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Surface, services capture attention at Microsoft CIO summit

Microsoft officials had a busy week last week, hosting some 300 public-sector information chiefs at its annual Public Sector CIO Summit in Redmond, Wash., amidst a series of major announcements.

While Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer usually makes an appearance at the public sector gathering, he was occupied elsewhere announcing the rollout of 2008 edition of Microsoft Server'and working on Microsoft's response to the European Commission's $1.36 billion fine last week for failing to meet a 2004 trade compliance order. The EC apparently wasn't impressed with Microsoft's announcement the week prior declaring sweeping commitments to make its high volume software more open and available to developers.

All of that seemed like distant thunder, however, inside Microsoft's swank executive conference center where federal, state, city and education tech leaders along with a parade of Microsoft subject experts discussed how Microsoft products are making work more productive for public sector CIOs'or could if only they'd speed up their IT refresh cycles.

CIOs from New York, San Francisco and Miami, for instance, showed how Microsoft SharePoint and business intelligence tools had made it relatively easy to assemble data from various municipal departments and create public service scorecards and reporting dashboards. Microsoft specialists also detailed how Illinois law enforcement officials stood up one of the nation's six largest government data fusions centers, with a combination of Microsoft Office, SharePoint and other business productivity software.

The tech summit also allowed Microsoft to showcase some of its latest research and development efforts, including:

Surface: Unveiled last May at the Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital Conference, Surface is a tabletop interface that can capture and display images and data. The nightstand-sized unit relies on five embedded high-resolution cameras and Microsoft software that recognizes hand gestures and captures and displays images of objects such as palm prints or photos transmitted via WiFi from a camera placed on the surface top. The images can be expanded or reduced, moved and appended with data.

What sets Surface apart, according to Josh Rice, director of the company's public-sector incubation team, is the ability for multiple people to access and manipulate information simultaneously on the same screen in ways that make touch-screen and tablet computers look antiquated.

The devices aren't expected to be commercial available for another 18 months. Initial pricing is expected to run between $5,000 and $10,000, but eventually settle within the range of high end desktops as production hits stride. But government contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics among others, are reportedly already exploring ways to turn the devices into military command and emergency management tools. Initial demand has been extremely high, said Rice, suggesting the likelihood of a new generation of computer interface that will usurp the mouse is increasingly close at hand.

Software plus service: Microsoft remains convinced that while enterprises will continue to move toward Web-based and mobile computing services, they will still need hosted applications. So product roll outs'notably Exchange Server and Office SharePoint Server'are being designed to support both working environments. But Microsoft also has set its sites on a broader strategy: to provide on-premise, partner-hosted and Microsoft-hosted delivery of applications. That includes a new strategy to set up full-service data centers to support customers. Additional details were made public this week.

Meanwhile, Microsoft isn't being shy about offering consulting services. Curt Kolcun, Microsoft Federal vice president, says while his group isn't looking to compete with integrators, a variety of former feds and other technical experts are providing strategic consulting services to help accelerate the use of Microsoft's collaborative tools and services.

Unified Communications: Microsoft has seized new ways to exploit the capabilities of digital voice and video over the Internet and combined them in what amounts to Microsoft Outlook and instant messaging on steroids. Together, Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, and Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 make it possible for individuals not only to see who among various groups of collaborators is available online or by phone. It also streamlines the ability to schedule and run multimedia conferences online from their desktops.

ESP: Then there's Microsoft's 25-year old Flight Simulator program which is taking on a new dimension'as the basis for a new visual simulation platform. According to Ed McCahill, marketing manager for Microsoft ESP, the ESP platform would offer the engine, tools and content to create dynamic, immersive environments and the ability to plug in real-time, 3-D graphic images, including proprietary landscapes and cockpit configurations.

Microsoft has teamed with partners to create a flight-training simulation development tool positioned to work as a desktop client for around $800 as an alternative to much more expensive training modules. Future versions designed for emergency ground situations will be available in beta later this year and an undersea and maritime version, simulating underwater and building interiors is also in the works.

Gapminder: Kevin Schofield, who is a general manager for research strategy, also showcased some of the work of Microsoft's 800-member R&D team including new ways to express large volumes of data in a single view. One approach is called Gapminder. Imagine plotting multiyear life expectancy data for many countries represented by spheres that visually expand, contract or move over a sequence of time. Observing how the spheres diverge or move over time can provide new perspective on comparative data; and the ability to quickly drill down into the data can help analysts examine why certain patterns emerge.

WorldWide Telescope: The more dramatic example of making large volumes of data accessible'and one that may help CIO's have a better sense for their place in the cosmos'was the introduction of WorldWide Telescope. First unveiled last week at the annual Technology Entertainment Conference in Monterey, Calif. and expected to be released this spring, WorldWide Telescope allows users to explore the universe much the same way Virtual Earth allows users to visually zoom in and out of locations anywhere on Earth.

The new tool offers some distinct advantages over a similar tool recently released by Google called Google Sky. WorldWide Telescope allows users to look not only at visible celestial objects but also visually enhance infrared and other radiation data, from supernovas for instance. The cosmic views, which can be shifted according to day and time, are supplemented by a strip of contextually relevant images and information.

The new site is not only being developed as an educational tool, but also serves as a test bed for applications designed to capture spatial data in new and more useful ways.

Posted by Wyatt Kash on Mar 06, 2008 at 9:39 AM


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