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Xbox founder's shipit

Xbox founder’s award

While working on DirectX, I became friends with Ted H who was responsible for DirectX developer evangelism. His team was on the front lines with the game developer community and provided information, education, and hands-on support. Because of the team’s close relationships with game developers, they had a good sense of what the community wanted, and helped guide the evolution and prioritization of DirectX functionality.

Ted’s office was in Building 4, and at the time, the cafeteria there had a rare resource – an external food vendor called Pasta Ya Gotcha. They were a welcome change from the generic on-site institutional food fare, and Ted and I started having regular lunch meetings to discuss the state of the technology world and where things were headed. For me, it was always a toss-up between the Texas Tijuana, Tennessee Jack, and Thai Peanut entrees.

Although we were just starting work on DirectX 8, Ted and I both could squint and see the day of diminishing returns with Windows PC computer graphics. We were starting to ask “What’s next?” We had made significant strides legitimizing the PC as an entertainment-capable platform, but entertainment was not a natural destination for the PC. The PCs on the market were big and bulky, and engineered for productivity.

We were also keenly aware of the ongoing battle for supremacy in the living room between Sony, Sega, and Nintendo, with Sony in rapid ascendency. Where was Microsoft? Was it going to get into this fight, and if so, how?

At the time, Microsoft had a partnership with Sega to ship Windows CE on Sega’s platform. Sega already had their own development tools, infrastructure, and content development pipeline, though, so CE brought nothing fundamentally new or compelling for game developers. Windows CE had a very limited implementation of DirectX, so there was little incentive for a Sega developer to use anything other than Sega’s own tools. Windows CE checked the box in terms of having a Microsoft living room platform strategy, but it offered neither better economics nor higher quality of content.

DirectX was part of Microsoft’s Windows division, and Ted and I felt that Microsoft was missing an opportunity to lead with its strengths. We had a vibrant developer ecosystem, operating systems leadership, great relationships with silicon vendors, and a name-brand game API. Why not bring DirectX in the form or a platform to the living room?

With a kernel of an idea, we needed recruits. Ted brought in Kevin B from his team to help think through business models, and I drafted Seamus B, a recent PM hire for DirectX, to help plan and coordinate.

A handful of intrepid and talented developers on my team signed up to build the proof-of-concept of a Windows/DirectX-based living room device. Colin M led the effort to construct a prototype that would prove the idea: that a PC-based architecture could boot up in a few seconds and play games without input from a mouse or keyboard.

This was an all-volunteer effort, and our managers were not yet aware of what we were up to. We all had our regular jobs to do, and we didn’t want to jeopardize progress by asking for official support. We chose to stay in stealth mode knowing we could be punished with the dreaded 3.0 annual review score – or worse. But we believed we were onto something important.

Word was getting around. As we made progress, people came on board to help, advocate, and advance the cause of what Ted had named “Project Midway”. I no longer recall when my manager became aware of the effort.

At a critical point, Nat B offered to help build support in the right executive circles and to make the pitch. He was the technical assistant to the guy running Microsoft’s consumer version of Windows. I remember talking to Nat on my chunky, red Nokia on a typically horrific commute from Redmond to Seattle across the 520 floating bridge. Among other things, he was eager to have a more marketable name for our effort. At its essence, what we were proposing was a DirectX device – a box – in the living room. A DirectX box. I think it was Nat who suggested “X-box” for short.

At this point, X-box wasn’t about Microsoft building its own hardware; hardware is capital-intensive and Microsoft’s expertise was software. We thought partners could build the hardware and Microsoft would build the software ecosystem. Getting into the console hardware business was not yet a consideration.

