Until last week, Microsoft’s $2.5 billion purchase of Mojang AB made no sense to me. Undeniably popular in the current generation of kids, at some point, Mojang’s Minecraft will fade, like every other fad before it. Mojang doesn’t even have a follow-up to its breakthrough first title. Back in 2013, Minecraft creator Marcus ‘Notch’ Perrson shelved 0x10C, a space game set in the distant future, leaving Mojang looking like a one hit-wonder.
Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, saw something in Minecraft that no one else had. That’s not a new thing for Redmond. Twenty-three years ago, in a meeting with Microsoft CTO Nathan Mhyrvold, demoing some 3D sensor tech I’d invented, he ignored my hardware and asked lots of questions about the real-time 3D rendering software running on my wimpy laptop. Soon after, Microsoft purchased UK startup RenderMorphics, baking its tech into Windows as Direct3D.
That might be the most profitable acquisition in Redmond’s history, with games, consoles, and billions of dollars of revenue all flowing from that purchase.
Games are one area where Microsoft consistently innovates. Direct3D has always performed better than OpenGL, with frequent improvements forcing GPU designers to continuously up their game. Kinect integrated military-grade sensor technology into an affordable bit of kit, becoming the fastest-selling piece of consumer electronics in history.
Although Microsoft has talked a big game about how Kinect would transform business software, none of that work ever made it out of the lab - until last week. As various Microsofties demonstrated key features of Windows 10, it felt as though a subterranean strategy of enormous breadth had suddenly breached the surface.
Conventional wisdom states that the future belongs to mobile, that is to say, Apple and Google. Everything will continue getting smaller and lighter and cheaper.
Nadella’s Microsoft aims for a different goal. Instead of focusing on smaller and lighter and cheaper, Microsoft is going the other way, into faster, stronger, and more engaging, doubling down on the kinds of experiences that will continue to require cutting edge hardware and software - from Microsoft.
The combination of Direct3D, 3D printing support (added in Windows 8.1), Minecraft and Microsoft’s still-in-prototype-but-utterly-spectacular Hololens display creates an operating system that crosses the streams between the real and the virtual. 3D on the screen, 3D spat out of a printer, 3D augmented reality woven throughout the real world: it’s all of a piece.
This shift is less about the gamification of Microsoft than about the transformation of business software. Games will remain a tidy earner for Redmond, but the future of business software isn’t the forty year-old tech of spreadsheets - it’s data mining.
Every business of any scale now gathers immense amounts of data they have little clue how to analyze to improve either operations or customer relationships. Hiring a squadron of data scientists to search for signals amidst all that noise isn’t practical for most firms. They need better, cheaper, and more accessible tools.
With Windows 10, Microsoft has put its hand up to be the platform for those tools.
During the launch, the Jet Propulsion Lab showed off OnSight, a visualization tool integrating sensor data from the Mars Rover to create a 3D landscape that NASA scientists explore with Hololens. OnSight digests big data and visualizes it, while Hololens makes it easy to use.
Another demo showed a Minecraft-like game set in a living room, where real-world objects, such as tables, acted as surfaces supporting simulated models, a thorough integration of the real and the virtual.
That was my penny-drop moment, when the full scope of Microsoft’s ambitions became clear. Minecraft is more than brightly-coloured digital Lego. It’s an environment where millions of kids have learned how to data mine - literally.
While far from the sophisticated statistical and pattern analysis that we understand today as data mining, Minecraft does require kids to learn how to explore and manipulate a very large database for their own ends. These skills aren’t as far apart as they might look, and over the next decade, as Microsoft adapts its work in 3D visualization and display to other sorts of datasets, the gap between data mining and Minecraft mining will narrow.
With the purchase of Mojang, Microsoft captured the next generation of data miners, who will grow up using Microsoft’s big data visualisation tools, starting with Minecraft, HoloLens, and OnSight - all of them built on Windows. In a few years, those kids will graduate to working with vast databases, hosted on Azure, a complete triumph for a new Microsoft stack.
A few months ago in this column I predicted this cycle of PC upgrades would be the last. I need to amend that, because Microsoft has just redefined the PC. This new engine of visualization - in its way, as radical a vision as Apple’s Macintosh - will be the foundation for a new kind of desktop, for a post-Office world.
A decade ago, the future of computing seemed almost boring. Before Apple and Google built mobile Internet of Everythings. Before IBM placed its bets on Watson and growing capacities in artificial intelligence. Now Microsoft - a company that until last week seemed destined for irrelevancy - has unexpectedly positioned itself at the heart of the Next Big Data Thing.
We should have seen it coming. In retrospect, it all makes perfect sense. Those folks in Redmond, they’re a crafty lot. ®