It’s easy to be nostaligic about the past, but the future is brighter

When I look back at my career so far it is easy to fall into a longing for how things once were in the tech industry.  Certainly when I speak with many fellow Microsoft friends who were there in the era of greatness we love to talk about how everything was so much fun and success in driving the future always seemed obvious.  That is an easy thing to do when what you are really doing is looking back upon your youth.  I can only add that it was fun but the road before us in technology is far wider, far faster and far greater.

One thing I have felt for a long time is no matter what cutting edge field you decide to play in, whether it be robotics, nanotechnology, biotech, technology or simpler things like consumer electronics, they all share one thing in common it will take great software to make those things a reality.  The ease of use for consumer electronics is driven by software (anyone own a iPhone?).  The mapping of the human body to make robots act and think like humans will require great break troughs in software development.  The vast computational metrics required for nanotechnology will require great software.  To cure cancer will require great software.  Yes, other things will be necessary – great minds, faster hardware, but as my old CEO Bill Gates used to say, “Software is where the magic happens”.

Now what are some things that are going to happen soon, that will be fun and exciting?  Here I will offer up some thoughts on what I think both the near and long-term future will hold for us.  Some I think will be rather obvious as, like many things, they have been talked about for many years they just have not occurred.

  • In the next ten years all school text books will be digitized and students will have a iPad or similar device at all grade levels(Android based for example). 
  • Anyone under the age of fifty, before they die will go to a bar and order a drink – it will be made and served by a robot
  • The home media center (that centralized hub for music, TV, Games, video etc..) will finally become a reality and most homes in the US – please I do not want any comments from some technical snob with a home router and dedicated storage saying “I already have one” – what will happen is we will have something simple everyone can use.
  • Vacuum cleaners as we know them will disappear as robotic appliance like Rumba will be the norm
  • Within 10 years Microsoft Windows will have less than 70% market share (in my mind this will spur innovation)
  • Lanline Telephone Services will disappear within 10 years as wireless will hit speeds never imagined (Gigabyte Wireless anyone??)…..Not so hard when you think less than 20 years ago at Microsoft I started with a PC  hard drive that had 40mb.
  • Within 15 years all medical records will be digitized
  • Dentists will grow your teeth – no more fillings (my dentists says I am too optimistic on this one…he justs says this because I am good business for him)
  • Cars will not need you to drive them…just plug in the coordinates (sorry car lovers that is just the way it will be). Eric Schmidt CEO of Google spoke to this specific point at TechCrunch 2010

All these things will be good for the economy and our day-to-day lives.  Before we get to gushing about the possibilities I should add that like all things in technology they come with a price.  We need a break through in how we will power all this technology.  One thing that is missing is what will be a big break through in power utilization. Another question is what will be the cost to humans.  How lazy will we become?  One thing they seem to miss in discussions about obese America is how everything we need can be controlled from our couch.  What scares me even more is some people like it.  How about a proposal to congress, if you can’t get off your coach no healthcare?

There is a dark side to technological advancement.  With these advances the information available to those who would do ill against their fellow-man or woman has never been greater.  Will there be a bio-terrorism attack in a subway? Airport? Office building?  Unfortunately I can add that to my list of predictions.  But my old CEO Bill Gates never looked at things that way he was a opimist on everything to do with technology.  So I leave this article to him rather than take you down the darker side of my soul.

As I wrote my coming predictions I found it easy.  I could probably easily add fifty more predictions.  But the trick in any advancement is not predicting it but timing it.  There were many efforts at a Kindle before the Kindle.  As I saw Newt Gingrich say in a speech on CSPAN when reflecting on the past century and moving forward in this one, “If you take all the advancements of the 20th Century, we will surpass them all in the first 25 years of the 21st century”.  I will not go out on a limb in just adding Newt is right.  That’s not a prediction that’s just the way things will be.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann September 30, 2010

The Mobile Market Tidal Wave

In technology it is vitally important yet very difficult to see and understand when change occurs. You can invest millions in a product only to discover upon release that the market has moved on. I was on a recent camping trip when this thought started to come into perspective. As I think of the huge Microsoft Windows Phone 7 launch it dawned on me that the market Microsoft was going after was moving on into new fields of gold.

To put in perspective there are many technologies that are ahead of their time.  Sometimes it is just trying to find the market or an inability to create the market.    It’s challenging these days because we are faced with technology purchase decisions on a regular basis.  It could be a game console decision – am I going to be a Sony, Wii or Xbox person or family.  What eReader technology – Kindle or iPad?  Not to mention all the wannabe’s.   How long will these new technologies last before I have to get the latest and greatest?  How many people still have the original iPod, but more importantly how many people bought the next release? The Nano?   It’s an industry in constant flux.

