Dinner With Microsoft’s Craig Mundie: On Xbox Kinect, Instantaneous Total Recall, and a More Secretive Culture

I recently had dinner here in the Boston area with Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer. With just one other guest present, it was an unusually personal and far-ranging discussion. Most of the talk was of a general nature—more background than anything else. Still, a few things stuck with me as noteworthy. I thought I would share them here.

Mundie, as you might have guessed from his title, serves as Microsoft’s long-term technology strategist and visionary. His domain includes basically anything and everything that Microsoft is eyeing in the 3-10-year time horizon, and even beyond. This includes the sprawling Microsoft Research (MSR) organization (six major labs around the world), the Health Solutions Group that oversees the company’s growing health IT efforts for healthcare enterprises, providers, and consumers, the Startup Business Group that incubates new technologies with the aim of creating new MS products, and a host of smaller operations and groups focused on various aspects of future technology identification and development. In this role, Mundie serves on a couple of government technology committees, including President Obama’s council of advisors on science and technology, and acts as a top Microsoft liaison to major governments such as China, India, and Russia. Even the famous Microsoft Home of the Future, an ever-updated exhibit on the main corporate campus, is part of his realm.

Taken as a whole, this is quite a realm, from advanced technology to fundamental research that’s about as pure as you can get in industry these days. Viewed another way, you could say Mundie was the yin to chief software architect Ray Ozzie’s yang—that is, until Ozzie announced his impending departure from the company last month. That’s because Ozzie’s job was to focus on Microsoft strategy and technology in the present to near term—meaning less than three years out. Together, as Mundie also said, they split most of Bill Gates’ duties (I think Mundie got the fun part, but that’s just me).

My dinner with Mundie took place in early October, less than two weeks before Ozzie’s announcement (so yes, I was admittedly slow to write up my notes). Now, with Ozzie soon to be heading out the door, I decided to go back to my notes and supplement them with some commentary and a follow up question or two to draw out the things I found most interesting:

Craig MundieMicrosoft is getting more secretive about its futuristic pursuits: This was really interesting to me—I think of it as the Steve Jobs effect, since the Apple kingpin is notorious for keeping things under wraps with dire penalties for those who leak. The way this came up was we were talking about TechFest, the technology fair for Microsoft employees where everyone in the product groups can see what is going on at the research labs (and to a degree, vice-versa) and other parts of the company doing advanced technology. Some outsiders, including a few press like me, were previously invited to this. But when I remarked to Mundie how I hadn’t seen much about TechFest lately, and certainly not been invited in recent years, he said that was deliberate (I didn’t take it personally).

“Everybody we compete with has plenty of notice of what we’re going to do next,” he told me. “Microsoft has little surprise value with the consumer.” Therefore, he says, “I’ve been a little bit more parsimonious about revealing the inventions I believe will be important.” He also said his goal was … Next Page »

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