Dinner With Microsoft’s Craig Mundie: On Xbox Kinect, Instantaneous Total Recall, and a More Secretive Culture

11/29/10Follow @bbuderi

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to “not make the company so much of an open supermarket where everybody wanders the shelves.”

Mundie’s job will not change with Ozzie’s departure: This subject, of course, didn’t come up at our dinner—but it was my chief follow-up question. I got nothing personal back from Mundie, just a “no change” statement from public relations.

The centrally funded model for Microsoft Research is still right: This is especially interesting to me, because I have written two books on corporate research. I can tell you that funding a corporate research operation straight from central corporate coffers-as opposed to via contracts with various business divisions for work they want done—is almost unheard of in this day and age. That’s because most companies believe that in order for their research groups to have good ties to their business needs, labs need to get all, or at least a major part of, their funding from business divisions—for work the business divisions want done. Microsoft’s approach is to let MSR work without those strings, in order to keep researchers more unfettered and open to new things. “I still think that that was and remains a good strategy,” Mundie told me. Over the years, many have questioned whether Microsoft’s investment in MSR has been worth it, and everyone from Gates to SVP of research Rick Rashid on down has steadfastly maintained it has been—with contributions to just about every Microsoft product. The way Mundie put it to me: MSR is “just becoming more and more integral.”

(Note: I am talking about research, the “R” part of R&D. The vast majority of Microsoft’s roughly $9 billion annual investment in R&D is for development, with the research labs getting only a fraction of this amount.)

The future is NUI: The idea here is that the world of computing is moving from the GUI (graphical user interface) to the NUI (natural user interface). This includes interacting with computers via voice, gesture, and touch commands. As Mundie puts it, “You start to be able to have the computer respond to people the way other people respond to people.”

Such a vision is hardly new—in fact, ideas about multi-modal computing were really all the rage in the bubble years of the 1990s, and the concept of this kind of interaction with computers goes back to about the day computers were invented. Still, with Microsoft, IBM, Google, and others still chasing the dream, it was nice to hear more up front from Mundie, who clearly believes the time to realize this long-standing vision is upon us.

One early manifestation of this, he says, is Kinect, an addition for Xbox 360 that lets game players control the action with gestures and their voices—without a controller. Mundie says Kinect drew heavily from Microsoft Research, which assimilated lots of different pieces of technology to make it possible. “It is the integration of all the MSR assets that led to Kinect,” he said. “Virtually all the labs had something” to contribute. “It’s something I think is quite revolutionary.”

Is Microsoft losing patience with China?: Despite years of work to develop good relations with China (part of the subject of my book Guanxi with Xconomy Boston editor Greg Huang), Microsoft is still finding piracy maddeningly frustrating. “Being paid for one copy out of five is undesirable,” is the way Mundie put it.

Favorite one liner about the future of computing: “Instantaneous total recall of everything.”

Good goal: Used to have it myself. Need help now.


Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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