This brings us back to our latest topic – mobility.  It’s been three years since Apple released the iPhone.  Three very painful years for the Microsoft Windows Mobile team (not to mention a lot of others: Nokia, Palm, RIM, etc..).  It caused a lot of denial at Microsoft and took some people to make a big decision to scrap the old code and stat all over again.  I am not sure what the people supporting the old code were defending, it was light years behind what Apple was doing. But the question to me will be when it releases this fall it will have been 3 years since the debut of the iPhone and is the market still in a place dreaming of a new great smart phone or has it moved on to newer and greener pastures?

There are three things that I see in play in the current mobile market:

  1. A titanic struggle between Apple and Android – causing a huge surge in application development for these two platforms
  2. A rapidly changing form factor being driven by the iPad changing how we interact with technology – that seems to bridge the Smartphone and LapTop/Netbook market
  3. The rise of the “First Globalists” (age group 18-29) in driving technology adoption across the remaining groups in the market place

There is no question that when Apple launched the iPhone, beyond the beauty and experience of the device, Apple caused a huge shift in the developer community.  It seemed overnight you had companies starting up writing applications to the iPhone.  This means that developers were spending less time as a group on other platforms.  It was a rapid shift in the market.  Shortly after Google launched its Android initiative.  A beautiful example of the private sector mixing with the Open Source community.  Google provides the financial backing along with sales and marketing expertise.    Thee Open Source community, which is a developer community, provides the magic of creating a large application library.  I was talking with my friend Allen in the Silicon Valley  and he told me, “Right now in the valley it is all focused on iPhone and Android development”.  Today these platforms are each at or close to 100,000 applications.  At launch the Windows Phone is hoping for 10,000. In the tech industry if you do not have the hearts and minds of the developer, you have nothing.

The second area that is changing is the form factor of mobility.  The iPhone started that change, but the iPad is moving it forward in an ever changing direction.  The point being you can release a iPhone killer smartphone tomorrow, but it will not matter as the market has moved on. Not to mention that many capabilities we want in our smartphone are better suited for the iPad – such as browsing the web.  Another area is a phones primary function – voice.  Voice is no longer a service but an application and with the proliferation of voice enabled devices for PC’s, Netbooks and Tablets.  Though I do not expect phones to away our ability to interact with people through voice from whatever device I am connected to at that particular moment has been enhanced to the point that if I am watching TV i can interact with people through my TV while watching television.

The term “First Globalists” first came to my attention after reading John Zogby’s great book “The Way We’ll Be”.  It is the definition applied to the current 18-29 age group.  The first generation who have grown up in a world of ever and rapidly changing technology.  Who have always had the internet and a cell phone.  Who do not view technology with fear like many in my generation did.  So when the changes in form factor and how we interact with those new form factors occur they will approach and embrace these changes without hesitation and they will lead the market to new places.  Including yours truly.

Markets change rapidly and nowhere do they change faster than in technology.  You may have the best phone or at least a very competitive device but if you are late the market you are after may be transitioning to a new place.  From my days in marketing class at my university the term we used for these type of players is “laggards”.  Then it was academic but now I realize it’s not very flattering.  So my question to my past is “Where do you want to go today?”.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann Sept 21st 2010

9/11 at Microsoft

“Our envy of others devours us most of all.  Rub you eyes and purify your heart and prize above all else those in the world who love you and wish you well.  Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from them in anger”

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In my journal  on Sept 16th I wrote those words as they seemed to help cope with those tragic events of September 11th, 2001.   I find the Russian writers heavy hand a good way of dealing with life’s lower points.  I cannot add much to a day that so many of us experienced in so many ways.  This is just an account of my day, which was just another day in which I was going to work at Microsoft.

The morning started like so many.  I had two young boys at the time.  One was 2 and the other was nearly 6 months old.  I woke up with the oldest and my wife soon followed with the youngest.  He was hungry so she fed like many mothers do, child to breast.  It was Tuesday and I had to go to work.  It was also the day my parents took care of my older son.  Luckily my parents lived not more than 2 minutes from the Microsoft campus so it was convenient.  That day I was attending an internal conference at the new conference center on campus. 

Before I went to work I needed to fill up my 1994 four-wheel drive Ford Ranger with gas.  I was dressed and ready to go so I took my two-year old and we hopped into the Ford Ranger and drove over to Costco to fill up the truck.  As usual I was listening to Fisher and West on 103.7 the Mountain.  They were playing music and providing traffic updates.  A small news item was about a small aircraft that had hit the World Trade Center.  As we drove and Fisher and West spoke we neared Costco.  It was then Fisher said, “another plane has hit the World Trade Center”.  As Fisher and West continued to talk Fisher abruptly said, “I have got to leave for a second and check this out”.  It was at that moment I knew this was no accident.  These two DJ’s had been on the air for a long time and were true professionals, for Fisher to suddenly leave on air  for a moment to watch the television told me something was not right in the world.

