Ambient computing: Will Microsoft's lack of consumer focus hurt its future?

Intelligent technology is becoming an increasingly integrated part of our lives. Smartphones, smart speakers, AI, digital assistants, PCs, smartwatches, fitness bands, gaming consoles, virtual and augmented reality, IoT and in-car computing. These are representative of an all-encompassing personal computing experience that revolves around the user. An intelligent cloud manages user's data across devices creating a cohesive experience.

The model isn't perfect yet as certain technologies such as smart speakers, IoT and wearables are still evolving. The direction, however, is clear and the goal visible. We're approaching an all-encompassing multi-device world of ambient computing. "Computers" of various types will be part of our environment as much as they're part of our device portfolios. So where does Microsoft fit in here?

Devices will know us, perceive us, "follow" us and interact with us through cognitive services such as speech, motion and vision. It's evident that if a company isn't represented in all or at least most of the personal computing areas important to consumers, there will be an unavoidable gap in that company's ecosystem.

Like a broken bulb in a string of Christmas lights, that gap in the company's offerings will have a significant impact on the efficacy and appeal of its ecosystem for consumers. As a matter of fact, in Microsoft's case, that's already occurring.

Does Microsoft's "do more" vision do less for consumers?

Microsoft is poorly represented in certain areas of the consumer space due to lack of nimbleness, slow execution with getting products to market, poor marketing and lack of stamina in certain competitive spaces.

Part of Microsoft's challenge is its hyper-focus on its "do more" vision and "platform" strategy. It wants to provide the tools people use to "do more," and it seeks to be the cross-platform platform the industry's devices, products, and services run on.

While Microsoft strives to provide the tools, IoT, AI and cloud platform to attain these goals, rivals are building mindshare-grabbing consumer-facing products which are locking consumers into competing ecosystems.

Consumer troubles

After the advent of the consumer smartphone market, the app ecosystem, personal assistants, AI and the cloud were all mainstreamed among consumers. Microsoft's missing-of-the-boat in mobile is causing it to miss the wave in other consumer-facing areas of personal computing.

Digital Assistants

Without a successful mobile platform, Microsoft has struggled to make Cortana a recognized contender in the digital assistants war. Google Assistant and Siri dominate the collective consciousness of millions of iPhone and Android phone users. Conversely, Cortana which is available on 500 million Windows 10 PCs, millions of Windows phones, Xbox, the iPhone and Android phones is still struggling for mindshare.

Google's Assistant-equipped Home, Harmon Kardon's Cortana-powered Invoke and now Apple's Siri-powered HomePod are extending these cloud-supported assistants from user's phones to their homes where Amazon's Alexa dominates.

HomePod is certain to benefit from Apple's mighty marketing prowess when it arrives in December. Conversely, the Harmon Kardon speaker, which was on stage during Build 2017 and didn't get a mention, may suffer the same silent treatment many consumer-facing products seem to get from Microsoft when it arrives this fall.

Dis(Band)ed, Microsoft wearables where are you?

In 2014 Microsoft launched Microsoft Band and Microsoft Health, its cross-platform wearable and intelligent health platform. Microsoft intended to license the Bands proprietary sensors to hardware partners and positioned the Band as aspirational device companies could model.

After two iterations, Microsoft abruptly canceled the Band. Also, Microsoft Health never demonstrated the intelligence Microsoft promised before it too fizzled. Rumors of another wearable to fill the void left by the Band have yet to materialize.

Meanwhile, Apple sees success with Apple Watch, and Android wearables provide a host of options for consumers.

Driving into the future

Google's Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay are in-car solutions that are available on hundreds of car models. Though still an evolving market this further integrates iOS and Android into user's lives.

Microsoft has less mindshare and representation than rivals but isn't absent from this space. Microsoft's Connected Vehicle Platform uses Azure, Cortana and more to enable automakers to create custom connected driving experiences.

A mix of virtual and augmented reality

Microsoft's introduction of HoloLens and Window Holographic in 2015 seemed like a balanced product and platform strategy. Though we knew a first-party consumer-focused HoloLens wouldn't debut before 2020 it seems Microsoft or partners could have produced a less sophisticated AR headset modeled after HoloLens.

This would have given Microsoft both a market presence and mindshare.

As Microsoft promotes Windows Mixed Reality, which supports augmented and virtual reality, it currently has no first- or third-party AR or VR headsets in the market. Meanwhile, Google has a simple consumer-facing VR solution with Google Cardboard. It's not as advanced as Microsoft's "coming" VR headsets, but it's here, consumers use it, and they know it's from Google.

Apple's ARKit will also do what Microsoft hasn't yet done. It will put a simple, crude, and awkward (in comparison to HoloLens) phone and tablet-based AR solution in the hands of millions of consumers. This functional and engaging solution with the "AR" label will be enough for consumers and media to applaud Apple while it refines its platform and potential hardware to take on the more advanced HoloLens later. In the meantime, Apple's AR offering will be in the market grabbing consumer mindshare while Microsoft's will still be in development.

According to Xbox head Phil Spencer, a consumer-ready, AR solution that can be produced at scale is still five to ten years away. Imagine the consumer mindshare Apple will gain in that time.

Microsoft, consumers need to hear from you

The various failures in Microsoft's product history may repeat if it doesn't make marketing to consumers a priority.

Whether Microsoft likes it or not, consumers are dictating the success or failure of the modern multi-device personal computing platform. As consumers buy into smart home speakers, phones, VR and AR solutions and more that are part of a company's ecosystem, the likelihood of switching to another ecosystem diminishes.

Microsoft knows this. That's why in innovative desperation it demonstrated, at Build 2017, how the Microsoft Graph incorporates iOS and Android devices within Microsoft's ecosystem, using a Windows 10 PC as the hub and Cortana as the cross-platform UI. This is commendable. But if Microsoft is going to be relevant in the future of personal computing consumers need to choose Microsoft. Microsoft, therefore, needs consumer-facing products in the market (beyond the Xbox) that consumers can choose.

Ambient computing future

Eventually, smart home speakers will be common household appliances. Intelligent IoT devices of various shapes, sizes and purposes will permeate our homes, cities, cars, appliances and more. AR headsets/glasses will become normalized allowing us to see and interact with the digital plane of the IoT-permeated world that will surround us. In other words, screen-less devices will have a "digital" component that AR glasses will allow us to interact with as seen here:

This is the world of ambient computing that we are approaching. Companies that have a portfolio of consumer-facing products that meet consumers needs and provides the cloud, AI and IoT platforms will be best positioned for this world where personal computing is not centered around a single device.

Microsoft needs to aggressively aim to become more than the tie that binds. It needs to be part of the visible fabric of this evolving personal computing quilt, or landscape, that is encompassing us, or they could, eventually, face irrelevancy.

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!