What’s the Connection between Productivity Future Vision & Zet Universe?

Well, some folks asked me on what’s the relation between the famous Productivity Future Vision video produced by Office Labs, and Zet Universe, the project I’m working on now at Neocyte Labs. Guess it’s time to give some explanations.

First of all, I need to say that I’m a bit crazy IT guy who strongly beliefs that he can change the world. This belief is based on several success stories I’ve read since I was a young kid – stories by Mark Twain, Jack London, biography of Bill Gates and videos and blog posts about Steve Jobs success; and several great teachers from middle & high schools, in university and in business school.

And, I have a dream: for a long time I want to have all the knowledge of the world in its digital form to live inside the virtual world.

This blog post will tell several (relatively short) stories of my life dedicated to the creation of Zet Universe, including:

  1. Pre-History
    1. WinFS
    2. CIW
  2. History
    1. ThinkWeek Paper
    2. Microsoft Context Awareness Initiative
    3. NTO Incubation Team
    4. Windows 7 Touch Team
    5. Productivity Future Vision
    6. Project Universe
  3. Neocyte Labs
    1. Zet Universe

This blog post doesn’t include everything I’ve been doing around Context-aware Computing vision evangelism at Microsoft but only covers stories that were related to Zet Universe project beginning.

So, the story begins with WinFS.



One of big dreamers in the area of knowledge management was Bill Gates, with his ideas about Integrated Storage (see Road Ahead Excites Gates, eWeek, 2003 and Bill Gates on WinFS, PCMag, 2008). His vision of WinFS (another one implementation of the vision) back in 2003 captured my mind, and together with visualization of the data stored in WinFS, provided by Windows Longhorn, it was sold to me.

Bill Gates, in his own words: “There is a famous quest of mine called integrated storage, where you have not just a file system but more of a flexible object-type database: Things like your contacts, calendars, favorites, your photos, your music—and how you rate those things—are stored in a structured environment.” WinFS was this system, the next-gen underpinning to Windows, and it was planned as part of Cairo, the code name for Windows 95. It’s still a great idea. But making it happen? Not so easy.” (Bill Gates on WinFS, PCMag, 2008)

I’ve got first bits of Windows Longhorn (4008, 4051, 4074 builds), and tried to code against WinFS. Then I tried to re-implement it based on Microsoft Access, then based on SQL Server 2000 and, later, Yukon. Lots and lots of prototypes.

You can see that ideas of Integrated Storage are quite alive in our Context Storage that is a part of Zet Universe product.

As you know WinFS later was cut from Windows Longhorn, Windows Longhorn itself was reset in 2004, and Windows Vista never got WinFS at all. WinFS though WinFS itself was released as Beta and then as Beta Refresh in 2005.

Back in 2005 I’ve created a small unofficial group dedicated to WinFS evangelism in Russia; several slide decks, prototypes, blog posts etc. I’ve made a paper on creation of knowledge management software based on WinFS and published it at Microsoft’s Student Conference; talked with slides on multiple student conferences across several Moscow-based universities.

In the summer of 2006 the WinFS project was killed before its second Beta release.

For me it was a dream just killed by Microsoft, and when Bill Gates was last time in Moscow (October 2006), I’ve asked him a question about WinFS; he said that “WinFS will find itself reappeared in multiple Microsoft Products later on”, and eventually his was right – ADO.NET Entity Framework was born as part of WinFS, Microsoft Sync Framework, finally all hard work around Win32-support of BLOBs storage inside SQL Server 2008, 2008R2 and 2012 is all based on WinFS legacy.

In the summer of 2006 Alexander Lozhechkin (who was Evangelism Manager, DPE at Microsoft Russia back on that time) invited me to join his team as MACH student (MACH stands for Microsoft Academy for College Hires). I passed several interviews and tests, and my first working day was on January 9, 2007. That was the moment when I started to collect all information about WinFS I could ever find at Microsoft internally, including specs and bits; I even talked to Quentin Clark and several folks from old WinFS Team (btw Shishir Mehrotra is now YouTube VP at Google). I was totally crazy about bringing WinFS back to Windows team. I’ve even asked a few crazy questions on this topic to Steve Ballmer in the summer of 2007. I was young and passionate about WinFS; thanks that didn’t cost me my job 🙂

To summarize this section let me share my own post-mortem of WinFS. It’s quite short as it highlights root product problems.

