REDMOND, Wash., March 22, 2004 — When the managers of a Danish manufacturing company arrived at Microsoft’s main campus here on an overcast afternoon recently, their expectations were as unclear as the weather outside. They wanted technology to eliminate the hassles created by their disparate business systems and streamline their operations. They just didn’t know how — or if — Microsoft could help them do these things any time soon.
Then they stepped inside the Center for Information Work (CIW). The center is Microsoft’s showroom for some of the technology innovations that the company expects will reach information workers in the coming years. This vision is of software that seamlessly links and offers instant analysis of sales projections and inventories, both in-house and through the supply chain. It’s also software that increases IT security through new methods of user identification and enables mobile employees to stay connected in real time, even if they are half a world away.
The main conference room in the Center for Information Work features a networked projector by Sony, a RingCam and Tablet PCs from Hewlett Packard. Click image for high-res version.
“Very inspiring,” said one of the managers after completing the tour and seeing in action software and hardware prototypes that addressed many of the business challenges he had outlined earlier in the day to a Microsoft sales manager. “I asked for this at 3 p.m.,” he said, a mixture of humor and surprise in his voice. “And I got to see it at 5,” — in the center.
The Danish manufacturing managers aren’t alone. On the day of their visit, they were the last of a nearly continuous stream of visitors each hour on the hour. Since it opened in September 2002, the center has attracted more than 15,000 customers, reporters, government officials and others.
To better meet this demand, Microsoft recently moved the center from Building 34 of the company’s Redmond campus to a space next door in the Executive Briefing Center. The new center is twice the size of the old one and can accommodate 25 people on each tour, 50 percent more than in the past. In addition, the new center, which opened last November, offers expanded demonstrations to provide a more detailed, interactive view of Microsoft’s vision of the future of productivity.
“This tour offers a glimpse of how software is going to further increase the productivity of information workers – everyone from CxOs to line-level workers — in the coming years,” says Thomas Gruver, group product manager, CIW. “The new center brings this vision closer to the information worker, enabling all employees a real-time link into their business process.”
Introducing the Vision
The prototype technologies in the center have been developed by Microsoft Research (MSR), product teams and several of Microsoft’s partners. Gruver expects to introduce new and updated technologies as they become available every one or two years. Most of those included in the new center aren’t yet fully operational and aren’t expected to show up in Microsoft products for another three to five years. But through the magic of simulation, the prototypes come to life a few years early at the center.
In the case of the Danish manufacturers, the simulation immediately hit home. They had expected to see demonstrations of upcoming versions of Microsoft Office and Windows. Instead, they were given an assignment: To help a manufacturing firm meet an unplanned spike in customer demand. (In keeping with Microsoft policy, PressPass has maintained the confidentiality of customers who tour the center or otherwise investigate the company’s software.)
As with the previous version of the center, customers who take the hour-long tour play the role of managers and workers in a make-believe multinational firm, Contoso Widget Corp. The scenario, Gruver says, allows visitors to experience first hand the potential of these prototype software technologies when used together in a realistic setting.
The new, larger center expands the Contoso scenario to more clearly demonstrate how the future software addresses business challenges and realities that have grown in recent years, including mobile computing and synchronization of partner systems in different locations, Gruver says.
A section of an actual semi-truck cab and a simulated work floor are now included in the tour to help demonstrate how Tablet PCs, mobile software and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags allow a new Contoso supplier to scan the contents of its delivery trucks while en route and then redirect a truck to make an unscheduled delivery. These new mobile workplaces are in addition to a simulated airplane interior, where a Contoso vice president uses a Tablet PC and mobile software to virtually attend a staff meeting and sign a time-sensitive contract while flying back from a business meeting.
The center’s simulated board room demonstrates how other mobile and remote-computing technologies will eliminate many of the current barriers for company’s whose employees are scattered around the globe. A “Ringcam” sits at the center of the meeting table, providing remote attendees a 360-degree view of the meeting. The device, which combines several standard Web cameras in a circular array, also tracks activity in the room, focusing the camera on whoever’s speaking at a given time. The Tablet PCs allow the Contoso managers to share hand-written notes and diagrams on a single virtual whiteboard with meeting attendees in the room as well as the people connecting remotely. The notes are also automatically and permanently stored so they can be searched and referenced later.
