Our Productive Future

Frank Chen
Mar 7, 2015 · 2 min read

Microsoft’s Enterprise team just published a slick video forecasting how computers will make us even more productive in the near future. It’s a plausible and compelling look at how we’ll teach, learn, communicate and collaborate in the near future. Check it out:

As Microsoft searches for its place in a post-Windows world, it’s important that their vision is compelling and their products deliver on what Josh Whedon might call the shininess. Most of these products would come out of their “Commercial Licensing” segment(which brings you products like Office and SQL Server and Windows Embedded), which accounts for about half of Microsoft’s revenues and nearly two-thirds of its gross margins.

PARC’s Ubiquitous Computing

Watching Microsoft’s video prediction of the future made me think of Mark Weiser’s concept of ubiquitous computing which he proposed in 1988 while working at Xerox PARC. Mark postulated that we’d end up surrounded by computers of all shapes and sizes including tabs (wearable devices like Apple Watch), pads (laptops and tablets), and boards (wall-sized displays with touchscreens like Microsoft’s Surface Hub). If you haven’t watched the Microsoft video yet, go back and watch it with Mark’s predictions in mind. Pretty prescient for 1988, when the state of the art Intel CPU was a 386 running at 40 MHz.

Apple’s Knowledge Navigator

It also reminded me of another prediction of computing’s future, Apple’s 1987 Knowledge Navigator video. My former Netscape colleague Hugh Dubberly produced it with Mike Liebhold from the famed Apple Technologies Group researchers and Bud Colligan, then head of Apple higher ed marketing. The video was created as a backdrop for a John Scully keynote, and it featured a product concept Scully called the Knowledge Navigator:

It’s exciting to see how many of the predictions have come true: speech to text, video communication and collaboration, natural language-based searching through documents, and a multi-touch tablet interface to name a few.

At the same time, it’s humbling to see how many predictions have yet to arrive even after nearly 30 years: a natural language interface to productivity applications, natural language interfaces that undertand where you are in a conversation (though we’re getting closer to this one), accurate summaries of voicemails, seamless stitching together of video clips onto a common background, and so on.

While there are obvious differences between the Microsoft and Apple videos, it’s also fascinating to see how much they have in common:

  • A seamless blending of computing and communication
  • A realization that technology can help transform education
  • An anxiety about our impact on the enviornment
  • A deep belief that computing can support human cognition in a pervasive yet unobtrustive way (it’s worth contrasting this view with today’s doomsayers forecasting the imminent ascension of our artificially intelligent robotic overlords.)

I wonder how many of Microsoft’s predictions will come true over the coming years. It’ll fun to dig up this video time capsule in a few years to see.

    Frank Chen

    Written by

    Partner at Andreessen Horowitz. Writes about tech, startups, venture investing, science, the future. Likes explaining things. Opinions my own.