Future Visions

Welcome Daring Fireball readers! In case you were wondering if I’ve prepared a response to the article titled The Types of Companies that Publish Future Concept Videos, take a look here.

Pictured above is Microsoft’s most recent technology concept video. Here’s their description:

Watch how future technology will help people make better use of their time, focus their attention, and strengthen relationships while getting things done at work, home, and on the go.

As you might expect, John “Daring Fireball” Gruber, who’s often been called Apple’s freelance PR guy, viewed it with a jaundiced eye:

This video encapsulates everything wrong with Microsoft. Their coolest products are imaginary futuristic bullshit. Guess what, we’ve all seen Minority Report already. Imagine if they instead spent the effort that went into this movie on making something, you know, real, that you could actually go out and buy and use today.

Of course, he’d never say such a thing about Apple’s classic Knowledge Navigator video, which at the time it was made – circa 1987, when the Macintosh II and SE, IBM PS/2 series and Amiga 500 and 2000 were brand new machines – was at least as pie-in-the-sky as this newest Microsoft video. It’s contained within one of the segments of the video below, which features videos by Apple:

Now I’ll agree with Gruber that by and large, Apple technology is generally more enjoyable to use and feels more like “the future”. I will also agree that my former employer, whom a former coworker recently referred to as “The Fail Ship Microsoft”, seems a shadow of its former self and far less likely to be the company to create future industry-defining products than Apple — or at least the incarnation of Apple with Steve Jobs as Chief Tastemaker. Today’s Microsoft doesn’t have a keeper of the vision: Bill Gates has left to focus his on saving the world, Ray Ozzie, the guy who took on the role of “chief visionary” at The Empire, resigned last year along with the Entertainment and Devices division’s last, best hopes, Robbie Bach and J Allard. The people who remain are extremely skilled techies, astute suits who can continue to drive sales and “keep their managers’ scorecards green” (that’s a common expression within the company) and an evangelism team that’s second to none and of which I was a proud member, but they’re all hamstrung by decision-makers with the sense of vision that God gave oysters. That’s one of the reasons I left the company: to be an evangelist, you have to believe, and I didn’t believe anymore.

I part ways with Gruber in his declaration that Microsoft should spend more effort making some cool stuff today and less on creating concept videos. Concept videos aren’t promises of products coming in the next one or two years, but act as a star by which people can navigate the future and an inspiration to invent it. Working with technology means dealing with overwhelming amounts of minutiae, and it’s all too easy to get lost in the technology for technology’s sake and forget about what it’s all for. I would argue that if Microsoft wants to rehabilitate its image and regain its relevance in the hearts and mind of both the alpha geeks and the public at large, they should probably make more of these videos, not only for the public, but for their own benefit as well. Without visions like concept videos to guide them, especially with the lack of someone in the visionary role, they may remain stuck on their current course: doing well but effectively coasting, content to make incremental improvements to already successful products or playing catch-up as with Internet Explorer, phones and tablets in efforts that are in danger of being too little, too late.

Some other concept videos worth watching include these old AT&T ads from that played all the time between shows in the early 1990s. Many of the predicted devices and services in these ads came to be, but AT&T had little to do with their creation:

Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini was a user interface guy at Apple from 1978 to 1992, after which he worked at Sun and created the Project Starfire concept video, a little drama that illustrates his vision of the office of the future. Just as Apple’s Knowledge Navigator has the 1980s all over it, this video has all the earmarks of early 1990s television, right down to the incidental synth music that’s straight out of the better, earlier seasons of Beverley Hills 90210.

Here’s part one:

The first thirty seconds of the video shows how risky it is to try and add little “realistic” touches to a story about the future. In the first thirty seconds, Princess Di is mentioned as having joined the British House of Lords; in real life, she died seven years prior to the story’s setting of 2004. Also sad is the fact that while Sun existed in 2004, it would be absorbed by Oracle six years later.

Here’s part two:

Compare the Starfire video with this “vision of the future” video that Microsoft debuted at the TechReady conference in early 2009. Popular Science said that "The 2019 Microsoft details with this video is almost identical to the 2004 predicted in this video produced by Sun Microsystems in 1992." I’ll leave it to you to make the call:

This article also appears in the Shopify Technology Blog.