Somehow, we got a billg meeting. We were expecting an intimate gathering in the usual windowless conference room with twelve or so chairs.  Colin wheeled in a small but sturdy cart with the prototype hardware. We passed out our printed Powerpoint slides and readied ourselves for the pitch and a lot of other people started showing up. By the time we were underway we found ourselves seated with two rows of people behind us, sitting, standing, leaning, and filling the space. Nat spoke. I went over the technical details. There was some other discussion. Colin pressed the power button. A few, anxious seconds later, he was playing a game on a TV with a game controller in his hand. Bill was convinced. There was also a very nice Powerpoint presentation about a future version of Windows CE for consoles, but it didn’t stand a chance next to a real game running on our own technology stack.

An expensive agency was later hired to come up with a real product name to replace “X-box”. They removed the hyphen, and came back with “Xbox”.

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My children rolled their eyes at my excitement about the impending launch of the Apple Watch. “Why would you want one of those?”

I staunchly defended my pro-Watch position, arguing that a wearable device done right could be incredibly useful. Also, I love new devices. My kids range in age from late teens to mid twenties, and I did start to wonder if the appeal of the Watch would be lost on younger demographics.

The highly anticipated pre-order finally arrived last night, and I settled into a long evening waiting for 3:01 a.m. so I could place my order as early as possible. I knew exactly what I wanted, and all I had to do was click “select” on the stainless version.

Market research can be tricky, and purchase intent and action are not always closely correlated. It’s one thing to think about owning a shiny new product in the abstract, and it’s another to make the actual commitment to spend the dollars and incorporate whatever new thing it is into your life.

iPhoneWatch cropped

At around 2:00 a.m. I was starting to get second thoughts. Will I actually replace my classic automatic-winding watch that never needs batteries? Do I need another thing to charge every day? How many extra chargers will I need so that I always have one on hand? Do I want to invest in learning a new user interface and configuring and maintaining another device? If I wind up not using it, will I be able to pawn it off on my wife since my kids won’t want it? Will this thing simply end up collecting dust on a shelf after the novelty has worn off?

At 2:50 a.m., I finished my third cup of herbal tea, closed my MacBook Pro, and went straight to bed. I will watch from the sidelines on this one.

My wife Maggie was recently looking for pictures of our old dog Pluto for her blog, and she came across a lone CD loose in a photo box full of old, uncategorized photos.  The disk had a Ritz Camera logo and was “Powered by Microsoft PictureIt 2000.” Back when the photo world was just starting to transition to digital, you could get your film pictures put on a CD when you got your film developed.

We do not have many pictures of Pluto; he was not one to hold still too long, but 2000 was the right time frame for Pluto pictures.  The box turned out to have only a few shots of him, so she put the CD in her laptop in the hope that it would have a few more pictures of our first dog.  Her Panasonic laptop did not even recognize that there was a CD in the drive.  I figured I would try the CD with a different PC, and stuck it in the DVD drive on our desktop.  I immediately heard bad sounds coming from the drive.  I took it out, and tried sticking the CD on the PC’s second DVD drive (yes, two DVD drives since the desktop machine is a Dell XPS gaming rig).  Same bad result, with ugly sounds coming from the drive as it tried in vain to read the disk.  I popped the disk out to do a visual inspection that in retrospect I should have done sooner.  It turned out to be seriously warped.

Maggie’s assumption was that the CD was toast, but I was more hopeful.  After all, the bits were probably still there.  And something warped can be un-warped, right?  After thinking about the problem for a bit, I concluded that some time in the oven might do the trick.  An Internet search revealed nothing consistently useful on the topic of un-warping CDs or DVDs, so I thought I’d improvise.  First, I needed a flat surface.  My son was recently home from college and had taken apart an ancient hard drive.  He likes to see how things work and had plenty of time on his hands.  Hard drive platters are incredibly smooth and rigid, so I though that would make a good straightening platform.  I also needed something heavy to place on top of the CD to help the flattening process.  I settled on a flat-bottomed drinking glass filled with water.  I put the platter-CD-glass sandwich in the oven, and set the temperature to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.  It was a guess that it would be hot enough to soften the DVD but not cause damage.