WinFS Post-Mortem


Area Problem Possible Solution
Vision Vision was too broad – Active storage platform for organizing, searching and sharing data Focus on storage & search first
Killer App No killer app after Windows cut WinFS back in 2003/2004 Windows Shell should be a killer-app
Schedule Schedule was originally connected to Windows Longhorn schedule which itself wasn’t perfect; when WinFS got out of Longhorn ship it was easier to plan things Build WinFS first on its own in collaboration with Windows Shell team without any commitment to Longhorn – to understand all problems and solve them independently of Longhorn schedule
Key Customer This is connected to problem of project being cut from Windows (who was supposed to be its key customer) and lack of killer app (which was supposed to be WinFS) Same as above


Area Problem Possible Solution
Concepts The team underestimated the difficulty of the concepts (for instance, a more modern NEPOMUK European project which also has a WinFS-like storage system – it took a lot of time and involved a lot of industry and academia expertise to build a thing); the next problem gives an example of underestimating the difficulty of the concepts Ship more often to test ideas, research semantic web ideas, deep-dive into philosophical books to better understand what kind of problems team got after their goal to become a generic storage for everything
Static Schemas for Everyday Things Approach works well inside static corporate knowledge ontologies environment, but is not applicable for the open world of myriads apps; as objects in WinFS have been envisioned to be used by myriads of apps, it was impossible to agree upon common schema for common things like “Message”, “Person”, etc. Use minimal schemas for basic information entity (that’s how we call them in Context Storage); use Semantic Web triples approach to make data representation schema-free

I think that the main problem of WinFS was its lack of deep integration with Windows Shell (from product development perspective). And that’s why we work on Context Storage & User Experience all together.

As you can see I’ve made a research in order to better understand what was wrong with the implementation, strongly believing into the Integrated Storage Vision.


For a sometime there was a special, unique facility at Microsoft, called Microsoft Center for Information Work (CIW) (opened in 2002). One of the great folks behind it was Russ Burtner. His team produced a lot of great videos (for instance, “Microsoft CIW Prototype Demo“, “Center for Information Work – The Desk”), in addition to the facility interiors, hardware and software setup showcasing the future of IW as envisioned by Microsoft Office group back at that time.

July 2007 was then time when new organization, Office Labs, was getting started inside Microsoft’s Business Division, and CIW was transformed into the new group, Envisioning Team. Russ was working in that new team.


ThinkWeek Paper

Well, this is not something that’s often discussed outside of Microsoft, so to keep this part of the story short I’d advise you to read this article from Seattle Times on what is (or was) the BillG’s ThinkWeek. Anyway, in May 2007 I and my friend Andrew Webber (UK) from MACH program were passionate about WinFS & S+S ideas and Microsoft itself, and we decided to create some prototypes to visualize our ideas. As we were in US in the summer of 2007, I was able to talk to the famous Russ Burtner from CIW and lucky enough to get him involved into our ideas that morphed into the ThinkWeek paper. Needless to say that Russ is a fantastic guy (currently he works in PNNL, here is his Precision Information Environments projects video, highlighting his latest work). We also got another employee to publish his ideas as part of that paper. The paper got several comments including Director of Engineering from Windows team and another Microsoft’s executive, Donald Ferguson (CTO) (who was Chief Software Arhitect at IBM Software Group prior to Microsoft; he later moved to CA). Unfortunately I can’t publish this paper here, but just to highlight it had same ideas I’ve been advocating for a sometime now – Microsoft needs its S+S vision with its own unique storage (similar to WinFS concepts) to store everyday things, and new immersive user experience (like CIW sketches made by Russ Burtner and some of my sketches of WinFS-based desktop).

So, Productivity Future Vision was directly influenced by our ThinkWeek paper, as Russ Burtner later said. Specifically the infinite desktop concept shown in the video was started with drawings we’ve made in the ThinkWeek paper.

Microsoft Context Awareness Initiative

That ThinkWeek paper and more or less positive executives comments framed out the vision for the Context-aware Windows Platform and the vision for Microsoft’s Future that I’ve been advocating while working there. I’ve continued building prototypes and collaborating with Russ Burtner on his Productivity Future Vision video that he had worked on with the rest of Office Labs Envisioning Team. As it was not about me but about vision, I’ve formed an Initiative called “Microsoft Context Awareness Initiative” that lately included about 50+ people across Microsoft product, research, sales, marketing & services groups across the world.

It is important to highlight that all these activities were done in spare time, often during nights and trips to US; they were not technically a part of my job at Microsoft.

NTO Incubation Team

In March of 2008 I’ve got a first big partner at Microsoft Russia, Mikhail Matveev, who was National Technology Officer (NTO) at Microsoft and replaced Igor Agamirzyan, a famous Microsoftie who worked a lot trying to bring Microsoft Research and R&D to Russia since early 2000’s. Since 2008 my activities were done as part of NTO activities in Russia. More than that, Mikhail Matveev was an advisor for my diploma work that was also about context-aware computing topic. Needless to say that he was and still is my good friend.

