Wednesday, February 25, 2009

InfoStrat interviewed by

Josh Wall was interviewed at the Army Symposium a few weeks ago about our Microsoft Surface applications. That interview is now live. (Josh Wall and I created each of the applications highlighted.)

Sneak Peek at Surface Apps

The Future of Microsoft Surface, Part 3

In part 1 I discussed how Microsoft Surface's business model seems extremely unprofitable when compared to Windows and Xbox business models.
In part 2 I compared Microsoft Surface to a SmartPhone prototype.

Now let's wrap this all up.

Consider the plans for the Surface SDK -- all the good multi-touch stuff is being baked into .NET 4 and will be available on any computer, not just special Microsoft Surfaces. Only the very unique vision system remains outside as an extra component. Windows 7 will have support for everything that Surface does, depending upon the hardware it runs on.

Surface is perfectly positioned for a transition to the highly profitable Windows business model upon the release of Windows 7. In fact, the Surface SDK and Windows 7 will be the same thing, so there won't be so much of a transition as a merger. Microsoft Surface will no longer be just a single product. Surface will become known as a brand of related products, just like Windows Mobile and the SmartPhone. The current Surface provides a model user experience which third-party manufacturers will replicate in their own Windows 7 Surface designs.

Microsoft created an entire business unit to gather data about and prepare the public for the Natural User Interface Revolution. The current Surface device is just the first step. The real potential of Surface will unleashed when hardware manufactures create their own version that run Windows 7.

So now after considering all of this, the big question is whether you should bother with the current Microsoft Surface. The answer is absolutely! Getting involved with Surface now gives you a huge head start in the upcoming NUI revolution. Usually prototype concepts (like a prototype SmartPhone) have limited access to hardware partners until it is released for mass distribution. In this case, the Surface is much more available and there is a rare opportunity to get in on the ground floor.

Very soon, Microsoft Surface is not just going to be a "big-ass coffee table" as some believe. It will be a whole range of products in many different forms, and those who prepare themselves will be able to take advantage. Are you ready?

(Thanks to Jonathan Brill for inspirational conversation that led to these ideas. We shared the basic thesis in this series and his post on Why the Failure of Surface is a Success for Microsoft. Subscribe to his blog if you haven't already, since he claims it is slightly more interesting than mine! :-O)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Future of Microsoft Surface, Part 2

In part 1 I discussed how Microsoft Surface seems to be an extremely unprofitable venture. It combines the least profitable aspects of the Windows and Xbox business models. But there are good reasons for this.

My explanation is don't think of Microsoft Surface like Windows or Xbox. Think of it as a research and development investment on steroids. Think of it like a prototype SmartPhone.

The Windows Mobile business model is almost exactly the same as the regular Windows business model, with two exceptions:

1) Windows Mobile runs on specific hardware that is manufactured by third-party hardware manufacturers
2) Microsoft (just like NVidia, Intel, and others) creates reference hardware prototypes to show hardware manufacturers the basic features. Manufacturers take the reference design, create their own, embellish and elaborate, then sell sell sell, all with Windows Mobile on it.

There is also a chicken-and-egg problem with getting hardware manufacturers to buy into new products like SmartPhones running Windows Mobile. Manufacturers must invest a great deal into creating and marketing new hardware, and they won't bother unless there is a reasonable guarantee that they will be able to sell it in large quantities. Microsoft will provide market studies and the reference prototype to manufacturers for this reason.

So should anyone bother investing in a prototype? The answer in this case is absolutely, and the reasons why are in part 3.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Future of Microsoft Surface, Part 1

The Microsoft Surface business model is a unique. The Surface business unit doesn't operate like any other within Microsoft and it is unclear how profitable Surface will become. Lets compare Surface to other business units in Microsoft. Consider how the Windows business model (where makes most of it's money) works:

1) Create new version Windows
2) Release free or cheap development tools to create a huge eco-system of developers writing applications for Windows
3) Secure agreements with hardware manufacturers to put Windows on almost all PCs
4) ???
5) Profit!

On the surface (ha!) it would seem that Microsoft Surface is more like the Xbox business model because it involves selling hardware. The Xbox business model looks like this:

1) Create and sell Xbox at a loss
2) Extract massive licensing fees from Xbox game developers at a profit
3) Pay for a huge maintenance and support department for broken Xboxes
4) ???
5) Hope for profit?

Compare the two models above to Microsoft Surface:

1) Create and sell Microsoft Surface (at a loss?)
2) Release free or cheap development tools to create an eco-system of developers writing applications for Surface
3) Pay for a huge maintenance and support department for broken Surfaces
4) ???
5) Lose money? (for now...)