I meant to set a timer for perhaps 30 minutes, but then promptly forgot about the whole affair.  About an hour later, I spelled the faint but distinctive odor of hot plastic.  I peeked in the oven expecting to see a gooey mess, but things actually looked pretty good.  Whew!

I wanted to make sure the CD stayed flat as it cooled, and I settled for a piece of scrap Melamine with a few sheets of paper to avoid scratches.  I put the hot CD on the Melamine slab, and then put three volumes from an encyclopedia on top to keep the thing flat.

About 30 minutes later, I took the now-cool CD and put it into the desktop drive.  No bad sounds, and I could access the directory!  There were a bunch of random folders and icons all ready to install PictureIt 2000 Express, but there was a folder in the mix that had our actual pictures including some of Pluto:

I had the opportunity to be part of the opening of the Microsoft Store at the Mall of America in Minneapolis today.  The energy and the excitement was amazing, and the store itself is gorgeous.

 

 

 

The Mall of America has an amusement park in the middle including a roller coaster.

The day before…the store was still under wraps.

At a separate Kinect experience demo in the mall, people were lining up and having fun trying out the controller and some of the new games.

The dancing title was very popular but my colleague and I chose table tennis.  I lost on match point.

Next day…ready for the opening.  A very large crowd showed up.

Microsoft cut some big checks in support of community groups like this $300,000 gift to the High School Technology Program.

The curtain was finally removed and the store was revealed and officially opened…

…and people who had invested a lot of time in line started to make their way into the store.

The store staff greeted everyone coming in with high-fives.

This view shows the competition directly across from the store.  They were looking rather empty today.

No, I don’t mean the software – that’s a different topic.

I mean the actual physical hardware.  Let’s take mobile phones, or more specifically, smartphones with increasingly large touch-based displays.  They’ve got a lot of glass (the display), and more glass (the touch panel).  Here’s an idea – in addition to all that glass on the front, let’s add glass to the back as well (Yes, I mean you, iPhone 4; check out the preliminary iPhone 4 failure rate).  Don’t you dare drop that thing onto something like a concrete sidewalk!  Apparently, when you buy a new phone, you’re supposed to immediately bury it with rubber bumpers, skins, and covers, and as a consequence, destroying the original aesthetics and design intent of the phone.

This phenomenon is even worse with iPads.  They’re unrecognizable by the time they’re festooned with covers, folios, and other protective contraptions to make them usable in the wild.

Even larger form factors like laptops?  Well, they just break.  Drop the average laptop: it likely suffers some serious damage.

Hey, manufacturers!  Devices that people hold, carry around, use on the move, and put in their pockets, bags, purses will get dropped, crushed, scraped, and bumped.  I’m old enough to remember when phones were leased, not purchased, and breaking Ma Bell’s equipment was virtually impossible.  I also remember that early generations of mobile phones were built like tanks.  Were they as thin as crackers?  No.  But dropping them was not a big deal.

A few companies have specialized in building products engineered for real-world environment, perhaps most notably, Panasonic.  We recently bought our second Toughbook, model S9.  Our first Toughbook was the R5.  The Japanese-only model R5 outlived a number of other laptops from large manufacturers that I won’t mention, and it wasn’t because it was cared for gently.  I was shoved into cramped bags, dropped, bumped, and user heavily.  It just kept working and working.  In addition, both laptops are very light (the S9 is 3.2 pounds), and both have great battery life that’s enough for all-day use (the S9 is rated for 11 hours).

Panasonic S9

Downsides of the Toughbook?  It’s very expensive, and you won’t find it any mainstream retailer.  It is the embodiment of a niche product.  Wait, a laptop with great battery life, decent performance, light weight, and robust design intended to withstand real-world use is a niche product?  Yes.  Heavy, fragile laptops that are addicted to wall outlets are the norm.  This is completely backwards, and contrary to what real people need.

If form really does follow function, then mainstream products have gone seriously off track.



