Microsoft CEO seeks a Visual Basic for new digital age

In a London speech today, Satya Nadella laid out a broad vision of the next wave in computing

Microsoft boss Satya Nadella laid out perhaps his most convincing case yet for Microsoft remaining at the centre of productivity and innovation at his company’s Future Decoded event in London.

Nadella, looking dapper in a navy suit and black silk tie and sporting a poppy pin to commemorate war victims, titled his speech “Bold ambitions”. Those weren’t initially apparent as he embarked on a long description of “empowering” users and enabling collaboration “to achieve great things” in a “mobile-first, cloud-first” world. However, Nadella soon warmed up as he discussed the implications of “ubiquitous computing” and the new possibilities afforded by a world in which sensors, wearables, wristwatches and more provide new dimensions in data input and output. Microsoft’s plan is to be at the heart of that reinvention via three approaches: new productivity tools and business processes, an increasingly adaptive and broad cloud platform, and “more personal” computing that uncovers vital signs.

“With all this computing what’s scarce still is human attention and time,” he said. “You ultimately need people to help make progress and [we must have no] artificial boundaries as to how we think about productivity.”

So what does that mean?

For Nadella it’s about building “the intelligent cloud … from Raspberry Pi to HoloLens … a unified platform for developers [with a] management and security plane for IT.”

This is Microsoft attempting to create a new hegemony. Just as the combination of operating system, productivity applications, messaging and partner ecosystem made Microsoft the most important IT company of the 1990s, it now wants to provide the pervading services and user experiences that make the best possible use of our time and intelligence in the age of Big Data, machine intelligence and new types of visualisation.

The arrival of Windows 10 as an operating system that runs as a service (or multiple services) is a start. But Nadella has broader vistas (if “vista” is a word still used in Redmond): he sees the opportunity to create new categories such as digital ink on Surface devices or Gaze (moving the cursor with eye movement) on HoloLens, Microsoft’s much-anticipated holographic system that will be commercially available in early 2016, Nadella said.

All this will need big investment across software, hardware and facilities. Locally, for attendees, that means the recent completion of Ireland and Netherlands datacentres and, from 2016, the start of building a UK cloud services datacentre so that customers get reduced latency and greater ability to deal with governance regulations.

Relatively shy of mergers and acquisitions compared to peers, Microsoft remains a phenomenally cash-rich organisation and here Nadella gave a big clue as to what Microsoft do with its hoard: building the “most hyperscale public cloud with more regions than anyone else.”

Now, what do with all these platforms, applications and facilities? Nadella’s vision is data-centric with information sucked in to spit out smarter human-computer interactions.

“It’s going to be data. There will never be a search box that doesn’t autocomplete or have recommendations.”

In the same way that Visual Basic programming opened up Windows development to a broader constituency, Nadella wants Microsoft to be at the heart of democratising cloud computing so it’s “much easier to write applications that fuel the world”.

Technology pillars for this new generation of data-driven apps will include some of Microsoft’s full house of analysis technologies including Cortana Analytics, Azure Machine Learning, Kinect Computer Vision and Bing Web Understanding.

A series of demonstrations in London included BioBeats which parses patient biometrics, and a video of Guide Dogs which provides canine aid for sight-impaired people. The demo showed the use of a “3D soundscape” to guide users – with or without sight - around towns.

One interesting tool for Microsoft will be its Delve Analytics software that analyses human working patterns to provide insight into time management and productivity. Delve will tell you, scarily perhaps, how much time you spend on email or in meetings for example, or how much gets done outside office hours to assess the quality of your work/life balance.

This new ability to get to actionable data will help company leaders “get to real issues rather than waiting for them to be reported up” and allow them to pursue “leading indicators” rather than “lagging indicators”, Nadella said. Think Net Promoter scores and usage levels rather than profit or revenue, for example. You might also zoom in on people within the organisation and find out what they’re up to, or view how far along projects are.

Device independence and a movement away from PC-mania and Windows-mania will be important here and Nadella seems very happy to let Microsoft apps and services run on other operating systems and platforms. Natural language will be important too and Nadella showed how sentiment analysis could be performed asking for Yammer sentiment analysis on tweets and sentiment regarding his speech.

Nadella saved the glitziest for last: augmented reality or, as Microsoft calls it (that embrace-and-extend thing will take a while to go away) mixed reality. He sees AR (or MR) and holographic computing as the latest in a series of “category creation moments” that have punctuated IT history including GUIs and touch.

“AR or mixed reality is an amazing new medium. If you look back we’ve mostly created this mirror world with digital metaphor like the desktop. But what if we changed it around? What if you were able to superimpose a digital object in the physical world? That would change everything from industrial design to architecture to education to gaming.”

It’s still early days in Satya Nadella’s attempt to create a second act in Microsoft’s history but his breadth and depth of vision bode well.