Here’s what happened to Microsoft’s Xbox VR gaming headset


By Ian Sherr

Two months ago, Microsoft said it didn’t have specific plans to create an Xbox VR headset. What it didn’t say is that it had been working on a device, but put existing VR plans on hold until better technology comes along.

Microsoft courted partners over the past couple years to create games for a virtual reality headset designed to work with the Xbox video game console, according to people familiar with the matter. While the physical designs of the device weren’t widely known, the screen quality specifications were considered good — but not as good as those for Facebook’s rival Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive headsets, the people said.

Earlier this year, however, Microsoft started telling partners it was putting its Xbox headset plans on hold. Two people familiar with Microsoft‘s thinking said the company decided to wait until promising new tech like wireless headsets were more feasible. Today, high-end headsets like Sony‘s $299 PlayStation VR, Facebook‘s $399 Oculus Rift and and HTC‘s $499 Vive rely on long and bulky wires plugged into their respective devices in order to work. Wireless adapters meanwhile, add about $300 in cost.

The move wasn’t much of a surprise to partners and those briefed on the device, considering Microsoft has largely stuck to a supporting role during VR’s recent renaissance, led by Sony, HTC, Steam game store owner Valve and Facebook’s Oculus VR. And you could argue it’s a smart strategy.

So far, the VR market has struggled to win over a mass market of consumers. Analysts believe Sony has sold the most high-end VR headsets, tallying 3 million PlayStation VRs soldsince that product’s launch in 2016. In May, Facebook released its $199 Oculus Go, a midlevel standalone VR headset. Though Facebook declined to disclose sales data, SuperData Research estimates it sold 289,000 units in the three months ended in June. That may not seem like much when stacked against the 41.3 million iPhones Apple sold during that same time, but the researcher said it’s better than what Facebook’s higher-end Oculus Rift did in the second half of 2017.

All told, VR today is a mixed bag. “Virtual reality may yet become a massive mainstream hit, but it’s not going to happen with this generation of tech,” CNET’s Dan Ackerman wrote in April. “It’s time to throw in the towel.”

This is not your father’s Microsoft


By Ian Sherr and Connie Guglielmo


ix days after sharing Microsoft’s blowout earnings with Wall Street in July, Satya Nadella stops to listen to a few of the more than 23,500 employees taking part in a three-day hackathon the company is hosting at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

One team shows him digital tattoos made of gold leaf that’s embedded with sensors. Apply these wearables to your skin and, with a tap, you one day might be able to turn on the house lights or play a tune on your digital piano. Another team tells him about a feature for the company’s Seeing AI app that uses your phones’ camera as an optical character recognition device, speaking menus and other text so the visually impaired can play video games.

As he walks among tables littered with laptops, soldering irons, empty cans of Talking Rain sparkling water (a Microsoft customer) and 3-inch-high silver toy robots that read “Hackathon 2018,” a crowd of employees follows him like groupies at a music festival. “He’s taller than I thought,” one says. “Do you think he’ll let us take a photo?” asks another.

Nadella dreamed up the Microsoft Hackathon, which the company calls the “largest private hackathon in the world,” when he became CEO in February 2014. Just a few of the thousands of projects pitched over the past five years have inspired mainstream products. Most of these let’s-change-the-world ideas aren’t the kind of business tech that Microsoft makes the bulk of its money on — at least not today.

That’s just fine with Nadella, because the meetup serves another purpose: rebranding Microsoft as a modern, relevant company. When he became the third CEO of the world’s largest software company, after Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Nadella made changing Microsoft’s rigid, hierarchical and arrogant culture his top priority. He sort of had to. Though arguably one of the most successful technology companies in history, Microsoft’s had a string of high-profile misses in mobile, search and social networking. Additionally, the company’s toxic culture, characterized by corporate politics, infighting and backstabbing, fed an image of Microsoft as a fading legend.

Rivals Apple, Google and Facebook were seen as innovators creating shiny new opportunities with their disruptive tech. A generation grew up without ever having used a Microsoft product.

“One of the things that happens when you’re super successful is you sort of sometimes lose touch with what made you successful in the first place,” Nadella tells us when we ask what he was trying to solve with the hackathon.

“I wanted to go back to the very genesis of this company: What is that sense of purpose and drive that made us successful? What was the culture that may have been there in the very beginning or in the times when we were able to achieve that success?  How do we really capture it?” says Nadella, who joined Microsoft in 1992. It’s about “the renaissance as much as about just sort of fixing something that’s broken.”

The first order of business was jettisoning the rally-the-troops employee meetings Ballmer held each year at the local sports arena. Instead, Nadella opted for One Week, a global fest that, in addition to the hackathon, includes a science fair and an expo of upcoming products and technologies. His aim: Getting Microsoft’s 131,000 employees around the world to step away from their day jobs, think ambitiously and collaborate on projects the world might need — not just on products Microsoft thinks it can sell.

