Microsoft’s vision for the future and it’s answer to all things Apple and Android took place last week at Microsoft’s annual Build conference, with the 3 hour day one Keynote session a must-see for any technology aficionado!
Here we are in 2014, after several years of the iPad “post-PC” era, after quarter upon quarter of declining PC sales, ever surging numbers of non-Windows tablet and smartphone apps, and relatively low sales of Microsoft’s Surface tablets and Windows Phone smartphones.
Year after year, Microsoft has tried fighting back, launching said tablets, launching said Windows Phones, launching the tablet-and-desktop merging Windows 8.x OS – and life has been tough – for Microsoft.
While the app front has been growing and growing in the Windows Phone space, with plenty of quality apps from the world of iOS and Android, the pace has been far more slow-going on the Windows 8.x space.
Although there have always been plenty of great quality desktop apps for Windows, the Windows tablet app space has seen far greater numbers of lower-quality apps flood the store, with plenty of Pacman clones, Flappy Bird clones and whatever else people were cooking up to boost Microsoft Store app numbers.
The thing is, Microsoft is a company with big pockets, long memories and a history of struggling through until it breaks through with a breakthrough – with the must-see, three hour, informative and entertaining Day 1 Keynote of the Build 2014 developer conference demonstrating this ably.
Yes, 2014 is looking like it is finally that year, with long-awaited enhancements to Windows 8.1 – called the Windows 8.1 Update – having finally arrived to dramatically smooth the waters between the touch tablet OS and mouse/keyboard/desktop OS experience, and the promise of windowed tablet apps and a re-invigorated Start Menu experience to debut in the coming months.
Mouse and keyboard users now get traditional controls to close the Metro/Modern tablet apps with an X in the to right hand corner when the mouse is moved to the top of the screen, alongside tablet apps now appearing on the good-old taskbar at the bottom of the screen – a taskbar that appears for mouse users when they mouse to the bottom of the screen.
The schism that was between tablet apps and desktop apps is almost completely eliminated in this new Windows 8.1 Update, with the coming return of the Start Menu and the ability to put tablet apps into resizable Windows in the not-too-distant future set to eliminate the schism altogether, in what is obviously a move Microsoft should have made from the very first release of Windows 8.
Some might say “too little, too late”, but with still well over a billion Windows users out there, it’s clearly a case of “better late than never”, a case where the word “finally!” has never been more apt.
Microsoft has also made major strides in its efforts to accelerate quality app development for all of its physical platforms – Windows OS, Windows Phone and Xbox One.
This effort sees Microsoft’s vision of creating “universal apps” come to life, letting you re-use the vast majority of your code for a Windows Phone or Windows Tablet OS app, and then simply modifying the UI of that app so it works on phone, tablet or Xbox One with very little UI modification.
In one sense it copies Apple’s ability to have its developers offer up apps that work on both the iPhone and iPad, except that in Microsoft’s world, that app works on desktops and its games console too – a pretty sweet concept that is now reality.
Then there’s Microsoft’s efforts to dramatically improve Windows Phone, with the Windows Phone 8.1 update having finally been announced. From improvements to the tiles, which can now be set to show off the underlying wallpaper, through to the long-awaited “swipe down” notification centre as seen on Android and iOS, right through to Cortana, being Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Google Now, we see Windows Phone 8.1 being the much-needed update to keep Windows Phone relevant – and a real challenger.
Microsoft also introduced two new lower-end Nokia Lumia 630 models designed to replicate the stunning success Nokia has had with its low-cost 520 Lumias in various parts of the world, bringing iOS-like stability and quality while at price points that dramatically challenge the cheap and nasty low-cost Android smartphones of the world.
Although there’s tons more for developers, alongside ongoing improvements to Microsoft’s Azure cloud services, three other big developments stood out from Microsoft’s “must watch” Build 2014 keynote.
First is up that that Windows Phone is being made free for Windows Phone manufacturers, while Microsoft is making the Windows 8.1 OS free to OEMs who make Windows tablets or two-in-ones with screens of 9-inches or smaller.
This helps make Windows Phones and tablets able to be made and sold at ever more affordable prices, something that will appeal to the budget minded.
The second is that Microsoft has even been able to trim Windows 8.1 even further for the lowest-cost tablets featuring 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, designed to ensure that these lowest-spec tablets will have more than enough free space and performance to be actually useful, rather than the clunky and slow cheap paperweights that many of the $100 and even sub $100 Android craplets (crap tablets) are from your favourite supermarket.
This super optimised version of Windows 8.1 is not something end-users will be able to buy, it is being made available to OEMs who are set to make what are sure to be these ultra-low-cost Windows tablets, and surely the world is waiting to see just how good, or otherwise, these inexpensive tablets with this super-optimised Windows 8.1 is going to be.
The third big development is the news that Microsoft has been hard at work on a truly touch-enabled version of Office, just as it has been for the iPad.
Microsoft demonstrated an “early” interface for a touch-enabled Office, with a UI that is reminiscent of existing Windows RT/Tablet apps, but doesn’t yet look anywhere near as polished as that of the iPad or the traditional desktop Office 2013 as yet.
Given Microsoft is a software, hardware and design company these days, with its “mobile first, cloud first” ethos as espoused by its new CEO Satya Nadella, it’s easy to see that Microsoft more than has the chops available to it to deliver on its new promises.
Build 2014 was designed to showcase the “new” Microsoft, a Microsoft that newly listens to customers, developers and OEMs, a Microsoft that has what it takes to not just “be a contender” in the new “post PC”, cloud-enabled era, but a major player, too.
Despite Microsoft’s billion-plus user base, Microsoft is, as it often always seems to be, yet again in the “underdog” position, but if history is to repeat itself, Microsoft will and is overcoming its difficulties at long last.
Much has been lost in the “fog of war” of the last few “post PC” years, but eventually that fog clears and major progress is made.
So, as always, the challenge is on, and despite stellar advances from Apple and Google over the past few years on all manner of fronts, Microsoft is, more than ever, “back in the game”.
And speaking of games, now that support for Windows XP has finally ended, the company has crafted a rather excellent little game entitled “Escape from Windows XP”.
Designed to run in Internet Explorer 11, but able to run in any major modern browser, Microsoft uses the game to poke fun at itself, provide fun for the curious and to remind all that XP is the eX-Past, and that the “new” Microsoft is the future.
And don’t forget to check out not only the three-hour must-see Keynote from the Build 2014 conference, but especially if you’re a developer, or want to become one, the rest of the Build 2014 experience!