Another of the technologies designed to free workers from their desks drew quizzical looks from a group of international bankers who took the tour recently. The eight workstations in the center’s theater-like entry room offer side-by-side dual monitors or computers integrated with phones and Tablet PCs.
The multiple screens allowed the bankers to keep several documents and applications open and easily accessible. Then, before moving to the board room, several of the bankers pulled the wireless Tablet PCs from their cradles, allowing them to access all of the open files, applications and information stored on their full workstation or network from anywhere within the pseudo office setting.
Importance of Software Front and Center
Microsoft includes the prototype workstations and other hardware in the center to show off the innovation of its partners, including Sony, Hewlett-Packard, NEC and Intel. But the designers of the new center went to extra lengths to make sure even the gadget-loving business people who are typically drawn to the center recognize that it will take more than advanced hardware to create the office of the future.
On large screens that were added to the center, long streams of code fly by as the prototype software works behind the scenes to scan Contoso’s databases and supplier inventories to make instant cost and delivery calculations. The same occurs when the software automatically schedules a meeting for the managers at a time convenient for all of them and then sends each a notice on the device he or she is currently using.
“We want to make sure it’s clear,” Gruver says, “that software is what enables workers to turn information into something usable, filtering out what is unimportant and allowing the user to make proactive, informed decisions.”
The message is reinforced in less graphic but similarly dramatic ways throughout the center. All of the visitors log onto their workstations using face-recognition or other prototype security software, including one that allows them to click on pre-assigned points within an on-screen picture to identify themselves. Called Click It, this technology is based on research that shows many people find it easier to remember points on an image than alpha-numerical characters. Also, by making it harder for automated systems to sleuth identities, these new security technologies reduce the costs typically associated with changing forgotten pass codes, Gruver says.
The fledgling Contoso managers also sample prototype interface features as they investigate how to help the widget company fill a surprise spike in demand. As e-mail, phone, voice mail and other communications flood in, converged on a single on-screen timeline, a Notification Bar sorts and alerts the managers and offers countdowns for time-sensitive messages. Rules set by the user determine how he or she is notified and how often, across multiple devices and settings.
Another prototype feature, currently called “Stuff I’ve Seen,” allows the Contoso managers to store information from various locations and in different formats — ranging from handwritten, onscreen “ink” notes to Microsoft PowerPoint presentations — so they can access them without switching between different programs or searching different locations on the computer.
Several of the international bankers were intrigued by how the prototype interface integrated a worker’s personal information and technologies, including integration and electronic notifications from home systems.
This commingling of personal and private lives makes sense, they said, because it allows workers to manage their personal lives while working today’s longer work schedules. “Otherwise you lose track of your personal life,” one of the bankers said.
Feedback Key to Center’s Long-term Success
Some parts of Microsoft’s vision of the future are less warmly embraced. The Danish manufacturers felt the prototype user interface was too busy. Some of the international bankers felt the messaging and meeting applications were too regimented.
Soliciting positive and negative input is one of the center’s primary goals. Only with lots of feedback and direction from customers can Microsoft and its partners finetune the vision and the prototype technologies to better meet the emerging needs of businesses, Gruver says. In fact, Microsoft plans to begin popping questions onto the devices the visitors use at different points of the tour. This should increase the feedback on all of the prototype technologies, not just those that stick out in the minds of the visitors at the end of the tour. Gruver explains.
“The center is much like a car show with exotic prototypes,” he says. “The cars that eventually hit the road usually look much different than those at the show. Features are eliminated; others are added, based to a great extent on the reactions of car enthusiasts at the show.”
And when will the prototypes in the center begin appearing in Microsoft products? It all depends on the demand for the individual technologies and other factors, such as the development schedules of hardware manufacturers, Gruver says. Some of the advances, such as multi-screen displays, are already beginning to appear in some offices. Other technologies are further off, such as some of the user interface features.
“The future is a moving target,” Gruver says, “So this center can’t remain static. We plan to expand and revise the tour based on feedback from customers and as we have new technologies to showcase.”
This target was more clearly focused for the Danish manufacturers as they stepped back from the future and began discussing with a Microsoft sales manager how their present day technology might lead to a Contoso-like future.
“This has given us the inspiration,” one of the mangers said, “to have a more productive workplace.”