Turns out Microsoft has a strategy, after all. For the past couple of years, Redmond has dribbled out a host of new products, some hot, some not, that appeared to have little connection to each other. Windows Phone, Windows 8, Live, Bing, Kinect, Azure, and so on. Lots of tech that didn't achieve much synergy. Until now.
Enter SmartGlass--a game-changing technology that promises to make Microsoft suddenly relevant again in the consumer market, and, by extension, the enterprise as the consumerization of IT gains steam. Apple and Google have had better weeks.
First, let's be clear about what SmartGlass is, and isn't. It's not some type of new, intelligent display pane, as the name might imply. Nor is it a product family or even a singular device. What it is is a collection of apps and embedded technologies that form an ecosystem, one in which digital content can migrate from one platform to the next, be it a phone, tablet, desktop, or home theater.
With SmartGlass, a user could download a movie from Xbox Live, start watching on a smartphone and finish later on an HDTV. That kind of multi-device synchronization is in itself not unique. You can already do that through Apple's and Amazon's clouds, among others. But Xbox SmartGlass goes well beyond that.
[ What kind of next-gen device is Google prepping? See Google's Mystery Communications Device: 6 Facts. ]
It allows devices to not just mirror each other, but to interact and provide complementary experiences and services. Xbox chief Marc Whitten demonstrated some of this potential at E3 on Monday. Through Xbox Live, he launched a Game Of Thrones episode on a big screen. Meanwhile, a Windows tablet running SmartGlass displayed real-time complements to the action. For example, it showed a map that displayed characters' locations as they moved through the fictional world of Westeros.
In another demo, SmartGlass pulled together the capabilities of Xbox 360, Kinect, and Windows 8 tablets to show how it will take gaming to the next level. With Madden NFL 13 running on one screen, a user drew up plays on a Win8 tablet, which the game then executed.
Adding to SmartGlass' potential is the vast network of content providers that Microsoft is partnering with for Xbox Live programming. At E3, the company announced new deals with the NHL, NBA, and ESPN, all of whom could potentially provide SmartGlass apps. A Kinect-aware version of Bing makes it all discoverable through voice search. Microsoft also announced a cloud-based service called Xbox Music, which will replace Zune and provide more possibilities.
The above scenarios are just the tip of the iceberg. As with Kinect, the applications for SmartGlass will be limited only by the imaginations of developers. And that could take the technology into areas even Microsoft hasn't envisioned. Kinect debuted as a gaming add-on, but enterprising users were quick to find industrial applications in areas like healthcare and manufacturing. That led to the development of a Kinect SDK for Windows.
SmartGlass could make its way into the enterprise in industries where workers are accustomed to using multiple screens, like banking. Traders could enter trades on a desktop while key metrics and news stories about the companies involved are displayed on a companion tablet, for instance.
SmartGlass promises to unite Microsoft's product line, making each device part of a coherent, interactive ecosystem. That's a nice bonus for the Xbox, which is already the world's top selling gaming and entertainment console, but it could be an absolute life saver for Windows Phone and the forthcoming Windows 8 tablets. Windows Phone sales have been dismal, and Win8 hardware will arrive this fall amid stiff competition from well-established Apple and Google-powered devices. Microsoft said, vaguely, that SmartGlass will be supported on iOS and Android, but it's a safe bet that the experience on those platforms will be limited.
A year ago I wrote a column titled "How The Xbox Can Save Microsoft." Xbox SmartGlass--if it works as advertised--might just do that.
Microsoft’s ambitious new OS tackles servers, PCs, and mobile devices. On the server side, we dig into the latest offering: Microsoft has boosted the capabilities of Hyper-V, streamlined management, and made other changes that IT will appreciate. Download the Windows 8 Vs. The World report now. (Free registration required.)