38 replies on “Future Visions”

I actually mostly agree with Gruber, and I suspect that he’d make the same argument about Apple’s concept videos, but that’s a point for him to argue. I started writing my counter-argument here, but it was getting long, so I’ll write it up on the Codiform blog later.

If you have to reach back THAT far, to an Apple of yesteryear, then you’ve already lost. Today’s Apple comes out with stuff when it’s got a ship date and not before. FUD and pretty fantasies are the realm of everyone else.

“I part ways with Gruber in his declaration that Microsoft should spend more effort making some cool stuff today and less on creating concept videos.”

So…they shouldn’t make cool things you can use today. Well then, they’re definitely following your advice. Also – 12 years between a vision statement and a realization is an eternity in tech years.

I have to agree with Gruber on this as well. There is no point in spending time and money making fanciful concept videos. Spend that time and money on actual R&D.

The Apple of 1987 that you cite was a broken company that was headed towards its darkest hour. Apple is at its peak right now and would never imagine spending time on a concept video. I think Microsoft could learn a lot more than from the 2011 Apple than the 1987 one.

Not to mention that this latest concept video from Microsoft is weirdly Minority Report-esque. So, is it really breaking that much ground?

I will say that this Microsoft video is better than RIM’s. That was unwatchable.

If I wanna watch SciFi I will watch good SciFi. If I wanna see what a company has to sell me I want to see their current products. Rather than spend time and money making stuff up that may never exist companies should stay focused on creating products that are awesome that I can buy today.

The only people who accuse Jon Gruber of being biased are the ones who don’t read his site every day. He criticizes Apple and praises their competitors, but only when it’s deserved. Needless to say, you don’t have to have a pro-Apple bias to be honest and notice how frequently Apple gets something right while the competition flounders. I’d submit that bloggers and tech writers who refuse to acknowledge that obvious fact might actually be working from an anti-Apple bias.

I agree with Gruber. I can’t find any example of which a concept video has achieve anything for a company, nor the Apple knowledge navigator, AT&T or Sun concept video has bring something to market or even focus the corp on something. Worst is, a concept video who doesnt offer any really, where every thing seams to be magical, where people interaction doesn’t match what is showed just lost any credibility and become an artistic render of the future like we see countless time in movies. Those video should at first expose how thing should work and interact with humain and not being a showcase of sci-fi design. Beside the only recognizable brand in this video is GM, so I wonder who called the shoot for this video, Microsoft or GM?

Gruber already posted his response. Remember what happened to 1987 Apple – they were adrift in projects. Some never made it to market, others made it to market and flopped. Eventually Steve Jobs came back to save the company.

There’s nothing wrong with a “star” to guide you. But how is publishing a video to the public helping anyone other than making them realize that computers today still suck? Is that what you want to do as a company? I watched the video and I didn’t see anything that resembles what Microsoft is today, so why would I believe MS can do it over anyone else? All it does is make me want to use my iPad.

For that matter, what if I don’t believe what I see in the video. Surely you don’t believe that airports will be quiet spaces free of crowds? Not only that, I’ll be retired before any of that ever comes to be. So why should I care about MS now?

they should probably make more of these videos, not only for the public, but for their own benefit as well.

So you’re telling us that Courier’s video concept helped Microsoft to…..wait, where’s your Courier, Joey?

Companies release things like this when their public image needs burnishing. Like Apple in ’87 or RIM today. A better (and more durable) approach to getting more positive mindshare is to actually produce better things. I think Gruber’s point is that having to push a concept video in lieu of actual good stuff is a pretty bad sign.

I think it’s very easy to point out Gruber’s overwhelmingly pro-Apple stance and mark that as the reason he dislikes this video. He’s since responded to your post to say he hates the old Apple videos as much as this (on top of the AT&T one, the RIM one and the Kinect one).

I too am of a mostly Apple bent, but that’s not why I agree with him. I am a brand agnostic as much as possible, and simply go where the most interesting, useful and polished products are. It’s why I bought a Kinect over a Move, for example: it’s much better tech with plenty of fun titles now, and greater promise for the future. Microsoft progressed the state-of-the-art with an actual, shipping product.