So it looks like the Surface business model combines the least profitable aspects of the Windows and Xbox business models. Why in the world would Microsoft operate like this? How long is this even sustainable?

There are genius reason behind all this, though. Continue reading why in Part 2.

Edit 3/10/09: modified phrasing and word choice

Monday, February 9, 2009

GUI + Touch != NUI

Since the Windows 7 pre-beta and beta has been available, I've been reading some articles and seeing videos where people review the touch/multi-touch aspects of the new OS. Opinions have been mixed:

Engadget: Windows 7 Multitouch: It's a gimmick (for now)

OSNews: Windows 7 Beta's Touch Capabilities Underwhelm

Lifehacker: Windows 7 Multitouch: So Far, So Good

Gizmodo: Windows 7 Touch Control Makes Media Center More Awesome

GottaBeMobile: Will the multi-touch ecosystem be ready for Windows 7 launch?

A common theme can be seen across all of these articles -- applications designed for touch (such as Media Center) work well, but regular Windows and applications do not benefit from touch or multitouch. At best, the multitouch features in the Windows 7 shell are forced.

Media Center (originally designed for use on living room tvs) is probably the best built-in experience. There are only a few MT applications out there -- the most common is the air hockey game. Depending upon the hardware and beta drivers, that game works mediocre to okay, and some of the above articles discuss.

Note this video shows pre-beta drivers on a pre-beta OS build, but watch how the user accidentally closes the app while trying to maximize it.

What this boils down to is the fact that you can't just throw a touch or multitouch screen on top of a GUI application (written with WIMP in mind) and expect it to be a new or compelling experience. NUI is not just a GUI with touch. You really have to design a Natural User Interface application with touch (among other things) in mind for the best experience.

To Microsoft's credit, they have made modifications to e.g. the task bar to make it more touch friendly, and have updated the UX guidelines to account for touch. They defined three categories for touch support:

  • Good - Free touch support provided by Windows (i.e. regular GUI apps)

  • Better - Gesture support, touch-friendly UX (i.e. GUI + basic touch aware apps)

  • Best - Touch-optimized experience (i.e. GUI + touch integrated apps and NUI apps)

(My comments in parenthesis.)

Windows 7 shell (GUI), a "Better" experience but not very fulfilling. (Note at 1:39 it switches to a Mac with multitouch touchpad, which is even worse.)

Media Center, a "Best" experience which looks and feels natural

I think that touch devices are going to have a hard time gaining market share until the are plenty of "Best" applications. This seems very similar to the rollout of the Tablet PC. Stylus input was touted as the next big thing, but there were not many stylus aware applications. Most applications were just GUI + Stylus.

If we want to build demand for NUI applications and touch and multitouch devices, we are going to have to think beyond GUI + Touch and make developers, decision makers, and the general public aware of the Natural User Interface Revolution.

What do you think we should do to make NUI applications a success in the market?

Create the emotional connection

Any basic communications course will no doubt teach you that only a tiny part of person-to-person communication is verbal. Albert Mehrabian did research on this and found face-to-face communication consists of:

  • Words (7%)

  • Tone of voice (38%)

  • Body language (55%)

Mehrabian found that the non-verbal elements were important for communicating feeling and attitude. For example, the feeling expressed through body language overrides the feeling expressed through words. Read the full article for more on this.

Let's apply this to NUI. Words can clearly be translated into the raw content that the NUI is presenting, such as text, images, video, and sound.

Tone of voice is used in speech to modify the words directly and apply emotional context and help the listener determine which words are important. This could translate to the presentation of the content, such as font, font size, and color for text, volume for sound, and the relative positioning and size of visual content elements. I'll just call this presentation.

Body language is communicated separately from speech and adds contextual cues about the meaning of the content. This would be equivalent to the perceived affordance of UI elements (e.g. how the UI looks like it can be manipulated), animations, and other manipulation behavior properties. I'll call this animation (since manipulating something implies it is also being animated.)

  • Content

  • Presentation

  • Animation

In the original study, the ratios of 7%/38%/55% were weights of how much each communication type contributed to the listener liking the speaker. For our NUI analogy, the relative contribution of Content, Presentation, and Animation to the user having an excellent user experience (or liking the application) may not be exactly 7%/38%/55% but I can imagine a similar ratio.

How does this help? When designing the user experience, think about what the presentation of the content says about its importance and context. Think about what the animations and manipulations tell the user regarding how they can interact with the content.

Keep all this in mind when designing the overall user experience because it will determine the user's emotional response to the application. NUI applications focus on interacting with the content directly, but the content itself is only a small part of the overall experience. Similar to tone of voice and body language affecting whether a person likes another person, the presentation and animation of the content are critical factors in whether the user enjoys their experience.