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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Microsoft Is Talking About the Future, A Lot

REDMOND, Wash. â€" There are technology companies that won’t say anything about the futuristic inventions they’re tinkering with in their labs â€" Apple, for instance.

Then there are the companies that won’t stop talking about them. Think Google and its driverless cars and Google Glass.

Microsoft is firmly in the latter camp. The company says it has the largest research organization of its kind and is a prolific publisher of academic-style papers, which it shares openly. For years it has operated a home of the future in a building on its campus where it invites visitors for a glimpse of how technology could reshape kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms years from now.

Earlier this week, it held an annual event for a small group of journalists inside its home of the future, recently remodeled to include more examples of what workplaces of the future might look like. One technology Microsoft returned to again and again in its demonstrations was jumbo-size touchscreens, which are based on designs by Perceptive Pixel, a company Microsoft acquired last year. Perceptive Pixel’s screens, which look like the offspring of an iPad and a television set,! are most familiar to people who have watched election night coverage on networks like CNN, where on-air commentators have for years manipulated electoral maps using the technology.

Microsoft believes the technology will have a big impact on offices, where they will replace whiteboards, allow for more immersive video conferences and transform the way presentations are delivered. Microsoft showed one research project that used the displays in which a presenter could revamp charts and bar graphs on the fly with different data by using a stylus to sketch little codes on the screen.

“It changes the way meetings work,” said Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s chief research officer.

The company is using the technology widely in-house now, a process known in the tech industry as “dogfooding.” Its chief executive, Steve Ballmer, has a giant touch-screen in his office, as do a number of other senior executives. Some meeting spaces at Microsoft are being redesigned to be more open so they can accommodate the giant screens, which can be bigger than 80 inches.

“It won’t be unreasonable to think of all walls being touch-enabled,” said Kurt Delbene, president of the Office division at Microsoft, who said Microsoft would bring the cost of the devices down “substantially” from the tens of thousands of dollars that bigger ones cost today.

Microsoft talks a lot more than Apple does about projects like giant touchscreens partly because it thinks it can spark wider interest and investment in categories that will come back to benefit the company, as a major provider of software and services for computers. Apple, in contrast, says almost nothing about the technologies it is working on until shortly before they can be purchased as products i! n a store! , the better to maximize sales.

It’s also worth mentioning that Microsoft far outspends Apple on research and development, devoting nearly $10 billion, or close to 13 percent of revenue, in its most recent fiscal year. Last year Apple spent $3.4 billion, or 2 percent of its revenue, on research and development.

Apple appears to have gotten a lot more out of a far smaller investment than Microsoft has. But whatever their research investments, it’s tough to overstate how Apple has out-executed Microsoft over the past five years in creating compelling mobile products like tablets and smartphones. Microsoft was in both categories long before its rival, but fumbled its leads there.

Mr. Rashid said Microsoft’s hefty investments in research, especially basic echnology research that may not yield products for years or ever, are essential for its future. He said the technology industry was littered with companies that didn’t invest enough in long-term research, only to run into trouble when technology trends shifted.

“It gives you the ability to survive if things go wrong,” he said.