With the upcoming Windows 10 completely revamping (and backpedaling) the entire Windows experience, this year’s Microsoft developers conference should be called Re-Build 2015.
Seriously, though. This is definitely a rebuilding year for Microsoft, just as it was back in 2012 with Windows 8. Except this time the stakes are much higher. As the Windows 10 release approaches — which could come as early as the summer — one gets the sense this is Microsoft’s last chance to stay relevant. The tech world has increasingly moved to mobile, where Microsoft’s homegrown Windows Phone (or, in the company’s new “universal” parlance, Windows on phones) has struggled against heavyweights iOS and Android.
Not that Microsoft is a non-presence on phones. Even before current CEO Satya Nadella pushed his “cloud-first, mobile-first” philosophy, Microsoft was making inroads by putting its popular productivity apps on mobile. OneNote and OneDrive (née SkyDrive) have been on iOS for some time, and last year saw the Great Office Push of 2014. Microsoft Office finally came to the iPad and the iPhone/Android versions went from bare-bones viewers to full-fledged clients.
With such unbridled support for competing platforms, this is clearly not your father’s Microsoft. At Build 2015, Nadella and co. will take their best shot at reversing the telescope on that support: Getting Android and iOS developers to move their apps over to Windows.
While Microsoft welcomes any app that wants to live on its platform, there’s been a definite focus since Nadella took over: Productivity. Beyond the simple app-category label, Microsoft is building tools around Windows to make people’s lives more convenient, no matter what they’re doing. Whether it’s predictive algorithms built into Cortana, Windows’ digital assistant, or making OneDrive as natural to use as local storage, Microsoft is taking its best shot at, as Nadella proselytes, “re-inventing productivity,” an effort that will go full tilt with Windows 10.
The question now is whether Microsoft can get developers to care.
At this year’s conference, Microsoft will build on the excitement of the full public reveal of Windows 10 in January, but in a developer context. With the promise of universality (a developer need only create one Windows app for all kinds of devices) largely delivered, the discussion is moving on to benefits. In other words: What can Microsoft, and only Microsoft, deliver that Apple and Google can’t?
The answer lies in the first part of Nadella’s philosophy: The cloud. Specifically, Microsoft’s vision of it, which is increasingly to have a digital experience that follows a user — whether an organization or individual — from device to device. Expect to hear about more tools that take advantage of that connection. Think: machine-learning systems and analytics applied in new ways. An app that’s fully integrated with Cortana, for example, might be able to make recommendations based on certain habits, such as who you contact the most.
This kind of data-analysis game can get personal very quickly, which is why it’s a public-relations minefield for Google, and Apple makes a big deal about not even wanting to play. That leaves a unique opportunity for Microsoft: It has the resources and know-how to create these kinds of analytical tools, especially for business and enterprise — the kind of deep-pocketed customers developers want to reach.
However, Microsoft has always struggled with user experience, a problem it’s bending over backwards to address with Windows 10. Even before the disaster that was — is — Windows 8/8.1, Microsoft was known for enterprise-focused software, feature creep in its apps, and uninspiring hardware.
But look no further than the well-received new browser, Project Spartan (which may finally get its official name at Build 2015), to see Microsoft’s new philosophy in action: It’s easy to use, easy to develop for, and “chrome” free. Early hands-on previews have been largely positive.
On mobile, it’s probably too late for Windows phone to realistically compete with iOS and Android, but with its growing app presence on iOS and Android, that may matter less and less in the coming years. If everyone’s still paying Microsoft to run Office, what does it matter if they’re doing it on iPads?
Still, this is Build and it’s in San Francisco, so there will certainly be the requisite outreach to convince developers to build for Windows phone. This time, Microsoft may even take an approach that has served Amazon (and even BlackBerry) pretty well: Provide an easy way for Android developers to port apps directly to Windows. They won’t be pretty, but at least they’ll be there.
At the same time, if Microsoft is at all realistic, it’ll also acknowledge that many developers may never do even that. The company will probably spend as much time talking about bringing its tools (like OneDrive, Azure and maybe even Cortana) to Android and iOS developers as it does wooing them to the land of Windows.
The cool factor
Back in January, Microsoft almost single-handedly leapfrogged Facebook and Google in their pursuit of new platforms with Windows Holographic and the fascinating HoloLens, a device that’s on part virtual reality, one part augmented reality, and one part Windows wearable.
The HoloLens will be present at Build 2015, and hopefully its vision as an actual device will be more fully formed (at its unveiling, the experience was impressive, but the equipment made most prototypes look like polished products). It will certainly play a big part in the presentation, with new partners, but more important will be Microsoft’s answer to main question from developers, “How do I get my app on this thing?”
And there’s no way Microsoft will let us forget that it’s the home of Xbox and now Minecraft. Beyond just the opportunity to showcase two sub-brands with loads of consumer goodwill, the Xbox is finally coming fully under the Windows umbrella with Windows 10. Any developer with a stake in living-room experiences should pay attention to that, whatever it may think of reaching Windows users as a whole.
Is all that enough to convince developers to make Windows a priority? It’s doubtful they’ll be completely convinced until we see what happens after the initial rollout of Windows 10 — whether or not customers upgrade, and on which devices.
Regardless, Microsoft needs to lay the groundwork now to reach them, and convincing developers is the key. Is 2015 the year Windows transforms from the platform people reluctantly use to something they actually choose? Or, as Nadella desires, something they even love?
For all the cold, hard code that will be on display at Build 2015, what Microsoft really needs is the human factor. The success of Windows 10 will depend on developers using all those cloud-first, mobile-first tools to capture a taste of what appears to come so easily to the likes of Apple and Google: Giving us a case of the feels.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.