Robert Epstein

Robert Epstein, Windows product marketing director at Microsoft

Windows of opportunity

Robert Epstein, Windows product marketing director at Microsoft, tells Mike Hughes how the partnership strategy of Bill Gates and Paul Allen 42 years ago is still at the heart of the company.

If you need proof of the global reach of Microsoft, then here’s a statistic for you. Robert Epstein, who is “the Windows guy” for the company, tells me that since its release two years ago, Windows 10 is now used on 500 million devices… in 192 countries.

I find that very, very impressive – but then I wasn’t even sure there were 192 countries on the planet. But perhaps even more impressive is the amount of hard work and passion Microsoft puts into living up to its mantra of “empowering every organisation and person on the planet to achieve more”.

It’s a bold mission – one that new chief executive Satya Nadella is particularly supportive of – to persuade hundreds of millions of users that each one is more than just a Wikipedia stat the company can put on a screen at the latest product unveiling. Users have to matter as much as programs.

The big signal back when the company was founded in 1975 was that the two men who were hoping to become successful working with Basic code for the breezeblock-sized Altair 8800 microcomputer, decided not to sell their work to one bidder, but allow it to be used by anyone who licensed it.

Microsodt“It was only through that approach that the company grew and it continues to be the foundation for what we do,” Epstein tells me. “Forty years on, whilst the breadth of technology we provide has expanded, the beauty of how it has moved on to be provided as a set of cloud services means users now have greater opportunity at their fingertips to use powerful software that previously would only have been available to huge corporations.”

The breathtaking growth of Microsoft (quarterly revenue of US$23.6bn at the last count), still relies heavily on the collaboration and partnership model. The company can pump out version after version of its operating system (OS) – as much as its R&D labs can cope with – but it needs a global army of technology provider partners to make it all happen.

“We have always been about working through IT professionals, and specialist partners. We now have 23,000 partner companies in the UK that employ more than 500,000 people,” Epstein explains. “What that means is that somewhere out there is a technology expert in every industry, in every type of company and every part of the country. The beauty of this is that while the underlying technology being provided will be that same hyperscale cloud technology – like Windows and Office – that users are familiar with and have used for decades in some cases, but it will be tailored and customised as required by an individual organisation to get what they need but with the same trustworthiness.

“You also get the scale of our investment in our data centres and our cloud infrastructure to provide an incredible level of computing power and storage, available where you are, whatever size you are and whatever you want to do. It’s as simple as buying with a credit card.

“Whatever you want to do” could be another very applicable Microsoft slogan. To be the OS of the people, Windows has to appeal to all, from the kids learning about coding so that they can become digital leaders and drive the UK economy into the next decade, to the business start-ups who want to keep their accounts safe and the conglomerates who want to influence global markets.

Epstein tells me: “Any organisation of any size gets access to the same scale as the largest enterprise, and when it comes to supporting all those customers of varying sizes and in different industries and different parts of the world, then our partner channels prove once again that they are such an integral part of Microsoft and the way it operates.

“As our users would expect, those partners are all certified in various parts of our technology and there are now more than 75,000 Microsoft certified professionals in the UK who have taken training and been assessed by us.

“That network means we are able to support customers who want to move to new technology like Windows 10, the most modern operating system, operating on a huge variety of devices and for a huge number of people. They will all be able to work more productively at home, in the office or on the move because Windows 10 is so cloud-enabled, which makes it very easy to store data and find it again, putting the customer at the centre.

“It also helps drive user productivity with elements like Cortana, our digital assistant, which helps with more natural interaction, or devices where you can just pick up a pen and write on them. But the whole industry is also very aware that cyber-security is an ever-growing concern and the security threat has changed enormously since Windows 7 was designed, a decade ago.”

About half of online adults were cybercrime victims in the past year, with attacks costing the global economy up to US$500bn annually, including one in five small and medium-sized businesses being targeted. Microsoft has been fighting cybercrime and stopping its spread for some years. Leading the battle is its Digital Crimes Unit formed in 2008, now working from a restricted-access Cybercrime Center on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, where a sponsored team of international legal and internet security experts employ the latest tools and technologies.

“On a more day-to-day level, if one of our users isn’t sure of something, type ‘tips’ into the Windows 10 search bar and you will find videos and online help. Even if you just can’t set up a printer, just type ‘printer’ into the box, or ‘user account’ or ‘bluetooth’ or whatever you need help with and it will find those settings for you. All of this is just us trying to simplify the user experience.”

There’s that word again – user. It is too easy to just say it without meaning, but Nadella has put it at the centre of the operation and turned a bright spotlight on it.

“We always need to be very user-centric, and I have seen the transformation over the 14 years I have been with Microsoft,” agrees Epstein. “The way Windows 10 has been built is a point-change from before and we now release new versions of code almost every two weeks to people who have opted to be early testers. We have a programme called Windows Insiders where we push out the latest version over the internet and work with that community to get feedback from around the world.

“This is for technical enthusiasts who are prepared to accept that sometimes things will go a bit wrong because it is an early version, but we are developing with the public with genuine feedback for months on end before we formalise a release.

Microsoft“As we have transformed into a company driven by that single mission to power every organisation and person on the planet to achieve more, there is a genuine excitement about what we can do for businesses and for the single users.”