I filled up the truck and raced home as the news was starting to filter in that a United Airlines Jet had hit  the World Trade Center and it was believed the first plane was a jet as well.  I got home jumped out of the truck, ran round to the other side and pulled my two-year old out the passenger door of the truck and raced into the house.  As I launched myself through the door I put my two-year old down and raced into the living room.  My wife heard me and saw me running to the television and was asking, “what’s going on?”.  I replied, “A plane hit the world trade center”.  Then I turned on the television to Channel Five and the Today show.  And then there it was, a Boeing 767 flying directly into the World Trade Center.  Before our eyes, as a look of horror overcame our faces, we had just watched at least 300 and probably more people die.  Fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters would not be coming again, ever.

As we watched the news reports we had to get ready for the day.  I got my son in the truck and we drove off to Redmond.  As I drove south on I-5 and then merged west bound onto 520 the reports were streaming across the radio.  Many reports were unconfirmed.  Car bombs in Washington DC, planes hi-jacked but how many?   The reports kept coming in.  What was happening was our entire nation had become unsettled and no-one, not even the “freedom of the press” knew what was going on.  It was a moment unlike any in US history.

When I got to my parents they of course were watching.  I asked them not to watch TV as I did not want my son watching, since he was at that age where he was beginning to take in and absorb everything he saw.  This was one event I did not want him to absorb.  For the first time in fatherhood I found myself saying that old cliché, “he is only a child”.  It just was not so cliché anymore.  With that I said my goodbye’s and I got back in my Ford Ranger and drove off to the Microsoft conference center.

When I got to the conference center I walked in to the new facility with its new rooms and tables set with breakfast items.  I walked into room we were scheduled to be in which was a large room that held around 100 people with a big movie size video screen.  But rather than Powerpoint’s today we had the news on and the site of the World trade Center’s twin towers on fire.  People from offices all over Microsoft North America.  It was to discuss some new Partner Programs as far as I remembered, but who cared. It was a dazed audience as we just all sat and stared at the big screen . It was as if no one was comprehending what was going on.  We just watched.  Then at 9:59 am the South Tower fell.  There were screams in the audience.  We were so far removed yet so close.  Who could do such a thing? Why?  We sat another 30 minutes until 10:28 when the North Tower fell.  The screams and yell came again and then it was over.  What had started as a quite morning had produced a horror that no one could envision. 

After the North Tower fell news began to filter in.  The skies were closed.  Anyone who had a flight out of Seattle would not be going home anytime soon.  When I went out into the hall people were already in planning mode.  I heard of some guys from Detroit who had rented a car and were driving home.  Confusion was everywhere.  I was just in a daze.  I went back into the room and it was apparent the people who had organized  the meeting were trying to figure out what to do.  At 11:30 they decided to move forward with the presentations.  They started and I listened and watched.  Some people were actually engaged and asking questions.  I couldn’t.   The event was just too great for to me and many people in the audience to ignore.  I thought it was a poor decision and around noon I just left and decided to go home. 

 I left and went to pick up my son a couple of miles away at my parents house.  As I left for the drive home my mind was filled with anger and confusion over the events that I had seen that day.  Even though the day was only half over I was tired.  As I drove over the 520 bridge on Lake Washington and saw Seattle before me I realized how beautiful the day was.  It was similar to New York in that regard.  The sky was clear blue and the water on the lake was very calm and soothing.   It seemed like the flames of hell were in my mind but the beauty of my hometown was captivating and I could not reconcile the two.  I crossed the bridge and decided to go to the church where I was married, Blessed Sacrament.  I needed peace.  I needed to turn the radio off.  I needed to turn the TV off. I needed to turn the media off. 

To my surprise when I got there and went into the parish.  My son and I were the only two people there.  I sat in thepews and bowed my head.  Looking.  Searching.  Trying to understand and find reason in a world I did not understand anymore. My son was jumping and running around the pews in a joyful kind of play.  It was a paradoxical sort of moment, that maybe only a child could provide.  In its own way it was as real as life could be.  I went home and the rest of the day has fallen from memory.  Probably because I turned the TV on.  The one thing I remember is the sky was quiet, except for the occasional fighter jet that flew over head.  It was frightening.