This video shows they have the ideas, but how much cooler would it be if the video ended with a not-too-distant release date for some of the concepts shown? That’s what he’s arguing: Siri, while only a beta by Apple’s own phrasing, has the same wow factor as many of the concepts shown, and you can get it today, it’s a real thing.

Microsoft has the brains, the brawn and the financing to come up with a Siri. They just did it with the Kinect, and we know Microsoft Research has plenty more where that came from. Surely everyone – investors, consumers and pundits alike – wants products and not slick, glossy “What if…?” videos?

Put another way: a good idea well executed trumps an amazing idea badly (or never; see Courier) one.

Gruber sent me here…

My problem with Microsoft’s latest technology concept is that it doesn’t show me that their vision will have that dramatic of an impact on our lives. There are a lot of ‘cool’ things, but nothing of substance. The extremely thin, two dimensional devices aren’t based on reality, it just makes the video easier to produce. How is my life going to be more productive?

I would love to hear your Microsoft story. Any spark I have seen from Microsoft, has since left the company. Ozzie, Bach, Allard. Gone. Kin, Courier, Zune. Gone. WP7 will be dropped like a hot potato once Windows 8 can accomodate. Meanwhile, my sysadmin friends are maintaining XP/IE6 based solutions. They have no choice, other than to start over.

Forget the concept videos. Microsoft’s vision is Windows everywhere. Makes sense if you are a bean counter, but not if you’re a technologist. You have identified the crux of the problem at Microsoft. Microsoft is ‘… hamstrung by decision-makers with the sense of vision that God gave oysters.’ I’m sorry you had to endure what it took to come up with that quote.

Here’s the cool thing about Apple for these past years: When they announce a product, they tell you exactly what it does, when it’ll be available and how much it’ll cost. The only mystery is whether you want it or not.

To me, as a consumer, Apple displays a respect and value for my time and money. They’re not going to waste my time with promises, they’re going to show something they thing is incredible and then tell what I have to do to ahold of it.

Real artists ship.

> […] Jon [sic] “Daring Fireball” Gruber, who’s often been called Apple’s freelance PR guy […]

I am curious about that claim: I cannot find evidence for it by googling a few variations of that phrase. I’ve no doubt that plenty of people think of Daring Fireball as an Apple mouthpiece, but this feels like plain calumny.

It’s fair in my book to think that J. Gruber has a pro-Apple bias (and to express that thought publically), but when claiming that others often describe him a certain way, some evidence is required to maintain credibility.

There’s nothing wrong with brainstorming internally, and possibly throwing together a concept video for the employees who are tasked with exploring the options. The problem here is two-fold; first, the production values here are far too polished and smack of financial resources that could have otherwise benefitted the developers, and second, internal-use videos rarely stay internal.

So, in theory, a video like this could have been just a more elaborate version of a whiteboard presentation, but judging from the production it looks like Microsoft was trying to show off, and for many people (outsiders) that has completely backfired.

> […] and we know Microsoft Research has plenty more where that came from.

We agree on the substance, but this bit doesn’t fit. Microsoft Research is not actually an efficient way to come up with great new technologies: It encourages an academic approach to “research”, which results in cool concepts that cannot readily be integrated into actual products because lots of practical details end up not being considered. Other companies that have “research” and “vision” arms run into similar problems. E.g., Xerox’ PARC invented all kinds of wonderful things, but Xerox rarely managed to successfully productize those inventions. HP labs, AT&T labs, and IBM Research have/had the same issues. Car companies that show off prototypes are often in the same boat: Great ideas first seen on prototypes take forever to come to real vehicles (and when they do, it’s often not the prototyping company that makes the innovation real).

If you want real innovation, your best bet is to engineer it “for realsies” from the start.

David V.: Google doesn’t index conversations at nerd gatherings…yet.

Let me assure you, I didn’t invent the “Apple’s freelance PR” designation, but it’s clever enough for me to wish I did. It’s the brainchild of some other wag, and it took on a small life of its own.

Hey Joey,

Came by way of DF and even though I dislike Gruber, he’s intellectually kicked your ass in his response. You should quit while you’re still standing.


How do videos like this factor into any future patent fights?

