Introduction and HoloLens
Microsoft's Build keynote addresses are one of the annual platforms that Redmond uses to unveil new products or show off ideas that the company is planning to unveil at a later date. Last week's 2015 keynote was, unsurprisingly, all about Windows 10, which is set to launch this summer, with a focus on what developers – who make up the majority of Build attendees – could do with the platform across multiple devices.
The keynote started with a lengthy demo of various developer-specific apps, such as Visual Studio Code, but progressed onto some of the most exciting things that Microsoft has ever done as a company, redefining where Redmond sits relative to both the world and its peers.
We already knew a lot about "universal apps," an idea that Microsoft has been peddling since the inception of Windows 10 (and also one which I was not a fan of in its pre-Build form), but the company has taken them in a totally different direction – a direction that could well be one of the most defining moments in the company's four decade history.
Continuum, a feature that allows progress on one app to be shared to another app on a different device seamlessly, is the centrepiece of the show. The idea is beautifully simple: a Windows phone (i.e. a phone running Windows 10) can be plugged into a monitor (via HDMI), linked to a keyboard and mouse via Bluetooth and used like a full-on PC thanks to the horizontal integration of Windows 10 across mobile and desktop.
Any app that is made to be "universal" – of which there will be more and more thanks to Microsoft's friendly attitude towards competitors and developers – will work on the bigger screen. And, from the looks of the demo, this is pretty transformative – plus, most importantly, it's something no other platform has achieved.
It is as yet unclear what kind of hardware is needed to support Continuum, and I would guess no current device is capable of doing so, but once high-end Windows phones hit the market, this will turn into a killer feature. The almost sci-fi-esque dream of having one device for everything – computer, TV, remote, and so on – could become a reality with Continuum and it's going to happen in the next year.
One of the main themes of the Build keynote was how Windows is used within industry, as much of the revenue generated by Microsoft comes from enterprise. HoloLens, which was unveiled in January, is a piece of AR headgear that allows the user access to a 'virtual world', and it is, as many pundits have claimed, the future of computing.
Previously, HoloLens had very little practical application beyond simply being a novel way to interact with a computer chip. But at Build, HoloLens got an update and it was, as is becoming a theme, linked in to Windows 10. 'Windows Holographic' displays apps as 'real' intractable things that can be placed on the environment surrounding the user.
The applications of this are vast, as Microsoft showed: doctors can show students lessons interactively, architects can plan buildings more effectively and so on. On a personal level, a video can be moved around via hand gestures and 'placed' onto a wall while Skype can be 'pinned' to the ceiling. Essentially, the possibilities for HoloLens are endless and, via Windows 10, Microsoft has created a virtual world that combines the current desktop experience with the future.
The strategy that Microsoft is employing with Windows 10 is, whether the firm intended it or not, genius. Soon, almost everything within the ecosystem will be compatible with everything else, a dream few technology companies can successfully realise.
Windows phones will become useful just by virtue of the fact that software written for Windows 10 can work on them. Microsoft demoed Office 2016 on both a desktop and a phone and it was virtually identical. On iOS, the iWork suite look similar on mobile and desktop but do not share the same universal underpinnings. If the company realises its one billion device goal, Microsoft will be onto a winner.
Many pundits, myself included, have decried Microsoft over the past few years as a company that is way behind its peers – Google, Amazon, Apple – but Build 2015 proves exactly the opposite: the strategy with Windows 10 will merge all facets of the company under one roof, increasing the desirability of Windows phones and potentially inventing the future with HoloLens.
Windows of the future
There are, of course, barriers to this bright future. Having a great idea doesn't automatically make it successful, as Windows 8 proved with the operating system's way-before-its-time design and ideas that have subsequently been rolled back in Windows 10, as the world wasn't quite ready for an all-touchscreen computing experience.
Fundamentally, even introducing an element of mobile into Windows is going to be a radical change. The two operating systems – Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 – have shared a similar design and a code base but have never actually merged into one, despite the obvious benefits. That has changed and now Microsoft can reap those benefits and, wonderfully for users, the basic ways that they interact with Windows won't change – or, at least, not as radically as they did with Windows 8.
So what will the Windows of the future look like? The short answer is that it will likely look more and more like one unified operating system, just as Microsoft increasingly looks more and more like a unified company that is happy to work more expansively both internally and externally.
It's impossible to underplay the positive influence that Satya Nadella has had on the company and its set of values and ethos. There is no more marauding, cutthroat Microsoft of the 1990s and early 2000s, there is instead a company that is at peace with itself and, as a result, the quality of its products has improved exponentially. Windows will likely look the same visually but the applications and support will increase exponentially as Windows phones become a 'thing' and HoloLens reinvents how we use a computer. For once, Microsoft and Windows are changing for the better.