In the coming days many acts of heroism would come to light and there were people at Microsoft who did their part.  Kim Daley the GM for the Microsoft Ney York office did her part in working with Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office.   I knew Kim having worked with her before, she was a very hard working dedicated Microsoft employee and it did not surprise me she rose to the occasion.  I am sure there were many employees not just at Microsoft but many other companies in corporate America who rose to the occasion. It was just what had to be done.  The Microsoft human resources department, on a global scale, communicated throughout the week and kept every employee informed on what we as a company were doing and what people could do to help.  It was great work ,it was impassioned work.

The events of 9/11 caused many Americans to do things just because it was the right thing to do.  because it was what was needed at the time.    As a country we came together because things needed to be done.  Imagine what we could accomplish if we thought that way all the time.  Unfortunately that is not the way things work.  But in any case lets just pause and maybe, just maybe let’s imagine what could be.

A month later the season of Fall had settled in.  I love fall above all other seasons.  I love the changing of colors.  The change in temperature to a coolness greeted with warmth in the afternoons.  I looked forward to raking the leaves from underneath the large maple tree in our yard.  It was kind of magical experience.  On this day on October I was with my eldest son, he with his little leaf rake and me with my man rake.  As we sat there under a bright blue sky a jet plane flew over head.  Leaving a jet stream in its wake.  then my son uttered words that caused all the blood in my veins to freeze, “Daddy, Daddy, plane fall down, plane fall down…plane fall down….”.  Then I wept.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Hoffmann September 11, 2010

From a dream to the Kindle to the iPad

When I think of technology and what is successful and what is not, what ends up being a big success is not necessarily new, but something that has been tried many times before.  It just took someone or some company to take a different approach to make it a huge success.  When I look around the industry at the state of what is becoming the eReader space its interesting to see how it has evolved from its inception to the current rage, the current rage being the Apple iPad.

As is usual for me I guess I have to leverage those 18 years at Microsoft.  Some of my “former” readers find this very boring, but I think for this little blog its a good place to start.  Since the dawn of Microsoft R&D one of the things they have worked extensively on was eReader technology.  Microsoft Research (MSR) was launched in 1991 right around the time I started with the company.  It was one of the earliest Microsoft mantra’s -“to provide the technology for the paperless office”.  Trying to move books to the PC seemed like a great place to start.  Probably most people do not know this or do not care because during all those years not much in the way of a product was actually released.  They did invent something called Clear Text which was cool as it looked and read like a book when and was not very hard on the eyes.  In fact most of what I see today in the industry is Clear Text. But true to Microsoft they looked for partners to create the “wow” experience.

It was a long time before anyone figured this out to make it popular on a wide scale.  It came from what would seem an unlikely candidate, Amazon.  I only say unlikely because up to tha point they were really a eCommerce site.  However when you  think about all the relationships they have with the major publishers it made sense.  It is expensive to carry an inventory of books and ship books.  When it is all stored and delivered digitally then the margins become much more attractive. The Kindle became a huge success from Amazon and an eye opener for the industry.  This idea of reading paperless books and been envisioned for so long but the dream of success had never been achieved.  I first saw one of these devices on a flight.  An older gentleman was sitting next to me in First class.  He was showing it off to one of the flight attendants and I could not help but ease drop.  The Kindle was elegant just based on its simplicity.  It allowed you to change font sizes at a click of a button.  This was great in my eyes, since as I get older it is getting harder to see. then there is the sheer quantity of books that can be stored on your Kindle.

However when I look at the Kindle, despite its current success I view it as a stepping stone technology.  That technology that is great and popular until something better comes along.  There are a lot of past and current examples of these type of technologies.  Tivo seems to me likely to fall behind as a home media server finally takes hold (xBox is going down this path).

The new rage and the one that I think will be around for a while is the Apple iPad.  Unlike the Kindle it is not a single function device but allows users to read, watch videos and play music to name but a few things in a seemless user-friendly experience.  We over use the term “user-friendly” in technology but in the end it cannot be emphasized enough.  Simply because so many companies say it, but fail to deliver upon it.  Then there is the question of how many devices to I want to lug around, the more I can condense my devices into one device the better my experience.   The iPad is yet another big hit for Apple and one that seems destined to sink those in the eReader space who oppose it.

It will be interesting to see if Amazon will be able to respond to the threat of iPad or carve out a niche for itself.  I think they will be very challenged to keep pace with the innovation coming from Apple.  Not to mention the fact that Apple is leading the consumer technology industry in defining the term “user-friendly”.  As I said in the beginning what is being done with content is not new, it is not as if it has not been envisioned.  It has just taken time for everything from device form factor, to software experience to content distribution to fall into place.  But that time has finally arrived and now there is no turning back.

Good Night and good Luck

Hans Hoffmann August 31st 2010