When it comes to mobile, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) clearly missed the boat.
Less than 2% of the smartphones sold in the third quarter of last year were powered by Windows, and Microsoft's share of the tablet market hovers at a mere 10%. The Windows hegemony that served Microsoft so well in the age of the PC has been rendered increasingly irrelevant, as a growing number of consumers and business users turn to mobile devices for their computing needs.
But just as mobile disrupted the PC, so too could something disrupt mobile. "If anything, one big mistake we made in our past was to think of the PC as the hub for everything for all time to come," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told ZDNet in an interview last year. "Today ... the high volume device is the six-inch phone ... but to think that's what the future is for all time to come would be to make the same mistake we made in the past."
Microsoft's answer for the future of computing is HoloLens, an augmented reality headset it unveiled last year. HoloLens won't arrive in stores for some time, but it could be instrumental to Microsoft's business in the future.
Like a Windows laptop strapped to your face
Microsoft unveiled HoloLens last January. Lying somewhere between Google Glass and Oculus Rift in terms of functionality, HoloLens blends the real world with the digital, allowing its wearer to see and interact with holographic images. Imagine watching what appears to be a giant flat screen television on a wall that's entirely empty or building with digital Minecraft blocks on a physical coffee table.
Earlier this month, Microsoft's Bruce Harris revealed more details, digging into the device's actual specifications and shortcomings in a discussion with developers in Israel. According to Harris, it's best to think of HoloLens as a fully functional, wearable Windows 10 PC. "Anything you can do with a Windows 10 laptop, you can do with this device," he said.
That means HoloLens can be used completely offline as a stand-alone device or connected to the Internet, and it will work with any applications written for Windows 10. While the HoloLens' potential may center around futuristic, 3D applications, HoloLens owners will be able to take advantage of traditional 2D staples such as Excel or Word.
HoloLens is unquestionably a mobile device. As it stands, it doesn't use cables of any kind, and Microsoft doesn't intend to build a wired version. Peripherals can be connected to the device, but only through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The HoloLens has its own internal battery, which will allow for around 2.5 to 5.5 hours of functionality, depending on the complexity of the applications it's running.
Unlike a virtual reality headset, the field of view isn't all encompassing. It's still large (imagine a 15-inch monitor about 12 inches from your face), but there's a definite border. This is an obvious shortcoming, but also offers some advantages. With open peripheral vision, there's no fear of motion sickness. Still, Microsoft hopes to eventually expand the HoloLens' field of view with future revisions. As of now, it remains limited by the manufacturing process and the battery.
The HoloLens is fanless, which is a necessity for a wearable device, but its power is limited. Harris admitted that applications that render particularly complex holograms might not be possible. Developers can make use of cloud computing to alleviate some of its limitations, and also connect two HoloLens together over the Internet. It uses Microsoft's Kinect cameras to scan its surroundings, identifying fixed structures that holograms can interact with. A holographic bottle could be set to sit atop a real table and fall to the floor when pushed. Developers are free to adjust the transparency of holograms, making them more translucent or opaque as needed.
The HoloLens Developer Edition is slated to begin shipping sometime this quarter. Interested developers can apply to purchase one for $3,000. Microsoft has yet to announce a release date for consumers or a price tag.
The next major computing platform?
By including support for standard Windows 10 applications, Microsoft is ensuring that there will be ample software for HoloLens when it launches. But it's not clear why consumers or enterprise customers would spend several thousand dollars on a headset to edit Word or Excel documents when a standard laptop -- costing just a fraction of the price -- would do. To drive adoption, developers will have to create novel experiences for HoloLens, ones traditional PCs can't offer.
If that happens, Microsoft may be able to reinvigorate the Windows platform, redefining mobile computing in an entirely new way. It's still too early for investors to bank on the HoloLens' success, but it remains one of more intriguing long-term aspects of the Redmond tech giant's business.