July 22, 2006
Microsoft Ready to Do the Robot
SEATTLE -- Maybe it's the robotic dog resting in the corner or the R2-D2 "Star Wars" droid on the floor, but Tandy Trower's office is not a typical workstation found on the Microsoft Corp. campus.
Trower heads the Microsoft Robotics Group, a nine-person operation with the modest trappings of a start-up company but grand ambitions befitting a $44 billion software giant.
Microsoft aims to bring robotics technology to the masses with programming software to ease the development of new applications, replicating an approach it adopted in the early days of the personal computer industry.
"It really is like a little bit of deja vu," said Trower, a 24-year veteran at Microsoft. "The thing that sounds very familiar (with the PC) is you had people asking 'Why would I want to own this technology?"'
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the PC industry was fragmented and limited to only the geekiest die-hards who could grasp the technology's complexity and appreciate its potential.
It grew as Microsoft and others delivered high-level programming languages to open computing technology to a wider audience and, ultimately, pave the way for user-friendly applications.
A month ago, the company unveiled Microsoft Robotics Studio, a preview of a software designed to make it easier to program robots by eliminating some of the grunt work and creating standards for a variety of hardware types.
Microsoft's foray into robotics has created a stir in an industry that covers everything from monolithic machinery used by car manufacturers to service robots like iRobot Corp.'s automated "Roomba" vacuum cleaner.
In fact, the industry is so diverse that a discussion about what constitutes a robot can launch a debate with some arguing that today's automobile with features like anti-lock brakes and self-adjusting suspension can be classified as a robot.
With the company's deep pockets and track record of vanquishing rivals, Microsoft's entry into a new field can sometimes be met with scorn and skepticism.
However, the robotics industry lacks entrenched rivals that would directly compete with Microsoft and many companies in the sector sees the software giant's interest as validation of their businesses.
"This lends credibility to the industry. It's not just for geeks," said Jon Mandrell, a managing consultant for robotics and system integration company CoraWare.
Microsoft sees the industry as nascent and Trower agrees with market estimates that it will take up to a decade before consumer robots become a multibillion dollar business.
As a result, Microsoft's robot group doesn't operate like one of the company's business units. Its offices are located inside Microsoft's research building and the group reports to Craig Mundie, the company's research and strategy officer, instead of a business head.
Microsoft Chief Executive "Steve Ballmer doesn't come knocking on my door everyday, saying how many dollars are you returning," said Trower. "We see this as an investment in a new marketplace that is just forming."
Microsoft Robotics Studio allows developers to program even a simple robot like the starter kits offered by Danish toymaker Lego and scale those functions to more complex machines, according to Trower.
Another breakthrough is the software's ability to simulate a robot's motions incorporating laws of physics like gravity and friction so tests can be done without risking expensive machinery, Trower said.
He is most intrigued by how the software deals with programming for "concurrency," a high-level technical challenge when multiple functions occur simultaneously.
Dealing with "concurrency" or parallel processing is a challenge that extends beyond the robot group, and across the company's core PC software businesses.
Computers are moving from single to multiple processors to obtain results faster, but writing software for parallel computing systems poses a new set of technical hurdles. Robots provide the ideal testing platform, because they are the natural evolution of the PC, Trower said.
"The challenge for the developer of the future is the same thing that a conductor in an orchestra would have," Trower said. "You have all these different players, they are all playing their separate pieces, but how do you get them to blend together in a harmonious piece?"