Two weeks ago, at the Robo Business conference, Microsoft announced a software development platform for robots. So what does this mean?
Well, Microsoft (which has tried a foray into the world of robotics before, with its Microsoft CE platform) is offering Microsoft Robotics Studio, a software platform intended to ease the programming of robots. Their take is that, although there is increasing interest in robotics, there's a high barrier to entry. Each set of hardware necessitates specialized software, so the software you write for Robot 1 won't help you with Robot 2, which is on a different hardware platform.
Interestingly, when I was reading up on this, I only found two news stories that quoted people directly involved in the robotics industry. And what they had to say wasn't exactly "Wow! This is GREAT!" What they said, essentially, was it's good to have a major U.S. company involved in this growing field because it validates the field's importance and the influx of capital that may result is a good thing for the industry as a whole.
Now, it's absolutely the case that the software that runs the robot is critical. The software is the part that takes in all the sensor data and uses them to get the robot to do what you want it to do--drive around without knocking into things, pick up objects, vacuum your rug, or, in the case of robotic toys, respond interactively.
However, as at least one of the people in the article says, "the idea of building a software robotic standard, without heeding demands and costs of hardware is a nice academic exercise." There's a reason that the current robotics industry is fragmented. Depending on what you're trying to do, the hardware may be very, very specialized and the software involved has to mesh tightly with the hardware because the robot needs real-time capability.
Bastion of Open Source Software
Right now, you're not necessarily going to find a lot of robots running Windows. You are going to find a ton of open-source software, though. Why? It's cheap, it is endlessly tweakable, and it's very powerful. Will Microsoft stamp out the open-source stuff? Not unless they produce something significantly better than what's out there now. Interesting times are ahead, folks. Get your popcorn ready.