Microsoft Development Head 'The Whole Room Will Be the Computer'
With Windows 8, its own tablet and a new smartphone system, Microsoft has launched an offensive against Apple and Google. The company's development director Craig Mundie tells SPIEGEL ONLINE what went wrong at the IT giant in the past, and how it plans to catch up with its competitors.
SPIEGEL: Microsoft will present a whole array of new products at the end of this week. Is this the beginning of a comeback to former glory?
Mundie: I believe that Microsoft never lost its relevance. I always tell people we're almost 40 years old now, fighting against every venture-funded good idea on the planet in the world's most competitive industry, and we're still here, OK? So I ask, "Do you think that's just an accident?" I don't think so.
SPIEGEL: Microsoft's track record at anticipating technological trends hasn't always been the best. With the Surface tablet and the new Windows 8 software you are now targeting the mobile market in particular. Is it 10 years too late once again?
Mundie: My response is that we had a music player before the iPod. We had a touch device before the iPad. And we were leading in the mobile phone space. So, it wasn't for a lack of vision or technological foresight that we lost our leadership position. The problem was that we just didn't give enough reinforcement to those products at the time that we were leading. Unfortunately, the company had some executional missteps, which occurred right at the time when Apple launched the iPhone. With that, we appeared to drop a generation behind.
SPIEGEL: What happened?
Mundie: During that time, Windows went through a difficult period where we had to shift a huge amount of our focus to security engineering. The criminal activity in cyberspace was growing dramatically ten years ago, and Microsoft was basically the only company that had enough volume for it to be a target. In part because of that, Windows Vista took a long time to be born.
SPIEGEL: What role will Microsoft play in the coming decade?
Mundie: I think it's going to be an interesting next decade. This is my 20th year at Microsoft. Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold hired me to develop the company's capability in non-PC computing. In 1992, that seemed very avant-garde, but of course today we all live with computing everywhere around us.
SPIEGEL: What will the computer of the future look like and how will we even know that's what it is?
Mundie: We're trying to make the computer more like us and act as helpful as an expert. To do that, we have to teach the computer to emulate more of the human senses -- seeing, listening, speaking, as well as the tactile senses. We believe that our 3-D motion sensor Kinect will be a big part of that. The computers and the back-end cloud services are powerful enough now that we will see more of this type of technology very soon.
SPIEGEL: What would that mean for people's homes or offices?
Mundie: For example, you'll be able to directly ask the computer to help you. In the past, to work a computer program, you had to learn how to use the tool, and the tool had rigidity. In the future, it should be more like going to an assistant and saying, "Here is a document, make it look good," rather than saying, "Make this paragraph this point size and fit this font." A big emphasis at Microsoft is machine learning. The computer should not only be able to emulate your senses, but to appear to understand things based on learning or history. For example, for Office 365, which is in testing right now, we built a machine-learning-based assistant for your inbox. The program looks at all your historical mail handling. From that, it makes judgments about what's most important to you and groups those things together. How does it know? Because it has observed your behavior over some period of time.
SPIEGEL: Don't people want to define themselves what's important to them and what isn't?
Mundie: That would require people to actually describe their own behaviors, which we've learned they can't do. They can't tell you how they think enough to be able to put it into rules. The computer, on the other hand, is very capable of observing your actions and deducing from that a set of behaviors or rules.
SPIEGEL: If you look 10 years ahead, what kind of role will the PC play?
Mundie: I think it will be about almost like it is today. However, it will be supplemented with intelligent whiteboards and displays for group discussions, for example. Eventually, you will come into a room and the whole room will be the computer. In fact, people will be thinking more about computing and not computers. So for example, when you go into a space, you might have your phone in your pocket and your tablet in your briefcase. And if you set them down, they will all work together.
SPIEGEL: With the Surface tablet you are becoming a direct competitor of your partners. Does Microsoft plan to develop both hardware and software, going it alone like Apple?
Mundie: Apple has always had the luxury of being a software and a hardware company. I do describe that as a luxury, because you only have to think about yourself. But at least in the past, when you start to fan out and want to provide products for the whole world in every country, it's very hard to do that on your own. We still think that it's better to have a symbiotic relationship with our worldwide community of partners. And we are not alone with this model. Google's Android, for example, has gotten a big share fairly quickly by allowing several companies to participate.
Interview conducted by Philip Bethge