Microsoft updates its office of the future

The future of information technology gets a face-lift from Microsoft's Center for Information Work. Photos: Microsoft's workplace of the future

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
Metadata and more visuals.

Therein lies the future of information technology as seen through the eyes of the Center for Information Work (CIW), the concept office on Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus.

"The newly expanded CIW is our companywide think tank for cultivating that knowledge and applying it to the next generation of software-based productivity tools," Microsoft CIW group product manager Tom Gruver told CNET News.com.

CIW future tech

Future software will automatically search and harness metadata--identifying information tagged to items like appointments or Word documents--to automatically identify, organize and orchestrate common-sense relationships. These "pattern recognitions" are then automatically acted on to anticipate the needs of the "information worker."

"Information worker" is the term CIW uses to describe individuals who use computers to access or distribute information as part of their job.

"Content created on the subject, useful search results, relevant contacts, documents from other applications and information connected to whatever you are working on is all proactively provided to you," said Gruver. "This includes a lot better visualization of data--3D modeling--connected to real live data at the back end."

"From a single-screen view, users can see a calendar and e-mails, phone calls and instant messages. The application creates a rolling time line of events based on your actions." he said.

Correspondence is organized by priorities set by the company and the personal user. They are also set dynamically based on the user's actions.

It's as if everyone in the future will have the equivalent of an on-the-ball girl Friday to help stay organized and on schedule.

With more and more information being offered at workers' fingertips, and more people collaborating across enterprises, more visual space is necessary. To address this, CIW features several possibilities.

CIW workstations feature two or three conjoined flat screens that work in conjunction with one another. One example is the StraTech, a curved, sprawling glass monitor split into three parts by two beveled seams.

DigiDesk is a draftsman-style podium that is layered with one giant touch screen, in addition to having a large, upright monitor.

RoundTable enables 360-degree views for multiple venues to participate in videoconferencing. CIW first experimented with the system, due in 2007, as RingCam in 2003.

In the past, CIW emphasized use of integration among multiple devices. That experiment continues, as RFID (radio frequency identification) tags are attached to business travel accessories like PDAs and Tablet PCs.

Microsoft sees Tablet PCs as a possible tool for biometric logins--authentications employing things like fingerprints, retinal scans and handwriting--in place of usernames and passwords. CIW contends that multiple biometrics could automatically apply as a means of controlling information access based on the priority settings attached to the user, as that user moves through multiple servers, platforms and even enterprises.

Previously, CIW dealt with a fictitious widget-manufacturing company and illustrated multiplatform operations within one enterprise. CIW's new scenario is a pharmaceutical company that interacts with many "beyond the firewall" components, such as research labs; government agencies requiring compliance; manufacturing; distribution; pharmacies; doctors; and patients buying their finished drug.

This new scenario allows CIW to test the use of software applications not just across platforms and servers, but also across enterprises. It's also designed to experiment with compliance issues, something regularly dealt with by many industries going through development and testing.

The CIW fictional office space spans 3,500-square feet and anticipates hosting 10,000 visitors this year. Executives from Fortune 2000 companies, as well as dignitaries and journalists, have toured or interacted with the space since its birth in 2002.

Through immersion, visitors use the technology under guidance from CIW staff. Executives who visit the facility can engage in interactive role-playing to evaluate new CIW applications and provide Microsoft with feedback on improving technology.