The Microsoft of the seventies was ground-breaking in the way it made science fiction into useable fact, and I sense that same spirit inside every box with that familiar red, green, blue and yellow badge. But that also has to come with astonishingly high levels of skill – the very best in the industry – from R&D bases around the world who are creating the DNA for the next big change.

“The UK is in a good place at the moment, with the amount of innovation coming from here and the number of tech start-ups, both of which are a combination of research coming out of our great universities coupled with the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we see around the country,” says Epstein. “When I look at many of our technologies, the UK Government and our early adopters have shown a great passion for the benefits that can be gained from going digital.

“We are hugely invested in education and in terms of the UK we have one of our six global research centres based in Cambridge and there is some great technology coming out of there. Similarly, the new version of Microsoft Paint, which is one of the most loved applications in Windows, which allows businesses to work in 3D, was created in London by one of our studios.

“We believe in working with all sectors of education, starting with the amount of software we give away for free to schools to excite kids about technology and coding as they come through the education system, through to the 11,000 Microsoft apprentices in training across our partner network, thanks again to our Microsoft partners.

“One of the most recent advances is with the Minecraft game, which will be familiar to the youngest kids as a place where they are learning to build their own worlds and use their computers to be creative. It is also an incredible teaching application which has been used to help with history lessons by looking at how Roman villages were built and used, for example.

“Well, now we have just announced the ability to code in Minecraft, so the children themselves can make the characters move around and create parts of the game. These young people will be running our companies and leading our research, because they were immersed in technology from such an early stage.”

Who knows what remarkable products this generation will be working on – and try to imagine what technology the newborns of 2018 will be using as they grow up. For me, Epstein is one of only a handful of people who can look ahead with the sort of experience that makes you listen to him and jot down a few notes for the future in your old-fashioned spiral-bound notebook (sorry Microsoft).

“The future is exciting, and even trying to look a year or two ahead is difficult because that is a huge length of time in tech, with so many developments happening so quickly. But we already know that you will certainly continue to see devices of all shapes and sizes having much more natural inputs, like voice and writing which are so natural for us as humans – Microsoft is already more than 95% accurate with voice recognition.

“The shift from 2D to 3D is also going to become very important, with the ability for a company to make 3D objects and insert them into a real world scenario to see how they would work. That naturally transitions to what we call ‘mixed reality’, which encompasses a wide range of ways we interact with the real and 3D worlds. Windows 10 supports mixed reality and later this year we will be announcing, with our partners like Acer and Dell, a variety of headsets that will work with a reasonably-powerful home computer and will retail at around £300.

“So at one end of the Microsoft mixed reality spectrum is virtual reality, where you put a headset on and your entire world becomes digital, and at the other end is holograms which we work on through our ‘HoloLens’ product.

“As the world’s only self-contained holographic computer, this doesn’t need tethering to a computer or phone, you just put on the glasses, and see the real world, but with holograms on top of it. The headset has the ability to read the world around you and interact with it, like throwing a ball at a wall and seeing it bounce back, off the table and onto your floor.

“We are only just starting to see the potential uses, from medical schools doing full-scale training on what is effectively a human body to collaborations that mean engineers can work on jet engines and put information on top of that engine without having the expense of taking one offline.

“It is also a huge benefit for people who work in hazardous environments, like lift engineers who can go into lift shafts and send back images of what they are working on, using the forward facing cameras on the HoloLens. Back at the head office, colleagues can draw on those images and the engineer will see that advice appearing on the component they are working on.

“These are all exciting advances that are here today, and we haven’t even mentioned the possibilities to come from artificial intelligence, which will start coming to life through the digital assistants we have on our devices. Or the next development, which will be the use of AI ‘bots’ which will start taking over customer service and simple queries as they start understanding the natural language of a user request and supply the right answer.”

His enthusiasm is infectious and makes me think what the desk I am sitting in front of will look like in a few years, armed with the sort of firepower businesses are still only dreaming of. With the scale of the cloud giving instant computing power and storage, BI and rich analysis that can give serious competitive advantage is a click away and information mining about markets, customers and competitors becomes possible at a microscopically granular level.

“This is a fourth industrial revolution revolutionising and digitally transforming UK businesses,” says Epstein. “We have had steam, electricity and the microprocessor, and now we have an age driven by the arrival of the cloud and the huge data centres that provide our massive, hyperscale, low-cost storage to allow us to utilise those vast amounts of data.

“Businesses like Netflix, Amazon, Airbnb and Spotify have all disrupted their businesses using cloud technology. They have built business that generate huge amounts of cash flow while requiring minimal investment, and their success is proving how disruptive digital transformation can be. However, it isn’t just about start ups, it is for any business that wants to empower its employees and engage more with its market and optimise its operation.

“We are at an incredibly exciting time watching the world learning to adapt to an absolute rennaisance in what the user will be experiencing in computing. Yes, there is a rapid transformation in the use of cloud technology, but we are still only at the early stages, and as that power to tap into the resources there, without needing to spend millions on development, becomes more democratised, it will just become more exciting every day.”

If this was a Microsoft product launch, I could picture Gates and Allen applauding from the back seats of the auditorium with pride and reassurance that the innovation they started is still so exciting and that their model is still so central to the company they founded.

Thanks to visionary people like Epstein, and the user-first philosophy driven by Nadella, Microsoft and its products have never been in safer hands – ours.