People ask me constantly why I don’t have an iPhone.  After all, “it’s the best phone”.  Some people assume that I don’t have one because I work at Microsoft.  Given the prevalence of iPhones on Microsoft campus, that is certainly not the case.  Perhaps I’m using some Android phone?  Nope.  A pre-release Windows Phone 7 device?  Nope.  I got to use one for a few weeks (I really liked it), but the hardware is not yet broadly available.

 

A primary reason I don’t have an iPhone is that as a consumer, I detest service contracts and lock-in.  If at all possible, I like to own my devices free and clear, and to be able to walk away from a service without punitive early termination fees.  I also want the freedom to be able to switch from one phone to another when I want, not based on a service provider’s schedule.  The data plan for what I need (email and the occasional search) is also inexpensive, and the phone plan options seem much more flexible outside the iPhone plan walled garden. 

 

 Another reason is that I like having a physical keyboard.  I have tried using touch-based keyboards and I find them error-prone and hard to use.  I know that some people like them; I am not one of them.

 

Battery life is a big deal for me.  I don’t want to have to worry about making it through the day; I prefer to have phones with 2-3 days of battery life.  That won’t happen with an iPhone, or any smart phone with a large display. 

 

 

I also like phones that are relatively small.  I consider the iPhone to be too large for me to have in my pocket and forget about.

 

I need my phone to have robust Exchange support with full push email and bug-free scheduling.  iPhone is weak in that department.  My friends with iPhones are constantly battling with missed meetings, meetings that don’t get properly updates, etc.  No thanks.  It’s the one thing I need my phone to get absolutely right. 

 

I am also not interested in apps.  I need some basic functionality, and that’s pretty much it.  If I want to do real work or real play, I need a real display.  I find small display maddening for anything other than basic functions.

 

Last but not least, I don’t want to belong to the Church of Steve Jobs.   The iPhone smacks of a somewhat totalitarian approach to products – the people shall all have one phone.  I find it boring and predictable, and life’s too short for that. 

 

After all that, I should mention that my current phone is a Nokia N72 available unlocked directly from their online store.  My other source for unlocked phones is www.mobilecityonline.com.  It satisfies all the requirements above, and also has free voice-assisted turn-by-turn GPS which is great for traveling, is very pocket-friendly, has a sunlight-readable display, and doesn’t drop calls.  The Symbian OS is pretty much a joke and the UI is evocative of the early ‘90s, but the phone does do what I need:

 

 Nokia E72

my E72

A number of people have asked for my reaction to the iPad.
 
I will skip over the name which I think is terrible.  iPad?  Really?
 
Apple gets credit on execution and good packaging of available technology.  That said, their thin slate is an unsurprising product in the context of an evolutionary timeline that spans decades of innovation and effort chasing the slate computing dream.
 
My perspective is also somewhat unique.
 
At WinHEC five years ago, Bill held up a non-functional model of “Haiku”.  It was a concept design effort that I had led as part of incubating ultra-mobile PC, and was aimed at illustrating the type of full-fidelity, device-like mobile PC design that would be achievable in the 5-6 year time frame.

Ultra-mobile PC concept circa 2004/2005

Some key attributes of the class of consumer slate PC envisioned: thin (under half an inch) pure slate form factor, all-day battery life, fully solid-state, fanless, always on/connected, LED-backlit display, WWAN capability, docking connector, pen+touch NUI, and a sub-$500 price point.
 
The Origami ultra-mobile PC effort made progress toward the “Haiku” end-state target, and among other things, created focus on touch as a primary form of display interaction and catalyzed the development of low-power, low-cost Atom CPUs and chipsets.  Those Atom CPUs were subsequently incorporated into small, low-cost laptop designs which Intel dubbed “netbooks” and sold like hotcakes.  The race chasing volume was on.  Building small, cheap laptops was easy and virtually guaranteed to achieve large volumes as an extension of a mainstream category.  By contrast, getting slate right required ongoing investment, and the slate category was still emerging.  The PC industry took the path of least resistance to large unit volumes.
 
