For a company that only three years ago was accused of failing to innovate, Microsoft isn't doing too badly. At its Build developer conference, the company was showcasing not only its plans for Windows 10 but also the possibilities opened up by its cloud services, while making clear that developers were at the heart of all its plans for the coming years.
That fits in with the strategy announced by chief executive Satya Nadella after he took over the reins from Steve Ballmer: mobile first, cloud first in a redesigned Microsoft.
This year’s conference was heavier on the cloud portion of that promise, with Windows Azure, the company’s flexible cloud-computing platform, taking centre stage.
At the keynote, the company announced several new additions to the Azure platform, from elastic SQL database pools for Azure, which allows developers to pool capacity across thousands of databases, to Azure Data Lake, a data repository for big-data analytic workloads, integrated with machine learning and big-data services from Microsoft and its partners.
“Microsoft has bold ambitions for platforms that empower developers across Windows, Azure and Office,” said Nadella. “Together we will create more personal and more intelligent experiences that empower billions of people to achieve more.”
The mobile-first element of the strategy may be more of a challenge for the firm. While Apple and Google have forged ahead, persuading developers to create software for the iOS and Android platforms, Microsoft has lagged behind, despite having a version of its operating system for phones available before the iPhone was even a rumour.
The company tried to make up some of that ground with Windows Phone and a deal with Nokia that saw the new Microsoft software replace Symbian as Nokia's main smartphone platform. But it has only 3 per cent of the global mobile market, and it still has fewer apps available to users than its rivals.
That may be about to change. Microsoft executive vice-president
revealed plans that would help developers reuse the majority of the code they had written for Android and iOS apps to build apps for Windows.
And not only that but also software based on Microsoft’s .Net and Win32 platforms will also be subject to the code recycling. Meyerson also said websites could be turned into Windows applications, taking advantage of Microsoft’s services and add-ons, such as digital assistant Cortana.
“Microsoft is making a major play to win back developers,” said Forrester analyst Michael Facemire. “They’ve opened up the once-impenetrable castle walls.”
But not everyone was as positive about the move, even if it was seen as an inevitable strategy.
“The decision to embrace Android and iOS applications is an imperfect solution to an undesirable problem. Nonetheless, it’s a necessary move to attract developers otherwise lost to Apple and Google,” said Geoff Blaber, vice-president of industry analysts CCS Insight.
It’s all part of Microsoft’s grand plan to get Windows 10 to a billion people within the first two to three years of the new operating system, an ambitious target for the company. But the beleaguered tech giant is looking beyond the desktop with Windows 10, into the the world of mobile devices and beyond.
A key part of this is the Windows Store, which will now be the same regardless of whether you are on a PC, a phone or a tablet and will offer universal apps to customers. Universal apps are designed to work no matter what the size of the device, so one app will work across a Windows 10 laptop, tablet or phone, adjusting only for the size of the screen. Universal apps will also work with Xbox, Microsoft said, opening up a new market for developers. Add in Continuum for phones, which will allow you to connect keyboards and use your phone like a PC, and it seems as if the company really is getting behind the idea that Windows 10 should work across all devices, regardless of size.
The company has also made headway with motion capture outside of its video game. Retailer Target has been trialling a system that uses Kinect to deliver product information to customers while also capturing important data it can use to direct its in-store marketing efforts. Pick up a product from the stand and it will automatically display information on that item on the screen; meanwhile, the software is logging data on what products are most popular and what is grabbing consumers' attention. All while respecting consumers' privacy, of course: identifying details are not stored.
There was also much talk of the Internet of Things, with developers encouraged to get their hands dirty – metaphorically – in a workshop area dedicated to building and making.
But perhaps the biggest signal that Microsoft is serious about recovering its mojo is its Hololens project. The project has been developed in secret for a number of years. Onstage demonstrations of the device showed how the holographic computer system could be used for anything from home entertainment and communication to education and business.
In Microsoft’s vision of the future we’ll all share and collaborate over Skype using Hololens, turn our living rooms into a virtual playground and leave voice notes for colleagues on shared plans that can be personalised with a custom avatar delivering the message for you.
It was an impressive display, and Microsoft capitalised on it by giving attendees a hands-on with the product.
Google’s Glass project showed promise initially, despite some adverse publicity and concerns over privacy. But the wearable began to lose favour and sales of the device were suspended earlier this year. However, Google’s Explorer programme attracted widespread interest; while the implementation of Glass may not have caught on, the idea did. Google doesn’t seem to have given up completely on the the project: it emerged last week that the second version of Glass is in development.
But it’s an area where Microsoft has to tread carefully. The initial momentum must be followed up by something solid, or else it risks carrying on the perception of a company that fails to deliver on innovation.