Can Microsoft Design an Ice Cream Cone?

Just one of the many ways Microsoft can get closer to nature.

Microsoft’s business right now reminds me of the story of the invention of the world’s most ubiquitous, delicious treat.

While the International Dairy Foods Association, an organization whose authority on such questions should never be in doubt, credits Italian immigrant Italo Marchiony as the inventor of the ice cream cone in 1896, popular opinion has it that the frozen novelty appeared at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. It is widely known that a waffle maker named Ernest Hamwi had a booth next to an ice cream vendor, and when that vendor ran out of cups, Hamwi came to the rescue by turning one of his waffles into a cornucopia.

Before I suggest how Microsoft might go into the metaphorical ice cream business, I should disclose that over the years I’ve worked on a number of Microsoft-related projects, in particular Azure marketing campaigns. My opinion of the company has followed the same trajectory as my opinion of Canadian rock trio Rush, in that I used to think they were nerdy but now consider myself a genuine fan. I credit this perceptual 180 to a Hololens hackathon I attended in 2016, reading Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh, and observing the sort of cultural decency at Microsoft that seems to be missing at, um, other big tech companies based in the Seattle area.

As with any organization its size, it’s inevitable that some degree of silo-ification is going to happen at Microsoft, with various divisions focused on their KPIs and mandates. Couple this with Microsoft’s history of internal competition and it’s not hard to understand how one business might not collaborate as intimately with another as we might imagine.

From my admittedly outsider perspective, it appears that within Microsoft there’s a waffle vendor and an ice cream vendor that have an incredible opportunity to put two and two together.

The waffle maker in this metaphor is Microsoft’s climate division, led by Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa, who reports to President Brad Smith. Microsoft’s carbon strategy and the innovation of such programs as AI for Earth, the Planetary Computer, and their relationship with GIS company ESRI appear to be serious commitments, and it’s inspiring to see them take an aggressive leadership role in driving green technology. Those are some tasty waffles.

Then just across the way you have Microsoft’s ice cream vendor, its games division, led by EVP Gaming Phil Spencer. Games are delivered via Xbox, Game Pass, PC, and mobile — and what a lot of delicious flavors to choose from.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is a rare example of an ice cream cone in that the game incorporates GIS data drawn from the real world. But that’s just the beginning of what’s possible when you blend real world data with a game world.

Right now Microsoft is sitting on the means to make lots and lots of ice cream cones by integrating earth science data with games. It has two things its games competitor Sony doesn’t have — a cloud platform and a trove of climate data with the AI to do something with it. Google has a cloud platform that it could use to tap into publicly available environmental science databases if it wanted to, but its cloud gaming division, Stadia, appears to be stumbling at the moment as it shuts down its first-party studios.

Which leaves Microsoft, one division peddling sweet-smelling waffles, another scooping up myriad flavors of ice cream, and climate-concerned game enthusiasts like myself imagining the delicious result of bringing them together.

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