The event is “the metaphor for the one week that then informs the rest of the year in terms of really getting in touch with the core of this company around innovation — but that innovation being driven by a sense of purpose and reinforcing a culture that we aspire to,” Nadella says.

The culture fix seems to be paying off. Annual revenue crossed $100 billion in the fiscal year ended in June (the highest in its 43-year history), driven by demand for the company’s cloud computing business products. And Microsoft’s stock price has tripled since Nadella took charge. The stellar share price and financial performance speak to his success, say analysts, in changing investors’ perceptions of Microsoft as dated and in decline.

“Satya is owning the market he already had, and he’s doing a bang-up job of gaining share in a market we weren’t sure he was going to be successful at,” says Maribel Lopez, head of Lopez Research and a longtime Microsoft watcher.

Now the question that Nadella and Microsoft, founded by Gates and Paul Allen in 1975, need to answer is what this software behemoth will become next.

So we’ve been invited to get an inside look at One Week and learn from employees and executives how Microsoft has changed and why they believe Nadella’s path will lead to continued success.

Asta Roseway, a principle research designer who’s worked at Microsoft for two decades, is pretty candid in her description of life before and after Nadella took over. She said collaborative projects like her gold-leaf tattoos wouldn’t even have been discussed a few years ago. “This feels like, collectively, we’re building toward more creativity,” she says. “It’s why we’re here.”

The answer to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube’s problems with Infowars? Transparency


It’s time to pull back the curtains. Big time.

Over the past two years, the tech industry has found itself in the middle of so many world-changing events, it’s hard to keep track. We’ve seen privacy leaks like the one centered on Cambridge Analytica, Russian interference in our elections, endless harassment, hate speech, the rise of white supremacists and threats of all-out nuclear war, to name just a few.

And yet, we know shockingly little about the decisions that Facebook, Twitterand YouTube make, impacting billions of people every day.

Consider just the past week. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his publication Infowars were largely booted off Apple’s iTunes and Podcasts services, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Stitcher, MailChimp and Vimeo, all within a few days.

In each of these cases, the companies cited their community rules or terms of service, which prohibit hate speech and harassment. When I asked which specific posts violated the rules and what rules in particular Jones had run afoul of, Facebook, YouTube, Stitcher, Apple and others either declined to provide details or didn’t respond to my request.

All they would say is that Jones and Infowars violated their rules, and that was it.

Many people cheered tech’s moves. After all, Jones in particular has accused the families of the 20 first-graders killed in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 of faking their children’s deaths. At least nine families of Sandy Hook victims have now sued Jones and Infowars for defamation. How could that type of speech — demonstrably false claims that led to harassment of grieving families — be OK?

Add in that more than half of US adults support tech companies taking steps to restrict false information, “even if it limits the public’s freedom to access and publish information,” as a Pew Research Center survey found in April. You’d think this is a no-brainer.

Yet, when the big tech companies cut off Infowars account, some people cried foul. This time, because the companies didn’t explain the specific reason why. What had changed that week? They refused to say.

That’s why I think it’s time for Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Susan Wojcicki, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to share with us, publicly and openly, the details every time something’s taken down from their sites and why.

When Facebook pulls down a terrorist ad, put information about it in a publicly accessible database so we all know it happened, and what rule it violated.

When Twitter bans an account, like when it shut out the conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after he inspired a hate mob against the comedian Leslie Jones, put the case file up for all to see.

When YouTube pulls down a video, leave up an image for when people click on the link that not only says the video violated YouTube’s policies, but also what part of the video had run afoul of which policy.

I know, a journalist advocating transparency is hardly shocking.

But the truth is that these companies’ habits of keeping enforcement teams’ work confidential doesn’t just leave users in the dark and journalists frustrated. We’ve now learned it also sends conspiracy theorists into a frenzy, prompting even more destruction in our public discourse.

Being more transparent about what is and isn’t OK on these platforms won’t solve all these problems. It may even create even more headaches because now the companies will have to publicly back up their decisions. But it’ll go a long way toward helping us understand what these companies are doing and quelling people who call them out for being biased in their decision-making.

To give some credit, Facebook’s Zuckerberg is talking to the media slightly more, though his most recent podcast interview with Recode’s Kara Swisherset off a firestorm when he defended Holocaust deniers.

Twitter, meanwhile, invited two New York Times reporters into its headquarters last Friday to visit one of the company’s policy meetings and chat with Dorsey, though the takeaway seems to be that Twitter continues to wrestle with hard questions and doesn’t have easy answers. It’s since shared a little more with reporters, such as about Jones’ Periscope video that led to his suspension, but that’s one instance so far, and an extreme case. (In the video, Jones encouraged viewers to “have their battle rifles” ready amid statements like “mainstream media is the enemy” and “now it’s time to act on the enemy.”)

It’s time for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others to publicly and openly publish information on each enforcement action. Make it available in a database. Make it easily searchable. Let us see what’s going on.