsoft on stage at its HoloLens 2 event in a surprise moment to pledge Epic Games’ support for the company’s new headset. Later, he sat down with The Verge for an interview.
“I feel like it really marks a new era for Microsoft under Satya Nadella, Alex Kipman, Phil Spencer, and a number of other people who are really committed to the platform being a healthy ecosystem for everybody and not just an extracted business like you see on the Facebook or Google side,” explains Sweeney.
“I welcome Microsoft having a store on Windows, what I’ve always resisted was a push to close down Windows to competing stores. There are various limited versions of Windows, such as Windows RT… which are no longer in the marketplace now which is a wonderful step forward for Microsoft. We’re back at the point where Windows is a completely open platform for everyone, and we can trust and invest in it.”
While Microsoft revealed its open principles at a HoloLens event, they apply to the Windows operating system that powers the headset. It’s a significant change to see Microsoft embracing rival app stores, and keeping the APIs and driver models for future devices like the HoloLens open. “Everybody in the industry can now invest in HoloLens knowing it’s a sound investment, that the platform maker won’t come in a few years and change the rules and confiscate our investments for themselves as we saw happen as Facebook changed its rules over time,” says Sweeney.
Microsoft is pitching its HoloLens platform as the third era of computing, and Sweeney agrees that augmented reality is the next shift. “It’s going to be a much more powerful platform than anything in the past,” explains Sweeney. “It’s going to take years to get from the current version to that version that replaces everything else, but I do think this will be the universal interface to all computing, both local and wired.”
Sweeney also thinks Microsoft’s commitments will make it much harder for companies like Apple, Facebook, or Google to create closed augmented reality platforms. “The industry impact of this open platform announcement shouldn’t be underestimated,” says Sweeney. “We’ve now established that one of the top tech companies in history has announced that the platform that will be the platform of the future for everybody, will be approached as an open one. That means that everybody will recognize they can invest in HoloLens, and benefit from the full fruits of their investment. It’s going to make it much harder for anybody to consider launching a closed AR platform, they’re going to experience a whole lot of push back from every ecosystem participant who doesn’t want the loss of freedom associated with that.”