[Red Herring] Microsoft is calling you

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From: Linda (joelinda1@home.com)
Date: Thu Jun 01 2000 - 10:48:22 PDT


LAB RAT: Microsoft is calling you
By Phil Harvey
Redherring.com, June 01, 2000

Driving down a California street, Eric Horvitz's cell phone
began beeping. His office in Redmond, Washington, was
calling with an urgent message. But it wasn't a person on
the line; it was his PC.

In an instant, Mr. Horvitz read the message appearing on his
phone, then responded by calling his office. Mr. Horvitz, a
group manager in Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s lab's Adaptive
Systems & Interaction Group, was paged by his PC while en
route to Stanford University for a day of meetings. Although
he was hundreds of miles from his PC, he received urgent
email messages thanks to experimental new Microsoft software
called Priorities.

The technology, currently being tested by many Microsoft
employees, allows PCs to "read" email, filter messages based
on certain priorities, and then forward important messages
to recipients. The company won't say when or even if it will
sell the software, but a glimpse at Priorities shows how
Microsoft is thinking about its future.

It's important to understand Microsoft's strategy in the
Internet age, especially in light of forthcoming information
about Microsoft's Next-Generation Windows Services and the
continuing saga of the firm's antitrust trial. Priorities is
a good example of the direction they are heading,
demonstrating how Microsoft hopes to continue to tie
consumers to Windows, even as they increasingly do more
computing away from PCs.

Most email programs today have ways of creating rules or
filters that tell the program what to do when certain kinds
of messages are received. This is a useful function, but
it's only the beginning of what's possible with a technology
such as Priorities.

Mr. Horvitz says Priorities is part of a larger concern at
Microsoft Research to develop Attentional User Interfaces
(AUIs). The philosophy behind AUIs is that human attention
is the most valuable and scarce commodity in humanĐcomputer
interaction, he says.

Priorities is designed to practice "courteous computing,"
the ability to consider certain criteria before bothering a
recipient with an urgent message. Based on parameters set by
the user and the program's ability to "learn" based on a
user's habits, Priorities weighs the urgency of each message
sent against the probability that a user will be paying
attention to a noise from a PC, phone, or pager.

Without getting into the mind-bending mathematics involved,
here's roughly how Priorities is supposed to work.

First, the program assigns each incoming email message a
score based on how urgent the message seems. For instance, a
message that was sent to a whole group of people about a
dinner date in three weeks isn't as urgent as a note sent
only to you, from your boss, containing language such as,
"as soon as you can... or you're fired."

Once an urgency score is assigned, Priorities considers the
state of the user. Has the keyboard been touched or the
mouse been moved lately? Is the user in the middle of
working on a document now, or in the process of scanning
information and shifting between documents rather quickly?
Is the user playing Solitaire? Is the user downloading some
Britney Spears photo over a 28.8 Kbps modem? These are the
kinds of questions Priorities must weigh.

But it doesn't stop there. Priorities is integrated with
Exchange Server, Microsoft's email server, and Outlook 2000,
the company's email, calendar, and contact management
program. This level of integration allows Priorities to get
a sense of a user's location, based on other information
those programs contain about his or her schedule.

In Mr. Horvitz's case, his computer not only saw that he was
traveling, but it also noticed that his first set of
meetings hadn't yet begun. Therefore, it "reasoned" that the
best way to reach him would be to send a text message to his
cell phone, which it did.

I'm told the version of Priorities working at Microsoft even
has an understanding of Microsoft's corporate pecking order,
so you can bet that messages from Mr. Gates and Mr. Ballmer
will be assigned top priority.

The direction of Microsoft's technology here is important,
considering the kinds of services the company has in store
as part of its Next-Generation Windows Services program.
Later this month, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is expected
to unveil specific details of the strategy at Microsoft's
Forum 2000 conference.

The Priorities program may or may not be a part of
Microsoft's upcoming announcements, but it's a clear sign of
where Microsoft is heading in the Internet age. Although Mr.
Gates gave a short public demonstration of Priorities at the
Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association Wireless in
February, Microsoft has yet to show what extent it will
apply the technology.

For me, living in a world where I'm blasted by more than a
hundred email messages a day from publicists and
junk-mailers, this type of application would be a godsend.

The Priorities software is just one piece of the larger
puzzle that Microsoft Research has been working for many
months. Extrapolate what's possible with Priorities and
you'll see implications for an information notification
platform. Such a platform would provide a world where all
sorts of information sources can talk to all sorts of
devices. Specialized filters such as those found in
Priorities may reside in the Net's infrastructure to keep
information relevant depending on device and importance.

It remains to be seen how Microsoft will go about
implementing such a far-reaching platform. It's safe to
assume the platform will take shape in the same ways as the
operating systems in servers and desktop PCs, stitched
together with common communications protocols and
technology. Microsoft's intent seems to be to give all of
its operating systems the ability to monitor multiple
sources of information and make decisions about how and when
to notify and deliver information to users.

This kind of innovation is intended to make life easier on
consumers and tougher on competitors. Contrary to popular
belief, the Internet age may be the time consumers are more
dependent on Windows (and its related services) than they've
ever been before.

Splitting Microsoft into two companies -- as the Justice
Department and 17 of the 19 states are demanding -- won't
change this eventual fate one bit. Perhaps a better option
for Microsoft competitors would be to give several companies
access to intellectual property within Windows.

I'm going to send Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson an email
suggesting this. Of course, whether he gets this urgent
message in time is another matter altogether.

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