Speed Reads

Does it speak Klingon?

Microsoft's real-time Skype language translator could be its first real breakthrough in a decade


On Tuesday night, at a tech conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Microsoft showed off a new tool that will turn Skype into your own personal translator. In Microsoft's demonstration, executive Gurdeep Singh Pall speaks English with a German-speaking colleague, and Skype acts as real-time voice and text translator. Even in today's wonderland of technological innovations, this looks like science fiction come to life:

Microsoft will release Skype Translator later this year, as a Windows 8 beta app, before eventually rolling it out for all Skype users. "Skype Translator is a great example of why Microsoft invests in basic research," says Pall, who heads up Microsoft's Skype division. "We've invested in speech recognition, automatic translation, and machine learning technologies for more than a decade, and now they're emerging as important components in this more personal computing era."

Fair enough. While Google has been grabbing all the exciting headlines with driverless cars and computer-equipped glasses, and Apple has spent more than a decade making products people stand in line to buy, Microsoft seems like it has been playing catch-up on hardware (Zune, Surface, etc.) while trying to get people to upgrade from Windows XP, an operating system that came out at the same time as the first iPod, in 2001. With the exception of gaming, Microsoft hasn't had a big leap forward in a long time — a point new CEO Satya Nadella essentially conceded on Tuesday.

Apple didn't invent the MP3 player or smartphone and Microsoft hasn't developed the first real-time translation app (Daily Tech points to a Google Translate–based app called iTranslate that apparently does a similar thing). But if Microsoft can marry a good, easy-to-use semi-universal translator with Skype, a video-chat program already used regularly by 300 million people worldwide, that's a really big deal. And Microsoft could really use a really big deal.