Can Microsoft deliver where Google failed?

Remember Pixel buds? Google had this plan to sell earbuds that worked with Android to do real-time translation and Google Assistant. Reviews weren’t great. They had problems pairing, problems charging, and generally didn’t add to the experience, the way Siri via Apple AirPods seems to. Can Microsoft get wireless headphones right?

What are Microsoft thinking?

First, let’s go over what they announced:

  • Surface Laptop 3: 13″ and 15″, aimed at being a thin laptop with a good keyboard. That seems basic, but some companies have struggled with it.
  • Surface Pro 7: The familiar tablet with kickstand form factor
  • Surface Pro X: An ARM-based Windows 2-in-1. It’s going to be interesting to see if they can make ARM work in their favor when the last attempt, Windows RT, failed so completely.
  • And interesting here: The Surface Buds.

Surface Buds look for all the world like large-gauge earrings for stretched earlobes. They cost $249 to Apple’s $199 (with case), or Google’s $159. What makes them unique are the uses. The boring use is, that large surface (d’oh!) is touchable, and can be used to control Spotify, track and volume.

An interesting use is that it can translate over 60 languages. The most interesting use perhaps is that it can be used to dictate into MS Word, or control PowerPoint.

Is Microsoft ready for Voice First?

I talk a lot about voice-first and voice computing. There’s a long history of people reaching for this, whether it’s the TI-99/4a and its speech synthesis module, or ViaVoice incorporated into OS/2 Warp 4 in 1996. Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri are daily use conversationalists for loads of people. But how do you incorporate them into something useful?

Translation seems like a good idea. The Babelfish from HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in fiction was said to cause more and bloodier wars as people understood each other, but generally, just getting on in a taxi on a trip without getting ripped off completely is probably a good idea.

Controlling PowerPoint could be good. People have deep connections to their favorite presentation remotes. My own favorite is the Kensington wireless presenter remote. But it’s probably not enough to make or break the product.

The future of typing

Here’s the new feature that Google hasn’t tried for yet ? It’s possible to dictate into Office documents using the new Surface buds. This is the component that voice-first people have been missing. How do you use voice as the interface when you aren’t having a conversation with an assistant?

People have widely made fun of Surface Buds, and they’re right, these things are huge and goofy looking.

If we believe that people in the future don’t claw at their touchscreen thumb keyboards, or that they don’t type on a keyboard that was invented so you could type “typewriter” quickly in the 1800s (seriously, check out the top row), then we need devices like this as we get to that future.

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