Craig Mundie of Microsoft on the Future of Software: Digital Assistants, Natural User Interfaces, and Room Computing

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said it could be practical in just a few years. “My dream in the future is a robotic teaching assistant, and a robotic physician’s assistant,” Mundie said. (And fear not, consumers—the digital assistants look nothing like Clippy.)

3. It’s not all about the cloud.

When it comes to computing tasks like real-time interactions with a digital assistant, even tiny delays in responses or understanding nuances in speech or gestures can make the whole thing break down. “As we move to continuous, contextual awareness, the idea that we can time-share these things is not practical,” Mundie said. He emphasized that the processing, communication, and integration with any other software needs to be done locally, not by a remote server in the Internet cloud. Otherwise, he said, “the latencies are too much.” (Of course, the company that makes most of the world’s client-side operating systems and a good bit of its desktop-based software would say that.)

4. It’s four devices, not three.

Back in May, Microsoft’s chief software architect Ray Ozzie talked about “three screens and a cloud” in discussing the company’s vision of cloud computing. The devices Ozzie was referring to were phones, laptops, and large monitors. But Mundie outlined four types of devices in his broader view of computing: phones, laptops, desktops, and something he called “specialty computers.” These are handhelds specialized to do certains kinds of computationally intensive tasks, like environmental forecasting, medical imaging analysis, or even delivering prenatal care in rural regions of a developing country. Mundie added that such devices could help “solve some of society’s biggest problems. All of us need to raise our sights a little bit.”

5. It’s the room, stupid.

Think of desktops as representing computers that don’t move. But laptops have become more dominant, at least for business use. “It’s actually a failure of the industry, and even Microsoft itself, that we haven’t asked the question, ‘Is there more you can do if you don’t have to move it?'” Mundie said.

With that, he gave a slick demo of the office of the future: high-definition displays on walls, a keyboard projected onto a desk surface, gesture recognition software that lets you move things around on a digital whiteboard, a digital assistant on the screen, a video conference with a colleague with interactive graphics within the video screen, and so forth. Admittedly, many of the demo features were “faked,” but most of the interface parts are doable in principle, using technology like Natal, the Xbox gesture-recognition tool, and surface computing. “If you can change people’s visions of business productivity, they’ll pay money for that,” Mundie said.

“There will be a successor to the desktop,” he concluded. “It will be the room.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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