A few months ago I wrote a piece about the awesome work being done at Microsoft with its ESP platform, which I described as ” the single coolest initiative I have seen from Microsoft in the 13 years I have been watching the firm”. Others agreed- it was one of the most commented on and linked to posts I have written. I said:
The key phrase there is land, sea and air. Flight Sim after all is very cool but almost too realistic – not everybody wants to actually fly a plane. But next up will be Train-SIM (of course not everyone is train spotter either, but run with my here…), then automobile and underwater. Microsoft basically wants to model the entire world as accurately as possible, embedding “real” physics into the system.
But what struck me were the business opportunities behind detailed simulation and modeling
The costs of keeping aircraft in flight for military training purposes: anyone for $7k an hour for maintenance, per plane? The big difference now with Flight-SIM- it has evolved from game into a certified platform, which creates all kinds of new revenue opportunities for Microsoft, which will drive further evolution of the platform. The US military already makes extensive use of gaming technology, which could be leveraged in planning for actual battles. Import the street and then run scenarios: If we attack insurgents on this street in Falluja what will be lines of site where we should position our own snipers and take out theirs? At the risk of getting carried away, could we have modeled the surge? Could technology like this have helped the military make the case for more feet on the ground during the initial attack on Iraq? War Games can embed significant truths. My hope though is that ESP quickly moves beyond applications for the military-industrial complex and into other spaces. Certainly the PC economics – commodity hardware oh yes, the platform is now being designed for multicore—involved make it likely. If the only people that can get their hands on World-SIM are military departments then Microsoft will have failed. But frankly that’s not going to happen.
Evidently Microsoft senior managers feel differently. Analyst predictions- ahem. This month Microsoft announced a resource action on the lab involved. A prepared statement read:
“Microsoft is currently exploring options for the future of ESP and will announce details at the appropriate time. The company is not commenting further at this point.”
I am left reeling by the announcement for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the kind of military applications envisioned and delivered by the ESP team are now becoming a hot topic in military circles, given the rising costs of fuel. The Financial Times today reports:
In the UK, the Ministry of Defence last year set up an internal fuel forum to look at all aspects of fuel usage, including efficiency. Several initiatives are under way: expanding use of simulator-based training for armed forces; optimising fuel usage during live training (for example conducting fast-jet training without unnecessary underslung equipment); and improving fuel storage.
Armed forces want to expand use of simulator-based training and Microsoft is considering cutting the division that delivers on the promise? There must be a problem with my maths. You don’t cut investment at the end of the cycle, you surely cut it earlier than that.
So the industrial applications market can only grow, but what about the competitive landscape? While some would argue Microsoft World-Sim and Google Earth are very different tools for different purposes, let’s face it – both are realistic simulations you can fly through, which aggregate real world data for physics purposes. And while Flight Sim was going to deliver underwater as a mode, Google just pulled the trigger. In a story today Google Earth Fills Its Watery Gaps The NY Times reported that Google is now mapping the blue parts of the planet.
Microsoft and Google were in adjacent market, on a collision course. Not any more. Somebody blinked.
disclosure: Obviously there is a fair bit of conjecture in this piece, and its more than possible that ESP will emerge Bird or plane like from the ashes. As I said the tools are not the same. But where do you go for a virtual view of the real world? Neither Google nor the Microsoft gaming division are clients.