At the time I was working in DPE team, and was continuing these activities in spare time, as before.

After my second trip to US I’ve formed a small incubation team called “NTO Incubation Team” to build a prototype of Augmented Reality-based application for Windows 7 as a proof-of-concept. This team included my good old friend Alexander Popov (who is now working at Microsoft) and Vladimir Borisov, who was the key engineer behind the project. Our project was supported by Director of Engineering from Windows team (who originally commented our ThinkWeek Paper); the project was later shown to MSR CVP Dan Ling (as one of Russian NTO projects) and to Windows 7 CVP (Bill Mitchell) and got good reviews.

Thanks to recommendation from Dan Ling I received an invitation for a meeting with Mary Czerwinski, Research Area Manager of VIBE Team, back in May, 2009, so I made my third trip to the US.

Windows 7 Touch Team

As I had (and still have) a huge interest around Natural User Interfaces, I’ve bought a first multitouch laptop, Dell Latitude XT, to try out Multitouch APIs of Windows 7. That brought me to become an internal beta-tester of Multitouch Experiences in Windows; I’ve been even involved in some decisions around level of support of multitouch in Windows Explorer (thanks to Bert Keely!).

Productivity Future Vision

At the same time I’ve been collaborating with Office Labs Envisioning team and I’ve met the team twice before my third trip to US. One of the things I’ve been working on was joining together my work on prototyping the “Integrated Storage” with Russ Burtner’ s ideas around Infinite Desktop concept. The Productivity Future Vision was finally released to the public circa June-July of 2009; below you can see a screenshot of the “Infinite Desktop” with topographic clusters as it was originally envisioned in our ThinkWeek paper. Certainly, that original concept transformed several times and took different forms before it got the point of the screenshot as seen below.

See the Productivity Future Vision video here.

Project Universe

In May of 2009 the first real working prototype of Project Universe (called as “Context-aware Shell UX” back then) was built in collaboration with Office Labs folks (I’ve worked with Russ Burtner and Christian Schafleitner from Envisioning Team, as well as with Nathan Fish and few other folks from other Office Labs teams). The prototype was based on ideas of WinFS, CIW, our original ThinkWeek paper, papers on building Digital Work Environment published in the book “Beyond the Desktop Metaphor” (whose co-editor was Dr. Mary Czerwinski), Productivity Future Vision visuals, Zoomable User Interfaces concepts by Jeff Raskin, and so on. Below you can see the screenshot of final prototype as it was later shown on multiple events inside and outside of Microsoft.

As we can see, European Union’s researchers also have been involved in similar work with their famous NEPOMUK project. Other similar projects started to appear later on. Back then, most of those at Microsoft I’ve discussed these ideas with were skeptical, except the few folks who helped me to build the original prototype.

That was the moment when the original “Project Universe” started.

Neocyte Labs

Zet Universe

Zet Universe is actually a direct continuation of the “Project Universe”. It is still based on same ideas – an Integrated Storage (Context Storage), Infinite Desktop, Multiple Workspaces, Semantic Web, etc. I’ve incorporated a lot of ideas into the original prototype, and tried to get as much lessons as possible from failures of other similar projects, including WinFS, Microsoft’s Semantic Engine, Apple’s OpenDoc, and so on.

(Zet) Universe was presented by me as a possible direction for Digital Work Environments at UX Russia 2010 conference right a week after end of my internship as HCI Researcher at Microsoft Research. I’ve got several positive reviews but at the same time was finalizing my interviews with Google so I put my activities on hold for some time. In November of 2010 I’ve been invited to join Greenfield’s Harvest 11/10 (a startup weekend-like event) and presented a project inspired by Universe but designed in the form of the web browser. We’ve got first place in the competition and I’ve got my first co-founder, Elena Goidina.

That’s how Universe (later Zet Universe) started in its current form. Yet the story of Zet Universe’s development is a completely different one, so it is not included in this post, but you can see it being posted in this blog anyway.


To sum up, work on all of these side activities around Context-aware Computing was very inspiring for me. I’ve got a chance to work with such famous and great people as Gordon Bell, Erik Horvitz, Mary Czerwinski, Dan Ling, Russ Burtner, and many others during my tenure at Microsoft. I’ve been able to participate in multiple internal Microsoft activities around innovation, and even organized my own Microsoft Context-aware Computing Workshop back in March of 2010 (quite successful according to participants’ feedback). Not everything was done right, of course, but it was a great time.

And all of these activities have been accumulated into the Zet Universe project. Now you can see why I’m so dedicated to it, how much energy and passion is involved into its making, and understand why I’m working on this project instead of joining some great startups and worldwide companies here in Russia or in Silicon Valley.

It all started with a dream.


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