Microsoft is preparing to dominate the internet of things economy

3 Apr 2014

Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella briefs developers yesterday

More devices? Zero royalties? With the internet of things economy careening faster into focus, it was clear from Microsoft’s latest strategic soundings – especially around putting Windows 8.1 on more devices for free – the software giant has no intention of being left out.

While Windows Phone 8.1 was no doubt the darling of the show, any shrewd Microsoft watcher could see what Microsoft is trying to do on a more strategic scale.

Several advances to Windows have been revealed at the Microsoft Build developer conference in San Francisco, California, including Windows Phone 8.1, the availability of Windows 8.1 Update, a converged developer platform, and a US$0 royalty licensing programme for OEM and ODM partners developing smartphones and tablets with screens measuring fewer than nine inches.

Screens fewer than nine inches? That’s most connected devices in consumers’ hands today. Use your imagination – many devices in the internet of things will be machine-to-machine ‘things’, such as sensors, tags, widgets … they won’t even have screens. Think!

“Microsoft detailed new developer opportunities on the Windows platform with a common platform across devices, a single toolset, a common infrastructure across the Windows and Windows Phone stores, and a clear commitment to interoperability.

“Our commitment is to make Windows more personal and accessible to individuals, and to ensure a vibrant ecosystem through closer collaboration with our industry partners,” said Terry Myerson, executive vice-president, OS Group at Microsoft.

It is folly to ever write Microsoft off. OK, so it was caught napping when the iPhone arrived in 2007 and when the iPad arrived in 2010. It failed to see the storm on the horizon when Google purposely rolled out Android to the extent it now has 80pc of smartphones on the planet.

But don’t forget the sheer scale of Microsoft’s reach into critical infrastructure, such as servers, the fact it still commands the personal computing operating system market, that the majority of businesses in the world today rely on its productivity software. It has a pretty decent growth and innovation engine in its successful Xbox games division.

Turns out, Microsoft was being refitted for a new age in the compute continuum. Its Surface devices, including the Pro 2, may not be a runaway commercial success like the iPad, but it is a powerful statement of intent and a demonstration that Windows can straddle a variety of form factors with versatility and ease. Its acquisition of Nokia’s devices and services business, due to close this month, gives it muscle and brainpower to create and develop smart, interoperable devices that suit businesses and consumers in the developed and developing world.

And in its new CEO Satya Nadella, it has the vigour and strategic insight to blend into a world where devices need to talk to each other, never mind the humans.

At Build 2013 last year, Nadella displayed intensity and intelligence. He understands software, especially how everything needs to communicate, and played a critical role in developing Microsoft’s cloud strategy, one that encompasses and underpins most businesses and services in the online world today.

Why the internet of things matters

The internet of things is a terrible phrase, a bit wishy-washy unfortunately, used to describe the connected economy that’s coming. But it’s nevertheless accurate.

This will be a world where almost everything will have a SIM or Wi-Fi or RFID module to communicate information to other devices and machines and provide services that matter most, when we need them most.

RFID tags on lamp posts and on number plates could replace speed cameras. Our smartphones could be giving us real-time information on energy usage in our homes from smart meters and we could send instructions to turn on the heating or air conditioning by sending a text message or email or interacting with an app.

You will simply turn up at concerts or sporting events without having to wave tickets or get in queues as APIs in your smart device interact with the nearby wireless networks to tell the organisers you’ve arrived and to have your favourite seat ready and a chilled beer at hand for each of you and your friends.

In Dublin, chip giant Intel is planning to turn the city into the world’s first internet of things city, making it the most densely sensored city in the world. The project to make Dublin a ‘Global Demonstrator for Smart City Sensors’ will use Intel Quark-based Gateway platforms. Two hundred of these sensing gateways will be placed around Dublin City to gather and monitor environmental data, in particular noise and air quality.

The key battle will be apps – that’s why simultaneous efforts in areas like open data really do in fact matter.

So it’s already happening. And Microsoft has no intention of being left behind. Not this time.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years