If you showed that you had an idea for a semi-transparent card-sized computing device in a video and then eight years later, you actually came out with it, wouldn’t that give you some sort of patent ammo? Patent fights now aren’t just underlying technology, but increasingly the aesthetics of it as well.

Apple in 1987 does not equal today’s Apple. That is not controversial. They are opposites. The 1987 Apple was trying to be like IBM/Microsoft and destroyed themselves and had to go back to 1985 and start again. The equivalent modern Apple video to go with this Microsoft video is Think Different. That was modern Apple’s vision statement, which the company then followed for 15 years of building success after success.

All science fiction is about today. All of it. You set the story in the future to exaggerate today so we can see today better, not see tomorrow. This Microsoft video is about today. Those are today’s user workflows. Today’s handheld multitouch devices, tablets, gesture workstations. These all exist today from Apple. You can leave all of the people the same, and replace all of the products with today’s Apple products, and the users do all the same things. Handheld multitouch phone that can adopt arbitrary screens as a second screen on a wireless ad hoc basis? iPhone. Business card size device with which you can refer to contact information? iPod nano. Touch tablet? iPad. Workstation with giant screen, advanced 3D graphics throughout, tiny wireless keyboard, touch surfaces, and gestures? Mac Pro or iMac. All devices working together seamlessly? OS X. All devices beautifully designed and software/hardware integrated? Apple.

Yes, the products in the video are thinner than today’s Apple products, just like today’s are thinner than those of 5 years ago. They have some additional new technology features just like today’s Apple products have more new features than 5 years ago. But features and products are not the same. Fundamentally, the products in that video are Apple’s current product lineup. I have seen 2 people at a Mac Pro looking at rich 3D data visualizations and swiping to the next one, rolling them around 3D space with touch. I have seen people wirelessly adopt a big screen from an iPad or iPhone with no setup. I have seen people look at a billboard and respond to it immediately with their phone. I have seen people killing time on a train platform with their phone. I have personally been working on a document on my iPad and later resumed working on it on my iPhone, with the same editing tools and no setup. This is today. You can see this video is today because Siri already made some of these workflows obsolete in the time between when this video was made and the time it was released. You would never do so much work with your calendar if you have Siri and can say, “what does my day look like?” and she tells you.

So I think you are right that this is Microsoft’s vision statement, but once again, their vision of the future is just what they saw today from Apple. They are trying to say: don’t abandon us and we will eventually bring you modern, 21st century gear, even though all we sell now is a 1980’s office suite and a 1990’s operating system. What else could they say? They have no products to show that they are even in the 21st century yet. Their last 3 big products: a version of Vista with some bugs fixed and optimized for today’s ultra low-end Windows hardware and which managed to finally take the majority of the platform away from Windows XP; a Zune Phone that nobody buys; a Zune that nobody buys.

> alpha geeks

You get the attention of alpha geeks by giving them a tool or toy they do not have. Not showing them a cartoon of it, but actually giving it to them to use. That is why Apple Events are so popular. They show you something you don’t have yet, and as you watch you realize many ways in which *you* could either do better work, or more work faster or easier, or new things you couldn’t do before, and the coup de gras is when you realize you can go to the Apple Store this week and buy the new product for a reasonable price and with the best support and service, and by next week you are in the future, not dreaming about it.

We can have no sympathy for Microsoft. They are getting punished for their failures. That is as it should be. They destroyed the PC industry of the 1990’s with dirty tricks, mob tactics, and illegal business practices. The Consumer Electronics industry has routed around that damage and left their odd hardware/software split and OEM manufacturing behind now that we have ODM manufacturing. The industry has moved on. The pace is too fast today for Microsoft to see what Apple did, laboriously copy it while always trying to obfuscate it is a copy, give it to hardware partners who laboriously copy Apple hardware while always trying to obfuscate it is a copy, and then finally, years later, offer a really low-quality version of that Apple product with higher TCO. By the time they ship, technology has moved on. Zune means “a bad-smelling echo.”

Further, the users have moved on. Microsoft has made millions of regular Joes and Janes miserable and helpless with their products, and none of them will ever forget that or forgive that. I have a friend who was almost put out of business by incredible Windows I-T consultant fees and who bought a Mac in desperation and now runs an all-Mac shop with no I-T consultant at all, and her business is thriving. She is lost to Microsoft forever. She practically spits when she says their name. I guess some Microsoft users would call her an Apple fanboy?

