Could Kinect be Microsoft's iPod?

On November 8, 2010, one of my most anticipated packages arrived from Amazon: a 250 GB Xbox 360 Kinect combo. Kinect is one of the more popular devices to leave the doors of Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash.-based company initially expected to sell two million of them during the holiday season but upped estimates to five million due to high preorder sales. Not a day goes by without reports about how someone has hacked Kinect for some other use besides gaming. I think this suggests demand for natural user interfaces will expand beyond touch, and go mainstream. Couple that with the high cool factor Kinect offers and this could be the device that reinvigorates Microsoft's consumer image. Could Kinect be Microsoft's iPod?

I think so. In case you don't remember, Apple was largely a forgotten company in the mid 1990s. There were no mainstream products, Macs were very expensive for most consumers to buy and most businesses chose the certainty of Windows. Things began to change when Apple cofounder Steve Jobs returned to the company in late 1996 and became interim CEO the next year. In 1998, he launched the trendy, translucent iMac. But there wasn't much room for Mac sales to grow -- most people used Windows PCs. Apple needed something new.

How Things Should Have Been All Along

Then in 2001, Apple created the iPod. The first generation iPod, with 5GB capacity, only worked on Apple products, and it was expensive at $399. But subsequent iterations expanded to Windows machines, and Apple lowered selling prices. I remember the first time I used an iPod and purchased music through the iTunes Store, which Apple launched in April 2003 for Macs and expanded to Windows in October 2003. I could not believe how easy iPod and iTunes were to use. I was content with buying CDs online or at the store, but when I purchased my first song through iTunes, I felt like that was how things should have been all along. In an online world, it seemed more natural that I should be able to purchase and download music right away at my computer. Also, iPod was one of the coolest devices I had ever owned.

My Kinect "wow" experience so reminds me of using iPod for the first time. Microsoft does not have a device that many people consider to be cool. I know people that don't even know Xbox is even made by Microsoft! But that's changing with Kinect. For a company that is typically derided for copying its competitors, Microsoft came up with something quite different than Sony or Nintendo. Add to that, it has a high cool factor. I tell my friends about how I can fast forward and rewind live ESPN broadcasts by waving my hands, and they shake their heads in amazement; or how I can speak commands like "Xbox, pause" while watching a movie (or ESPN), and it works.

Microsoft would be foolish not to capitalize on the high cool factor. Kinect has put Xbox into the lives of some of the unlikeliest of people. My 53 year-old mother visited me for Christmas and called me the day after she got home to talk about which Xbox version she should get. She never plays video games. The pastor of my church bought Kinect and talked about it during a sermon. All of this for a device that has been on the shelves for about two months now.

Creating the Kinect "Halo" Effect

Microsoft can leverage this popularity into its other products. For instance, Apple has been selling iPods for years. This worked to its advantage in several ways. For one, analysts have talked about the "halo" effect, where satisfied iPod owners (and Windows users) bought Macs because they so liked the Apple user experience. For another, in the background, Apple was working on future devices based on the iPod ecosystem that would make the transition to these products less cumbersome. Apple had already built a strong brand image with the iPod so that when something as ridiculous looking as a phone with no keyboard came along, it was easier for the general public to trust it. As important, Apple already had strong retail and manufacturer channels through which to drive accessory sales. Like Apple, which controls iPod hardware, software and supporting services, Microsoft controls the full Xbox stack.

Kinect has the potential to create a halo effect that can propel other Microsoft products, particularly if the company is willing to extend the technology -- for example, bringing it to Windows or Windows Phone devices. Already, Microsoft developers can use the same tools for creating games for Windows, Windows Phone 7 and Xbox. But it is Kinect that could be the, forgive the pun, game changer. Like Apple and iPod, this can also work to Microsoft's advantage. Imagine how exciting the next version of Windows would be, if Microsoft included the natural user interface technology. Kinect could reinvigorate Microsoft's consumer image such that it will help sell more copies of the next Windows version.

Kinect is not just cool though, there is actually a legitimate need for it. How many times have you tried to use your phone, but your hands were dirty and you didn't want to get dirt smudges all over your screen? You could gesture. A gesture-controlled TV or PC in the kitchen could come in handy with someone who needs to navigate recipes. In this instance, a touchscreen interface wouldn't be ideal. But a simple gesture of the hands could allow the cook to navigate the interface. One day I was lying on my couch watching a game on Xbox Live ESPN and I could not find my remote, so I said, "Xbox pause," and it worked. At that moment I realized the technology is more than cool, it's also very useful.

Legitimate uses for Kinect-like technology coupled with high cool factor could be just enough to push Microsoft's consumer vision over the top and bring the company back to a level of popularity with consumers it has not enjoyed for almost a decade. Apple revolutionized music listening and purchasing, with iPod and iTunes Store. Microsoft could bring a more dramatic revolution, by changing how we use computers on the desktop and in everyday products -- all with the wave of a hand.

Robert JohnsonRobert Johnson is a user interface developer specializing in the user experience (UX) of .NET-based web applications. He has been working in some form of web development and graphic design for 14 years. He loves technology in general, particularly that of Apple, Google and Microsoft. He is a Betanews reader.

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