Is Microsoft finally embracing ubiquitous and activity-centric computing with Microsoft 365?

During the vision keynote at Microsoft Build 2018, Satya Nadella introduced the Microsoft 365 platform, a new technology which aims to improve the integration between different Microsoft products and devices (and even other vendors). As great as that is, the underlying motivation is much more interesting and reads like the introduction to a typical paper on activity-centric computing—a line of research originating in the 80s (referred to in my earlier writing as ‘activity-based computing’) which argues for an alternative to the current file-, window-, and application-dominated user interface paradigm.

During a single day you’re using multiple devices, you’re at multiple locations, working with multiple people, and interacting using multiple senses. That is the world we already live in. We need an operating system, we need a platform, that abstracts the hardware at that level, that creates an app model at that level. Single devices will remain important, but this ‘meta orchestration’ is what we need to do. We need to ‘up level’ even our concept of what an operating system is. And that is what Microsoft 365 does. – Satya Nadella, Microsoft Build 2018


This ‘meta orchestration’ is what research prototypes in activity-centric computing typically support by introducing ‘computational activities’ which can be managed by the user or inferred by the system, can be suspended and resumed, can roam across devices, and can be shared with others.

Activity-centric computing addresses deep-rooted information management problems in traditional application-centric computing by providing a unifying computational model for human goal-oriented ‘activity’, cutting across system boundaries. – Upcoming review on activity-centric computing.

Certainly, Microsoft is aware about activity-centric computing and has even contributed to it in the past (e.g., Scalable Fabric and Project Colletta). Even more, Satya starts the keynote by quoting Weiser who first introduced the term ubiquitous computing, a related and overlapping field of research.

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it. – Mark Weiser, The Computer for the 21st Century

But, what is really exciting about this announcement is that this is the first time a major software company seems to embrace (and publicly announce) this as the future of computing. In the past, a research group at Apple Computer (including Donald Norman) has toyed with the idea, IBM has a suite of collaboration tools supporting activities, and some features (such as virtual desktops) have been slowly incorporated into most operating systems. But for activity-centric computing to truly succeed it needs to be integrated into the very fabric of computing. In research, most prototypes have largely been inhibited by having to build on top of the very infrastructure they set out to change. As I conclude in my PhD thesis on Task and Interruption Management in Activity-Centric Computing:

Norman and Verganti compare incremental innovation with radical innovation through the use of a hill-climbing analogy: “Incremental innovation attempts to reach the highest point on the current hill. Radical innovation seeks the highest hill”:


… [activity-centric computing] envisions a radically new computing paradigm incompatible with the current antiquated desktop metaphor for office work. Building activity-centric computing systems is a continuous uphill battle against an industry which is only trying to achieve local maxima. In contrast, activity-centric computing pursues radical innovation, aiming for one unifying global maximum.

With the introduction of Microsoft 365, Microsoft is taking its first steps towards a new infrastructure which could potentially host this new computing paradigm and its entailing principles.

The world’s applications going forward need a ubiquitous computing fabric from the cloud to the edge. They need a new app model that is distributed, event-driven, and serverless. – Satya Nadella, Microsoft Build 2018

This is reflected in some of the other announcements, such as live code sharing between Visual Studio and Visual Code (which in research we call ‘activity sharing’), application-less event handlers hosted using Azure functions and adaptive cards which can host content within other applications (decoupling of functionality and applications), but perhaps most clearly by how ‘computational activities’ will be represented in Windows 10 going forward.

Timeline and sets in Windows 10

In the technology keynote on day 2 of the Build conference, Joe Belfiore discussed how the recently introduced ‘timeline’ feature in Windows 10 interplays with Microsoft Graph, a ‘cloud-backed data store’ to store organizational and personal data.

With timeline, the basic idea is that the things that you do on your PC, or other devices, are available in a single click from the taskbar. You can scroll back through time, see everything you were working on, and just click to resume. Now, the key idea here though is that timeline is based on the Microsoft Graph and therefore it enables cross-device experiences [including iPhone browsing history]. – Joe Belfiore, Microsoft Build 2018



This history of the user’s interactions across devices are not in themselves ‘computational activities’. Computational activities require the ability for the user to aggregate disparate resources (managed by separate applications), such as web pages, Office documents, images, etc. This, Microsoft has decided to implement as what they call ‘sets’. In 2012 I discussed why traditional tabbed windows (managed by a single application) are inherently broken, and suggested how an implementation similar to ‘sets’ might lead to more scalable window management. With sets, all work related to a single ‘activity’ can be grouped under a single window using multiple tabs (regardless of the application used). More importantly, this ‘activity’ window can be closed without losing work and retrieved at a later moment in time when ready to resume work (which in research we call ‘activity suspend and resume’). Furthermore, this can even be done on a different device than where the work was first initiated (which in research we call ‘activity roaming’).

In my own research, I implemented similar features on top of Windows 7 in a system called ‘Laevo’, but in addition also looked at how activity planning and the handling of to-do items (traditionally supported by electronic calendars) can be integrated with such ‘computational activities’ or ‘sets’; why duplicate the effort of managing items in a calendar when they are already represented as activities?

Most of the time spent implementing such novel new systems is on ‘hacking’ the operating system and applications you intend to support to become ‘activity-aware’, and building a distributed ‘activity model’ which different devices can use to show and resume activities. With Microsoft Graph, Microsoft is building the necessary distributed infrastructure to start building such ‘activity models’ and is encouraging application developers to integrate with it; an essential step towards moving activity-centric computing from ‘the lab’ into production.

It thus seems Microsoft is finally implementing activity-centric computing as it was first envisioned in 1986 by Yoshiro Miyata and Donal A. Norman, targeting radical innovation as opposed to incremental innovation. There is still a long way to go towards incorporating other aspects of the original conceptualization of personal computing (as demoed by Alan Kay in the video below), but this is definitely a step in the right direction!

Author: Steven Jeuris

I have a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction and am currently working both as a software engineer at iMotions and as a postdoc at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). This blend of research and development is the type of work which motivates and excites me the most. Currently, I am working on a distributed platform which enables researchers to conduct biometric research 'in the wild' (outside of the lab environment). I have almost 10 years of professional software development experience. Prior to academia, I worked for several years as a professional full-stack software developer at a game development company in Belgium: AIM Productions. I liked the work and colleagues at the company too much to give up entirely for further studies, so I decided to combine the two. In 2009 I started studying for my master in Game and Media Technology at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, from which I graduated in 2012.

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