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Microsoft's ability to leverage the tech media's credulity is weakening, as is evident from the emerging skepticism of its ability to deliver upon its latest product demonstration: HoloLens.
A show in need of a star
Without introducing HoloLens, Microsoft's post-CES product event— which droned on for two hours and twenty minutes— would have had nothing to show but a series of reminders that it is working on products that are increasingly irrelevant.
By way of comparison, Apple's last event to exceed two hours introduced iOS 8, iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple Pay, Apple Watch, a performance by U2 and another 15 minutes to spare.
Apart from HoloLens, Microsoft showed off another overview of Windows 10, demonstrating a doubled-down commitment (if slightly backpedaled) to the colorful, Live Tile user interface that the market has consistently, stridently rejected, first on the Zune, then on Windows Phones 7 and 8, Windows 7 and 8, Windows RT and Surface hybrids.
Even people who love Windows hate Metro, making it bizarre to perpetually feature as the lynchpin of the last three editions of Windows. It is however unique to Microsoft.
That can't be said of the company's other Windows features highlighted at the event: ostensibly free OS updates, a standards compliant web browser with Safari Reader, Office running on a mobile device, third party apps that run on a mobile device, AirPlay wireless distribution and Siri.
These weren't even new features for iOS 7 back in 2013, but they're coming "later this year" to Windows PCs— with the exception of Surface RT users (you know, the ones Microsoft spent over $1 billion advertising as a good dance partner).
There was also Surface Hub, a rebranding of the Perceptive Pixel touchscreens Microsoft acquired back in 2012. It used to be that Microsoft changed the name of its failed products to divorce itself from their bad reputations (Web TV to Microsoft TV to Ultimate TV; MSN to Windows Live to Bing; Windows Mobile to Windows Phone to now just Windows).
Now it just reuses "Surface" over and over again, despite a hat trick of incredibly spectacular flops dating back to 2007's "big ass table" Surface.
Microsoft's wildly innovative HoloLens
In an effort to incite some fresh excitement, Microsoft demonstrated that it could still release standards-compliant vaporware in the form of HoloLens.
It's sort of like the Surface RT, but rather than being a copy of iPad, it's an amalgamation of products that aren't from Apple: a cross between Google Glass and Facebook Oculus Rift, paired with the same augmented reality games and visualizations that PrimeSense showed off two years ago (below), before Apple acquired the company in late 2013.
Last summer, itSeez3D shipped a free app for iPads paired with a Occipital Structure Sensor, and it can already do the sort of 3D modeling that Microsoft essentially claimed credit for inventing, and which its outsourced PR agents at fawned over as if it had never been done before.
The most innovative aspect of HoloLens is that it renames "augmented reality" as "holograms," even though there's not really any holograms involved. A hologram is a 3D image created with the interference and diffraction of light, not a stereoscopic, transparent screen you look through.
Microsoft is not only broadly claiming credit for lots of stuff that's already been public for years, but it's grossly misrepresenting the potential of the technology. The introduction video (below) starts off associating the phrase "we use it in every aspect of our lives" with Microsoft Band, but that's not the most ridiculous part by far.
It portrays the appearance of augmented reality images (not new) that it calls "the world of holograms" (not true), but the most absurd part is that it depicts virtual wall mounted TVs in the user's line of vision (not something you'd do).
If you're going to walk around your house with goggles on, you'll want to take full advantage of all the pixels on those tiny screens to see whatever TV image you're trying to watch, not reduce the viewable image down to a box that virtually obscures only the part of the wall you have free to virtually mount a TV.
Similarly, when you want to watch a web video on your phone, you don't want it to play inside of a tiny box on the screen, just because that's what you might do on a PC. You'd generally want it to use the whole screen to show you as much detail of the video as possible. The virtual TV in Microsoft's demo would be like watching a tiny video taking up one square inch of your phone's available resolution.
Next up: "new ways to visualize our work," showing a woman designing a motorcycle at a PC CAD workstation, but wearing goggles that create a lower resolution copy of what's on her (presumably professional grade) monitor. More than anything, this demonstrates Microsoft's lack of imagination and understanding of how technology can be applied.
