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Office is getting smarter, and so is your phone. Read about all of Microsoft's ambitious plans from Build 2015 inside.
Behold, Microsoft's future
Developers, developers, developers. Steve Ballmer may be long gone, but new CEO Satya Nadella is just as keen to appeal to Microsoft’s favorite crowd as his predecessor was. The first half of the opening Build conference keynote on Wednesday was devoted to deep-level code and Azure cloud talk that would fly waaaay over the head of regular users. We’re talking command lines and Docker containers here.
But once the nuts-and-bolts were out of the way, Microsoft turned to why developers should target Windows: Users. Lots of users. And technology with potential to change the world of computing. Here’s a recap of the biggest consumer news out of Microsoft’s Build keynote, with links to additional coverage if you thirst for more nitty-gritty details.
One. BILLION. Windows 10 users
Did I mention that Microsoft has a vast legion of users? During the Build keynote, Microsoft’s executive vice president of operating systems Terry Myerson announced the company’s ambitious goal for Windows 10, the operating system that aims to put the Windows 8 debacle in the rear-view mirror.
By making Windows 10 a free upgrade for existing Windows 7 and 8 users, adding carrier billing to Windows Phone devices, and extending the app platform to include Xbox, Microsoft aims to hit 1 billion Windows 10 users within the next two to three years. More users, of course, mean a healthier environment for developers as well.
Meet Microsoft Edge
While the keynote was light on new Windows 10 features and availability details—a bit odd, considering that the final form is due to land this summer—Microsoft finally gave its lightweight new Internet Explorer successor an official name: Microsoft Edge. The browser will also allow developers to easily port their existing extensions over from Google Chrome.
Microsoft’s name isn’t the most innovative. The browser—which packs digital inking capability, Cortana integration, and more—takes its name from the new Edge rendering engine that powers it. You can read our initial hands-on with the Spartan (now Edge) browser for more info.
Continuum turns Windows Phones into Windows PCs
But what we’ve been talking about thus far is small fries compared to the next revelation. Up until this point, Microsoft’s talk around its interface-swapping Continuum feature focused on dynamically changing the UI when shifting from PC to tablet mode with a hybrid. At Build, Microsoft revealed Continuum for Windows Phones, and damn if it isn’t audacious.
When you plug a Windows Phone into an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, it’ll essentially behave the same as a Windows 10 PC, scaling the interface and apps to mimic the desktop interface. (Sound familiar?) It’s a potentially powerful move for Windows Phones, especially in developing mobile-first nations—you can even ALT-TAB between open windows when in PC form—but the technology relies on the scalability of universal Windows apps, and poor app selection has been a plague for Windows 8’s Windows Store. But…
All the apps become Windows apps
…Microsoft also revealed new tools at Build that will allow developers to easily port their existing apps to the universal Windows App platform, while tacking on Windows-specific features like system notifications, the aforementioned in-app payments with carrier billing, and Cortana support.
And by apps, I mean, well, virtually all of them. Microsoft’s SDKs will allegedly make it easy for developers to reuse their existing Java, C++, and Objective C code to bring iOS and Android apps to the Windows Store. Traditional desktop programs written in Win32 and .NET can be turned into sandboxed Windows apps, too. Heck, even websites will be able to tap into notifications and in-app billing features. If this takes off, it could remedy Microsoft’s severe app gap problem—if.
Apps in your face
Speaking of apps, Microsoft has plans to push them in your face more prominently in Windows 10. The lockscreen will display apps it thinks you’d like to try, and suggestions will also appear in the returned Start menu.
Cortana, Windows 10’s digital assistant-slash-search feature, will additionally recommend related apps when you’re searching for apps you already own. She’ll also allow you to perform in-app actions—such as messaging a pal via Viber—directly from her interface, without the need to ever open the actual app whatsoever.
The future of Office: Sharing and apps
Windows wasn’t the sole star of the show at Build. Microsoft also announced plans to allow developers to build apps for use within Office, as well as tools that allow apps to use data glimmered from all Office apps, removing information “silos” and essentially turning the productivity suite into a full-blown platform.
“We are moving from Office for us, to Office with others,” Satya Nadella proudly declared.
Microsoft showed a few examples of these data-driven apps in action. In Outlook, LinkedIn and Salesforce apps scanned recipient information to automatically surface additional data about the individuals and companies being conversed with. An Uber app was also announced, which hooks into your Outlook calendar meetings to automatically provide you with a prompt to hail a ride for your meetings at the appropriate hour, with destination information already plugged in.
There’s no doubt about it: Adding this extensibility to the suite could wind up being a powerful tool for Office users going forward. I’m excited to hear more in the coming months.
HoloLens augmented reality: WHOA
Finally, Microsoft gave us yet another glimpse at HoloLens and Windows Holographic, its ambitious attempt to blur physical and digital worlds using an augmented reality headset pair with universal Windows apps.
In new demos, Microsoft revealed how the technology can be used to interact with 3D models and examine building designs in full scale on building sites. It also showed off a new virtual Start menu for the headset, along with the ability to “pin” VR interfaces to specific surfaces while you’re using HoloLens. Oh, and there was a cool as hell half-real, half-virtual robot buddy, too. Check it out.
The question, of course, is whether the practical tech can be as impressive in real world scenarios. We’ll be going eyes-on with the new demos tomorrow.
Try it today
Want to get in on all the goodies before Windows 10 officially hits the streets? Microsoft’s Windows Insider program will let you try the Windows 10 Technical Preview today. It’s already looking scads better than Windows 8 ever did, and Microsoft plans to drop a new preview build tonight to coincide with, uh, Build.
Here’s how you can install the Windows 10 preview. Once you’ve got it up and running, you’ll want to check out these awesome new features first. We’ve also assembled a legion of nifty tips and tricks to help you squeeze even more out of Windows 10.