> alpha geeks

Today, 75% of Silicon Valley are Mac users, as well as 75% of Hollywood. Those are the right and left brain alpha nerds. In corporate business, MacBook Air and iPad are the 2 most popular new business machines, and 75% of “power users,” — the top 20% most computer-oriented business people (beta geeks?) — are already on Macs. That is why Forrester had to say “prohibition is over, get Macs.” The trend is to give users their own I-T budget, and they come back with Apple products. At Clorox, 96% chose an iPhone; at Citrix, they went from 100% HP to 46% Macs in one generation. Microsoft has been driven down into low-end $400 PC’s over the past 5 years, where they are now getting eaten alive by iPad. They should be making retrospective videos as a way of saying good-bye, not predicting that they will still be around cloning Apple products in the future.

When you get nostalgic for Microsoft, go do volunteer Windows I-T at non-profits until that feeling of nostalgia is gone. Non-profits always have 10 year old crap gear and earnest users who are trying to save lives. Watch them struggle to even make a website or YouTube video with their Microsoft technology, and you will soon feel ready to show up at Microsoft’s funeral and shovel some dirt into the grave.

PS Gruber pisses all over the 1986-1996 Apple so regularly, I think he assumed his readers knew that. He has certainly pissed on the Knowledge Navigator video in particular. While Apple made Knowledge Navigator, NeXT made OS X. Which of those 2 products did Tim Berners-Lee use to create the World Wide Web only a few years later? Now we have Siri, who uses Yelp (Web) and Wolfram Alpha (Web) and Google/Yahoo/Bing (Web) so NeXT did more for intelligent agent knowledge navigation that 1986-1996 Apple. Yet another 1986-1996 Apple fail. A perfect example of one company inventing the future and one company only dreaming about it. There is a current example also.

“Joe c November 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm
If you have to reach back THAT far, to an Apple of yesteryear, then you’ve already lost.”

Exactly. One company is executing it’s vision, and one company is making promises it may fulfil given another 10 to 20 years. Guess which company matters?

Gruber’s rebuttal was weak.

You made him defensive. He countered with a “oh. well, what I really meant…” argument. Meh.

I’m much more interested in your post, which I tend to agree with. I hate it when MS makes concept vaporware (surface anyone?). I rather they focus on making attainable devices like Apple. Jobs is quoted as saying, “real artists ship”; which I agree with.

HOWEVER, I don’t think making cool concept videos like this and shipping real products are mutually exclusive. To get better at shipping real products, MS doesn’t need to stop making concept videos; they need to get better at shipping real products. Do these concept videos help them do that? Do they serve as a guiding light as you argue? I don’t know. Gruber thinks he knows, but he doesn’t. He thinks that what works/doesn’t-work for Apple works/doesn’t-work for the rest of the industry. But he’s wrong. Because he only MS knows. And, since you’re a former MS employee, I’d take your opinion over Gruber’s.

@Joey deVilla: “Let me assure you, I didn’t invent the “Apple’s freelance PR” designation, but it’s clever enough for me to wish I did. It’s the brainchild of some other wag, and it took on a small life of its own.”

The problem, in my eyes, isn’t where you got it but that it’s not even really accurate, so I question why you’re repeating it. Gruber has on plenty of occasions criticized Apple harshly for bad ideas and praised their competitors when they get something right. But the reality is that Apple gets about 9 out of 10 things right and the competition typically get 9 out of 10 things wrong. Pointing that out doesn’t reveal a pro-Apple bias, just a willingness to acknowledge reality. But too many tech bloggers and writers have to maintain some form of “geek cred” by bashing Apple or slinging insults at Gruber. I don’t see as much pro-Apple bias from Gruber as I do pro-MS bias from Paul Thurrott, and yet I don’t hear people slinging similar insults at the latter.

Not to distract from the Gruber jab and subsequent comments.

I feel that the Microsoft future vision videos serves more to try and get people to ignore Apple’s product while they think of ways to counter them. Not unlike the sex joke that have been told about Microsoft; “siting at the edge of the bed telling his partner how great it will be when they get there.”

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