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Buxton: Microsoft starting to get design

If it weren't such a big challenge, it wouldn't be such a big opportunity, the computing pioneer tells CNET News in an interview.

Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton speaking at this week's Mix 09 design conference in Las Vegas. Ina Fried/CNET

LAS VEGAS--When Bill Buxton talks about good product design, his favorite example is the Avalanche beacon he takes with him on his ice climbing expeditions.

"It's a technology that I bet my life on," Buxton said. "How many (of those) do we have?"

The product he said is fairly complex to do and yet the market for it is small. "Precisely because of that, there are no frills. You don't add features. There are no gratuitous features."

Buxton, a former Xerox PARC researcher who helped pioneer the technology behind multitouch interfaces, says he will literally throw the device at the first person who tries to cram in an alarm clock or something else. But, he said, he likes to use the beacon when talking about design because it doesn't elicit the kind of emotional reaction that comes from citing some tech industry product, such as the iPhone.

"I like that example because it is one that is removed from most people's experience," he said. "They can approach it at the level of the issues without prejudices."

The beacon, Buxton said, is an example of a device that is meant to be a single-purpose device. At the same time, he said, the real challenge today is actually in integrating all of the technology that is out there. We have access to more devices than we can carry and yet they do a very poor job of talking to one another.

Buxton joined Microsoft's research unit three years ago to help infuse a sense of design into the company, which is not known for its prowess in that area. Much of Buxton's work these days centers on developing theories of how disparate devices and technologies can work together.

"If I look at Microsoft, I think your experience with Microsoft is not going to be determined with what your experience is with any single Microsoft product."

Microsoft tapped Buxton this week to help the company speak to Web designers at the annual Mix event in Las Vegas. As for his broader goal of helping Microsoft become a more design-oriented company, that's still a work in progress.

"We don't get it all the time but we are getting it more," he said.

For more from Buxton, check out the video interview I did below.