The best demo on the first day of Microsoft’s Build developer conference, at least of the ones that didn’t involve adorable holographic robots, was of Continuum. It’s one of Windows 10’s most vaunted features, designed to keep all your devices in sync. To show off its full potential, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore—you’ve seen him before, he’s the guy with the punk-rock hair always in his face—plugged his phone into a monitor and started using it like a laptop. He used a mouse and keyboard, and his apps suddenly looked so much like PC apps that he had to remind the audience everything was powered by his phone.
The demo got people dreaming. What if you only had to buy one device—probably a phone—and just plug it into whatever you need? If you need a big screen and keyboard, drop it in there. If you want to watch a movie, stick it in your VR goggles and watch away. Could that be the future? If Microsoft has its way, it will be.
And then it won’t be. Because the story told by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and the other Build presenters was about something bigger than your phone. It’s bigger than HoloLens, too, bigger than Cortana. It’s a way to make your phone more powerful, but it’s ultimately a blueprint for a future where technology is absolutely everywhere, including a thousand places Microsoft itself can’t even imagine. Forget “a computer on every desk and in every home”—the new Microsoft is about connecting to the computers in our pockets, on our wrists, and everywhere in our lives.
One Windows to Rule Them All
“Universal apps” is the buzzword of Build. Much of the conference is devoted to Microsoft teaching its developers how to make a single app that works in as many places as possible. You can now turn your iPhone game, Android app, browser extension, website, or old-school legacy Windows software into a Windows app without much work. You can develop using Microsoft tools, which are now available for Macs and Linux machines as well. Oh, and when you do build a Windows app, it’ll also work on every single one of the billion-plus Windows 10 devices Microsoft plans to have in the next three years. All the phones, tablets, holographic goggles, and lightbulbs.
“We’re talking about one platform,” Windows chief Terry Myerson told the crowd. “A single app, a single binary that can run across all of these devices.” There’s a single store for every kind of app, and a single platform for every kind of user. There are already a lot of users, too. It lost its cool factor there for a while, but Windows never stopped being huge.
Just as important as that ubiquity is versatility—apps have to look and be different depending on where you use them. Windows 10 seems to nail this too: When you’re on your computer, Photoshop or PowerPoint looks one way. On your phone, they’re different, probably more touch-friendly. From your tiny Raspberry Pi, to your gigantic Surface Hub, to your HoloLens goggles, you’re going to be looking at the same apps and the same data, just optimized for where you are and what you’re doing. The upshot may be that everything feels a little like a phone app, but in demos the switching felt natural and obvious. Universal apps preserve your spot in a book or the status of your presentation, and you can pick up where you left off whenever you pick up a screen next.
Of course, as always, it’s the doing that’s the hard part. BlackBerry tried to run Android apps on its devices, and wound up with a bunch of outdated apps that hardly ever worked. And as for the whole “one platform everywhere” thing, Microsoft’s been trying that for a while. Even this everything-everywhere message has been coming out of Redmond for years.
But now, when lots of new laptops and tablets are launching with what we used to call “mobile” processors, your phone is almost certainly powerful enough to run PowerPoint and Chrome on a big screen. LTE, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth are fast and reliable enough to not kill the experience. And a Windows app won’t just expand or shrink awkwardly to fit your screen—it can be easily and optimally designed for whatever device you’re using. Screens are cheap, and the actual componentry necessary for computers is smaller than ever. Put a computer in your pocket and accessories everywhere, and the world becomes your oyster. Key to all this seamless device switching in Continuum is Azure, Microsoft’s cloud-based computing platform. Azure can power any app, anywhere, can keep everything online and in sync. That’s the real backbone of the new Microsoft, the cloud-based way to enable everything.
And maybe, just maybe, this is only step one. A precursor. A useful stopgap while we wait for computers to get even smaller, even cheaper, even more integrated into the fabric (literally and figuratively) of our lives. If Microsoft’s long-term plan is to make sure that it’s ready for whatever comes after smartphones, after tablets, it makes perfect sense to encourage developers to build for devices as disparate as augmented-reality goggles and gigantic tablet screens. Then, when one of its partners makes something new and industry-changing, developers can get on board well before Microsoft sees the potential.
Maybe in a year, you’ll be able to get away with only owning a phone. And maybe in five years, it’ll be a watch, or glasses, or a button in your pocket, or a chip in your arm. Who knows? If Microsoft is right, here’s what’ll happen: you’ll put on goggles when you need goggles. You’ll use a keyboard when you need to get some work done. You’ll plug into a giant screen when you want to watch a movie or play a game. At every stop, you’ll have access to all your apps and services; they’ll be perfectly suited for whichever mode you’re in. They’ll be personalized to your exact needs. And they’ll be powered by Windows, if Microsoft wins this war. But this war is only just beginning, and it’s going to be vicious.