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  *   A First Hand Look at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference: March 2001

                    by Paul Britton, Jr.

When I first heard of the event, one question kept reverberating through my mind: What will they showcase?  Which tricks and gadgets among many that the 600-person Microsoft Research division has developed, were deemed suitable to be put on display at the Association for Computing Machinery conference?

   Fast forward two months.  Here he was this past Monday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, in front of an academically-focused crowd (Picture 1) to extol the virtues of working collaboratively with academia, but not without plugging the company’s .NET platform and several future technologies under development.

   However, before delving into the meat of his presentation with two demos, Ballmer put up a slide (Slide 1) to help the audience visualize the goals that the company has set for their research division.

    In bringing out Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft Research employee, to discuss the new Notifications Platform, Ballmer said, ``We’re looking at fundamental breakthroughs on efficiencies, their work saved us hundreds if not thousands of people.''  The Notification Platform, codenamed “Hailstorm”, is one of the 3 or 4 key “building block” services that Microsoft announced last summer that would be rolled out in 2001 to support this goal.  Put simply, Horvitz said this platform will be able to accept information from a vast network of sources out on the internet cloud that are .NET (read: XML) based.  Examples of such sources are email services, telephones, stock information, and news services. 

   This service goes beyond simple notifications however.  Think of the sheer number of potential messages one would receive without some manageability!  To that end, Horvitz likened Hailstorm to a “Notification Manager”.  (Slide 2) To further the manageability, Hailstorm can balance the incoming notification against your calendar, so if you are out of the office, it will check the settings you set for notifications out of the office.  A preview of this technology is currently available in the form of the Outlook Mobile Manager, now available as a beta from Microsoft’s website.

   A potential future feature of this technology may be a bit unsettling.  Microsoft Research has developed a video-based presence application into the notification management platform.  Performing the demo on a laptop running Windows 2000 Professional, Horvitz said Hailstorm uses the local power of a PC with a video camera to determine if the user is present, and if present, what state that user is in. (Picture 2)  The computer can determine if the user is not facing the computer monitor, or if other people are in the room with the user.  Hailstorm can then dish out incoming notifications based on rules that the user has setup.  One example of that is if the user was in the room, but not facing the computer, the notification would be accompanied by an audible alert.

   The second of the two demos quickly followed, with Ballmer and company moving over to the side of the stage where they hosted a mock-roundtable meeting.  There was one small difference with this meeting however.  This meeting was “digital”: at the center of the table was 5 “off the shelf” IEEE 1394 Firewire-based video cameras, and an array microphone. (Picture 3)  All told, the total cost was said to be just under $300.  This digital meeting software was able to take the input from all 5 cameras, and stitch them all together to put together a 360° view of the roundtable.  Not only that, but as different people spoke, the software was able to determine via the array microphone who was the speaker, and switched the main video window to show that person. (Picture 4)  The demonstration went flawlessly.  There were several other features mentioned as well, but they were not actively demonstrated.  The software is able to record all of this input, and index it.  Therefore, a user could come back later, and do a search for all the instances of the phrase “.NET” used then display them.

   When all was said and done, I had my answer; they showcased a new notification management platform, and advanced digital video meeting software.

   The notification management platform is expected to be officially unveiled next Monday, the 19th.  Also anticipated to be announced on the 19th is the next-generation Microsoft Passport technology, new “priority” based email sorting features for MSN Hotmail, and the next version of MSN Messenger Service trumpeting among other things, over 40million active users, and interoperability with other IM services

   Incidentally, Microsoft looks to have filled in three of the four “building block” services by next week.  View the slide, and you can see that Notification Building Block is to be announced next week, along with the Identity Building Block (Passport), and a Third Party Building Block was announced this week in the form of eBay.  No major announcements with the Storage Building Block…but testers of WindowsXP, the upcoming upgrade of Windows, have said that options to save files and folders to MSN-based storage areas are now somewhat functional.

If you wish to discuss any aspect of .NET, or MSN, please feel free to email!

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