Microsoft's Mundie on the Next Big Thing

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The Next Wave

CW: You talk about technology waves. What will be the next big wave?

Mundie: What happens in waves is the shift from one generation of computing platform to the next. That platform gets established by a small number of killer apps. We've been through a number of these major platform shifts, from the mainframe to the minicomputer to the personal computer to adding the Internet as an adjunct platform. We're now trending to the next big platform, which I call "the client plus the cloud."

That's one thing, not two things. Today, we've got a broadening out of what people call the client. My 16 years here was in large measure about that. And then we introduced the network. The Internet was a place where you had Web content and Web publishing, but other than being delivered on some of those clients, the two things were somewhat divorced.

The next thing that will emerge is an architecture that allows the application developer to think of the cloud plus the client architecturally as a single thing. In a sense, it is like client/sever computing in the enterprise. It was the homogeneity that existed between some of the facilities at the server and the client end that allowed people to build those applications. We've never had that kind of architectural homogeneity in this cloud-plus-client or Internet-plus-smart-devices world, and I'm predicting that will be the next big thing.

What the world is searching for now is the right combination of underlying technologies and some killer apps that will demonstrate that the capabilities of this integrated end-to-end view of the cloud-plus-client will enable things that the world hasn't seen yet. That's what we're focused on here.

CW: So, what technologies will drive this?

Mundie: The technologies come at this at two levels. What are the underlying shifts in the lower-level platform technologies that will allow that to happen? And what are the things that might change the user's experience in some fundamental way?

There are two big things that form the nucleus of those two big changes. The microprocessor itself is going to change to this heterogeneous, many-core capability over the next four or five years. We've been planning for it, we know it is coming, it's sort of on the rails, and yet most of the world hasn't come to grips with the implications of that in terms of the application model and programming tools. To get performance, you're going to have to write parallel applications, and if it's cloud-plus-client, you're going to have to write distributed parallel applications. Those have historically been viewed as hard problems, but they will have to become de rigueur in the future.

The second thing is that the technologies of man-machine interaction are evolving and will be aided by the quantum change in computational capabilities that for the first time client devices will be able to implement natural, more humanistic ways of dealing with people. We call that next era that natural user interface.

Think of it as the successor to the graphical user interface. Microsoft was the company that drove the broad adoption of the GUI by putting Word and Excel on the early version of Windows. That became the killer app that brought us personal computing. Now we can see the outline of the NUI, just as we could see the outline of Windows coming. And yet you have to figure out, what are the killer apps?

CW: And what will those killer apps be?

Mundie: We're working on some, [but] they're very hard to predict. You can't really gin up a killer app on demand. A certain serendipitous process has to take place for those things to emerge. There's an invention part of that, there's a technological part of that, there's a market readiness part of that, and none of those things are completely controllable. But that kind of [event] comes around every 15 years or so in our industry, and we're getting into that time zone. That's why we think it's going to happen.

CW: During presentations, you've shown Laura, a 3-D avatar you call the robotic receptionist. How does this tie into this wave?

Mundie: We can take the new technologies of robotics, which are designed for high-scale, highly concurrent, distributed application development, and use them as a vehicle to compose together many of the individual advanced technologies like speech synthesis, speech recognition, human-feature-based modeling, machine vision and machine learning. Is there a way to compose these things together such that the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts?

What Laura showed was that we're at the bleeding edge of being able to bring these together in such a way that there is a qualitative change in the way you can interact with a computer system. It really does become more like dealing [with the computer] on a person-to-person basis in a free-form way. The computer will move from being strictly a reactive tool in your hand to being a proactive partner in trying to solve problems. It's that change in the qualitative experience, by which the computer helps you get stuff done or does stuff for you, that I think will be the hallmark of this next era.

CW: How has Laura evolved since you took the demo on the road last year?

Mundie: We've been broadening out Laura, teaching her some other domains to learn more about how she interacts with people. We taught her recently how to play trivia [games] with people. All of these things are ways of finding out how people react to dealing with a lifelike avatar that really does interact with them just like a person.

CW: What are the challenges Laura faces before she can work in the lobby?

Mundie: The demo consumes an eight-core machine pretty much fully when it's interacting [with people]. Yet each element of it -- the vision system, the speech system, the reasoning system -- is running at a fairly coarse granularity.

But if you give us more horsepower, it will just get better. This is a precursor to a new class of applications that have an almost unlimited appetite for computational capability. That's a very different situation than we find ourselves in with most applications today. They barely utilize the capability of the machines we have.

As we get more horsepower, Laura's performance will be better in every dimension. The quality of her speech will be better, we'll be able to move beyond a rough polygonal model of her face and features and the animation of her face and movement.

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