Steve Jobs has said that he didn’t know how to build a cheap laptop that wasn’t junk.
 
His answer to a highly mobile computer at a reasonable price point that isn’t junk and isn’t a race to the bottom is a slate.
 
I agree with the logic.
 
As a device, the iPad seems somewhat large and ungainly to me.  With the 7”-display-based Haiku/Origami, I aimed for greater mobility in the tradeoff between mobility and display real estate.  Not having a way to write on a pure slate device the size of piece of paper also seems pretty unnatural to me.  One of the iPad demos shows a legal-pad background for note-taking, but then you have to use the on-screen keyboard.  Say what?  There’s a real cognitive disconnect there.  Of course, display size is highly subjective (hence the many variations in laptops) as is the relative importance of stylus functionality for different users and uses.  There is plenty of room for continued development of and innovation with the slate form factor, and it will be interesting to see how the industry responds to Apple’s interpretation.

Cameras, cameras, cameras.

Why are there so few real choices in the ocean of digital cameras?

Every once in a while, I get fed up with the bulk and in-your-face quality of my digital SLR camera (Canon 30D) and frustrated with the toy-like nature of my compact camera (Nikon P5000) and look for a viable alternative.  By viable, I mean something that costs less than $1000, so as I go through the description of what I’m looking for, banish the thought of the only product that currently even comes close (the Leica M8 -which is upwards of $5500 + lens).

Here’s what I would like to see on the market:

A camera with a rugged, compact, all-metal body.  Something along the lines of the smaller-sized 35mm film SLRs that were plentiful during their golden years.  The fit and finish should be of high quality.  The product will have fewer bells and whistles (i.e., “features”) but everything done will be done with attention to detail.  Quality over quantity, may conventional market wisdom be damned.

A large sensor.  Not full-frame, but APS or even 4/3 would be nice.  8 megapixels would be fine, 10 is plenty.  I would gladly take even 6 or 7 if I could take high-ISO shots in natural low-light settings (without flash) without excessive noise.

Real through-the-viewfinder manual focus.  That’s right – I don’t need or want any auto-focus capabilities.  Give me a high-quality lens with smooth focus and aperture rings.  For this type of camera, I wouldn’t mind ditching zoom lenses altogether.  There are plenty of cheap ultrazooms and DSLRs with zoom lenses if that’s really needed.

High-quality viewfinder.  Bright, good eye-relief, with a clear indication of what’s in focus.  I don’t care if the design is a rangefinder or TTL.  But it needs to be good enough to bring back the joy of really seeing through the camera and having it work as an extension of the photographer’s visual system.

Manual controls for everything, most importantly, shutter speed and ISO.  Knobs should be knurled and operate easily while looking through the viewfinder.

A secondary monochrome LCD display to display settings (shots left, quality, ISO, shooting mode, etc.).

Some other odds and ends:

Metal tripod mount, proper hooks for a strap, AA battery support, instant on, decent (5 fps) motor drive.

Things that can be left out:

A built-in flash.  Include a hotshoe for people who really need it, but leave out something that is otherwise mostly an annoying toy that ruins as many pictures as it enhances.

A big LCD display.  Even I find myself compulsively reviewing shots right after I take them, or showing other people.  But does it ever change anything?  You don’t really know how the shot came out until you download them and can take a good look on a large display, or better, print out the picture.  Keep it pure, keep it simple, and focus on the elements that impact creative control, spontaneity, and picture quality.  Elimination of this feature will save bulk, cost, and battery life.

Movie mode or voice recorder.  Again, not jobs for this particular tool.

Interchangeable lenses.  A decent built-in, 28-35mm equivalent fast fixed lens would be perfectly acceptable.

The new Sigma DP1 comes close on many counts (large sensor, metal body decent non-zoom lens), but misses on a real manual focus and real viewfinder.  That’s a deal-breaker since composing shots with an LCD is as natural as communicating through an interpreter.  Just take much of the fun out of it, at least for me.