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Robots, Incorporated
October 1, 2007

Software pundits and tech analysts can be forgiven for overlooking Microsoft’s new robotics group. Compared with the company’s billion-dollar businesses—Windows, MSN, Xbox, and more—robotics is nonexistent. Microsoft is giving its robotics software away for free for noncommercial use, and the company is charging only a small license fee to commercial users. Indeed, Microsoft is hardly betting the farm on the group, devoting only 11 of its 76,000 employees to creating Robotics Studio 1.0.

Yet this team of elite software engineers, housed in a small set of open offices known as the “Broom Closet,” handpicked by a 26-year company veteran who has the ear of Bill Gates, and tucked into a corner of the company’s research budget, has put together a set of tools that may bring robot manufacturers under one roof, the way Windows did for most PC makers. Future versions may someday find their way into more machines than Windows did—and be just as lucrative.

Microsoft’s software, in other words, will do what MS-DOS and then Windows did: nurture a robotics ecosystem in which new devices spawn new programs for more and more end users who in turn inspire yet more innovation—and repeat the same virtuous cycle that brought explosive growth to the PC cottage industry 25 years ago. Whether that cycle will develop remains to be seen, but there are signs it may have begun. And just in time. Today’s $11 billion robot sector—mostly industrial robots—will double in size by 2010, according to estimates by the Japan Robot Association, and it should exceed $66 billion by 2025.

This article, published in a recent issue of IEEE Spectrum, profiles both the software and the eclectic group of 11 programmers. ##

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