Bill Gates Active Again At Microsoft? Bad Idea.

bill(image) This story reporting that Gates will return to Microsoft “one day a week” to focus on “product” has been lighting up the news this week. But while the idea of a founder returning to the mothership resonates widely in our industry (Jobs at Apple, Dorsey at Twitter), in Gates’ case I don’t think it makes much sense.

It’s no secret in our industry that Microsoft has struggled when it comes to product. It’s a very distant third in mobile (even though folks praise its offerings), its search engine Bing has struggled to win share against Google despite billions invested, and the same is true for Surface, which is well done but selling about one tablet for every 26 or so iPads (and that’s not counting Android). And then there’s past history – you know, when Gates was far more involved: the Zune (crushed by the iPod), that smart watch (way too early), and oh Lord, remember Clippy and Bob?

If anything, what Gates brought to the product party over the past two decades was a sense of what was going to be possible, rather than what is going to work right now. He’s been absolutely right on the trends, but wrong on the execution against those trends. And while his gravitas and brand would certainly help rally the troops in Redmond, counting on him to actually create product sounds like grasping at straws, and ultimately would prove a huge distraction.

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Step One: Turn The World To Data. Step Two?

housenumbers1Is the public ready to accept the infinite glance of our own technology? That question springs up nearly everywhere I look these days, from the land rush in “deep learning” and AI companies (here, here, here) to the cultural stir that accompanied Spike Jonze’ Her. The relentless flow of Snowden NSA revelations, commercial data breaches, and our culture’s ongoing battle over personal data further frame the question.

But no single development made me sit up and ponder as much as the recent news that Google’s using neural networks to decode images of street addresses. On its face, the story isn’t that big a deal: Through its Street View program, Google collects a vast set of images, including pictures of actual addresses. This address data is very useful to Google, as the piece notes: “The company uses the images to read house numbers and match them to their geolocation. This physically locates the position of each building in its database.”

In the past, Google has used teams of humans to “read” its street address images – in essence, to render images into actionable data. But using neural network technology, the company has trained computers to extract that data automatically – and with a level of accuracy that meets or beats human operators.Not to mention, it’s a hell of a lot faster, cheaper, and scaleable.

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