Next, she walks over to a real motorcycle and augments the reality with virtual images she can freely manipulate. This sort of makes some real sense (but its exactly the same sort of thing PrimeSense depicted two years ago).
Microsoft is claiming credit for the same augmented reality games and visualizations that PrimeSense showed off two years ago
Next, another woman walks through an office where a Google Glass image of somebody she's FaceTiming somehow mysteriously fails to cause her to walk into one of those desks, breaking her hip and those expensive glasses.
And because Microsoft wants to be involved somehow in this future vision blending Apple's shipping reality and Google failed fantasy product, the visualization involves a 3D representation of file icon documents dragging across the screen like it's Windows 95.
Next there's a cameo of Minecraft (which Microsoft just acquired for youth cred), playing in augmented reality that's again been imagined and depicted in public (much more realistically) for years now. If Microsoft were shipping this, it'd be noteworthy and cool. But it's only dreaming up vaporware at this point. That's neither noteworthy nor cool.
Next there's a combination of more "virtual small TV" combined with FaceTime, using Aqua buttons from Vista appropriated from the OS X 10.0 beta from the year 2000, depicting a guy mansplaining to a woman how to attach a drain trap.
If she can figure out how to use augmented reality headgear from Microsoft, I'm pretty sure she doesn't need a man telling her how two tighten two coupling nuts on a piece of pipe that only has two coupling nuts on it.
Next a man builds a 3D model using air gestures rather than just interacting with a mouse. To imagine how insanely frustrating this would be, use a touchscreen PC with Windows 8.1, where you have to use that touchscreen rather than the pointing device.
Now image that, instead of using a high resolution, precise touchscreen, you have to rely on optical sensors (like the Kinect) coordinated with the motion sensors in your headgear that keep moving your target about.
I know I let you down, didn't I?
The best part of the video is the great song at the end by Imagine Dragons, which perfectly captures the depth of Microsoft's reality-detached, culturally oblivious corporate culture.
The catchy tune and popularity of the recent hit "I Bet My Life" was apparently the only reason Microsoft picked it for its completely unrealistic depiction of what life could be like if only Microsoft could further inject itself in our lives. It certainly wasn't because of the lyrics:
There's references to Microsoft's BSODs and viruses:
I know I let you down, didn't I?
And Internet Explorer:
Remember when I broke you down to tears,
I know I took the path that you would never want for me,
I gave you hell through all the years
And Mac switchers:
Would I come running home to you
Microsoft's appropriation of everything Apple has ever done:
There's you in everything I do
The Surface, Surface 2 and Surface 3:
And perhaps Bill Gates
That's actually the whole song. It also has a great video:
This all happened before
As Ben Kuchera wrote for Polygon, Microsoft's depiction of HoloLens "leaves many technical questions unanswered, and assumes a number of huge breakthroughs in augmented reality."
He added, "the problem is that Microsoft has only shown that [HoloLens] hardware in a controlled environment, and we have to keep in mind the difference between these first displays of the technology and the reality of what is actually shipped. The best way to show that difference? Let's take a look at Microsoft's own history."
Kuchera pointed to Microsoft's earlier "Project Natal," which back in 2009 promised all sorts of things that the actual Xbox Kinect failed to deliver once it actually reached the market. He concluded, "the video and demos we've seen are Microsoft's best-case scenarios, and that can often be a very long way from real life."
Over the past five years, Microsoft struggled for two years just to port Windows to ARM, and that was (literally) to save its life. And even that didn't work out.
Office, the company's other big business, didn't ship in a modern touchscreen edition for iPad until last year, when the iPad was turning four years old. It's still in beta for Android tablets, and it's hasn't even made it to Microsoft's own tablet platform.
Also, while Apple shipped four new major releases of OS X and five new editions of iOS since 2010, Microsoft has delivered one major new release of Windows for consumers in the same time frame (and it was a flop). The last major update, Windows 7, shipped in 2009 alongside Apple's fifth.
And if we're talking about hardware, Microsoft has done nothing but fail in ways that makes Google look like a savvy hardware maker: Band, Surface, Windows Phone, Xbox One and Kinect do not suggest Microsoft's core competency involves any sort of physical goods. Its corporate name sort of hints at that.
Microsoft's core competency is vaporware.