Saturday, October 17, 2009
Posted by Adam Krebs in "Digital Home Events" @ 09:40 PM
Microsoft's "Open House" party at the Armory in uptown Manhattan last week was meant to serve as a "coming out" of sorts. The Microsoft brand for the first time in a while seems to be regaining ground lost after high-profile marketing failures like Windows Vista and lackluster mobile device sales. Now, Windows 7 is getting rave reviews even ahead of its release, Zune HD is a critic's darling, and the Xbox 360 is selling like never before. While these individual products have gained success on their own, they have so far failed to lift Microsoft to the same level of brand unity that competitors like Apple and Google have enjoyed. The event therefore was intended to show the connection between their many interests and reinforce Microsoft's commitment to its "three screens and the cloud" strategy. Did it succeed? Well, yes and no.
The event took place in a hangar-like building with several exhibits, demos, and a 60-foot tall bubble dome at its center where “World's #1 DJ" Tiesto spun tracks throughout the night. A Windows Mobile "tree house" that shook with every bassy techno note showed off Windows Mobile 6.5’s dedicated Twitter functionality courtesy of the two beautifully-costumed (human) "Twitter Birds." One of the Twitter Birds, perched on a swing set below the tree house with a megaphone in one hand and a smart phone in the other, loudly sang out any Tweet sent to @Retweetbird. The Zune / Windows Media Center area was basically a model living room showing off the products’ television interfaces for couch surfing. These demos proved that well-designed technology could be fun, and that the company has a sense of humor about itself.
Nothing brand new was shown off at the event, but it gave a good sense of Microsoft's fall lineup of hardware, software, and services. Windows 7 was out in full force, with an emphasis on gaming and netbooks, and there were some cool displays with Xbox and Zune. Microsoft Hardware, home to keyboards, mice, and webcams, had two designers on hand to discuss the creative process behind their new 720p webcam and their line of Sidewinder and Wireless Mobile mice. The webcam performed admirably, and filled an HDTV completely with only a slight drop in frame rate from SD. The resolution was astounding, as the representative proved by alternating between close-up macro shots and zooming in on text from across the room. It's got a bendable, rubberized grip to fit any monitor, and a built-in microphone, a feature that apparently caused a number of headaches due to its positioning and size. I'd been following the recent news of their multi-touch concept mice, as well as the MS Hardware tours on Channel 10, and the on-hand ergonomics engineer happily reported that he had made a cameo in the background of one of the videos. He mentioned that the original concept of the foldable Arc mouse was to be worn as a clothing accessory, perhaps clipped to a pocket or purse. It comes in six colors, but I can’t see anyone actually wearing a mouse with them as part of a daily routine. Thankfully, neither could Microsoft and the idea was scrapped.
As I toured the booths, I was amazed at the variety of initiatives the company is pursuing and the vastness of its product line. Even the exhibition placement spoke to the company’s range. The Hardware booth was bounded by a demo car for Microsoft Auto on one side, and a bank of Xbox 360s on the other. The many divergent interests of the company were apparent here, and when they were properly integrated— like with Windows Media Center and Windows 7—it worked beautifully. But other things just appeared to be from a wholly different world than another. Mere feet from Harmonix representatives showing off 'Beatles Rock Band' was a Ford sedan equipped with Microsoft's voice control system, which allows the driver to speak commands for directions, music, or phone calls. Despite the advanced voice recognition software, it still got choked up on basic phrases, and had difficulty interpreting my wish to hear tracks by Elvis Presley (though it did fine with Beyonce and Sade, pronounced "Sha-day," which the rep says was due to over 80,000 enhancements). The car system itself just seemed out-of-place and did not entirely fit with the “cool” vibe they were going for.
While the three screens—mobile, monitor, and television—were displayed to full effect, very little by way of Cloud Computing was discussed. No Live Mesh or Live services of any kind could be found, and even the integration of Zune Marketplace services on Xbox Live video did not present a compelling case for connected entertainment. Despite repeated attempts over the years to tie the three screens together with web-based “Cloud” services, we so far have yet to see any successful efforts toward a unified solution. The company is starting to recognize this and hopefully prove their commitment to their cloud computing initiative which includes the mantra “software plus services.”
While Microsoft certainly has a long way to go to unify its platforms, the Open House proved that the company is taking steps in the right direction. The lineup of hardware and software available this fall is the best in the company’s last few years. It should be exciting to see where the company stands at this time next year.