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Microsoft has its mojo back

In the past several years, Microsoft has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the tech world. It just doesn’t get much respect.

Even though Microsoft remains the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to computer operating systems and business software, its current computer operating system — Windows 8 — has had a lot of bad reviews and its Windows Phone operating system, which has been positively reviewed, is starting to do well — especially low-cost models.  Micrsoft reported that  it sold $1.1 billion worth of Surface tablets in fiscal second quarter, 2015.

Now, Microsoft plans to release a new version of Windows — Windows 10 — and a revolutionary new type of product called HoloLens, which could be described as a cross between Google Glass, Facebook’s Oculus VR virtual reality headset and the movie “Minority Report.”

Like Google Glass and Oculus Rift, HoloLens is a type of eyewear. But instead of just superimposing Web-like images like Google Glass or fully emerging you into a virtual world like Oculus VR, HoloLens is designed to augment the real world you live in by superimposing holographic images over real-world objects.

In a promotional video, Microsoft shows a team redesigning a motorcycle by pointing to what appears to be an actual bike in a garage and then superimposing and modifying a holographic image of a new fuel tank. Another part of the video shows someone learning how to replace a sink trap with a hologram superimposed on the underside of an actual sink to show how to install the replacement part. There are also all sorts of gaming and entertainment applications for this new device, which of course, is still under development.

When wearing the goggles, you can walk around and interact with virtual objects without having to connect to a computer or a phone. And you could have as many virtual “screens” as you want floating around your environment — interacting with them with a wave of the hand or a voice command.

I’m sure it’s a coincidence that Microsoft’s announcement came only a few days after Google stopped selling Google Glass — ending the Explorer program that allowed people to pay $1,500 for a product that was nowhere near ready for prime time. I’m not one of those who ridiculed Google Glass; I admire Google for sticking its corporate neck out on bleeding-edge technologies even if they have little chance for commercial success. Like Microsoft, Google is willing to take chances on technologies that may or may not work or wind up contributing to spinoff technologies that no one would have been able to even imagine had the product never existed.

Personally, I’m more excited about Microsoft HoloLens than I am about the upcoming Apple Watch. I’m sure the Apple Watch will be a nice product, but it’s not a game-changer. Like the iPod when it first came out, it’s mostly an iterative upgrade to products already on the market. It’s quite possible that it will do very well (and entirely possible that it won’t), but its an evolutionary, not revolutionary, product.

With HoloLens, Microsoft is shooting for the fences. It’s a vision-laden product from the same group of imaginative Microsoft engineers that came up with Kinect — the Xbox accessory that recognizes you when you enter a room and lets you control the game console with gestures or voice. Five years in the making, so far, HoloLens may be the most ambitious project in Microsoft’s 40-year history.

Of course, I have no idea how successful the project will be, but just as I’m glad Google invested in Glass (even though it may not pan out), I feel the same way about HoloLens, about which I’m more optimistic right now because it’s too early to see its downsides.

While HoloLens is a giant step forward, Windows 10 is a welcome step backward and small step forward. Microsoft is restoring some of the Windows 7 (and earlier) features that endeared millions of people to its ubiquitous operating system. But there are also some new and upgraded features like Cortana, which enables users to use their voice or typing to get answers to basic questions or carry out PC tasks. It will also have a new type of Start menu that has the basic features of the old one — which Microsoft took away in Windows 8 — with some added tricks such as the ability to customize and expand the menu.

It’s a bit too early to know whether Windows 10 will win the hearts of users and way too early to know if HoloLens will succeed, but — based on what I’ve seen so far — Microsoft has its mojo back, and that’s really good news.