On the week of September 25th, 2017, Microsoft made a huge announcement at its annual Ignite and Envision conference. Microsoft has become one of a small number of companies that is demonstrating quantum computing. IBM is another company that is also pursuing this rather futuristic computing model.

For those who are not up-to-date on quantum computing, it uses quantum properties such as superposition and entanglement to develop a new way of computing. Current computers are built around tiny electron switches called transistors that allow for two states, which represent the binary system we have today. Quantum computers leverage quantum states that give us ones, zeros, and combinations of one and zero. This means a single qubit, the quantum equivalent of a bit, can represent many more states than the bit can. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification but quantum computing promises to deliver more dense and exponentially faster computing.

There are a number of problems with practical quantum computing. The hardware is still in a nascent stage and must be cooled to a temperature that is quite a bit colder than deep space. This makes it much more likely that quantum computing will be purchased via a cloud model than on-premises. The other inhibitor is that there is no standard programming model for quantum computing. IBM has demonstrated a visual programming model that shows how quantum computing works but is clearly not going to be a serious way to write real programs. Microsoft, on the other hand, showed a more standard looking curly bracket programming language. This application layer makes quantum computing more accessible to existing programmers who are more used to the current model of computing.

When quantum computing becomes practical – I would predict that is at least 5 years away, perhaps longer – it won’t be for everyday computing tasks. The current model is already more than adequate for those tasks. It’s also unlikely that the capabilities of quantum computers, especially the information dense qubit, and costs will have much a place in transactional computing. Instead, quantum computing will be used for analyzing very large and complex data sets for simulation and AI. That’s fine because the AI and analytics market is still new and the future needs are not yet completely known. That future computing needs is what quantum computing is meant to address. Even today’s big data applications can stretch computing capabilities and force batch analytics instead of real-time for some use cases.

Microsoft’s entry into what has been an otherwise esoteric corner of the computing world signals that quantum computing is on the path to being real. It has a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome but it’s no longer just science fiction or academic. It will be years but it is on the way to becoming mainstream.

Note: This post was originally posted on Tom’s Take