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Universal apps, holographic magic at Microsoft Build 2015

At Microsoft Build 2015, the software giant showed it's determined to do for mobile devices what it did for PCs -- only this time it's the services, not the OS, that it hopes will be the cash cow. Also in Searchlight: Salesforce fields takeover offers; Obama's emails hacked.

After all these years, has Microsoft recaptured the vision thing? At Build 2015, the software giant said it wants to have Windows 10 on 1 billion devices in the next two to three years. The new OS, which launches this summer, will span a range of devices, from PCs to smartphones to the Xbox to the HoloLens. The key element of this plan? An embrace of universal apps, which will work on any of those devices and, it is hoped, greatly simplify the work of the many developers Microsoft needs to make this all happen.

"Our goal is to make Windows 10 the most attractive developer platform ever," Terry Myerson, chief officer of operating systems, said at the conference keynote. He says that new developer tools will make it a lot easier for programmers to make apps for Windows, and more important, that they'll be doing it "because they're going to have the opportunity to reach these 1 billion devices."

Except there is a catch. According to The Verge's Jacob Kastrenakes and others, getting to that 1 billion number will be a climb for the 40-year-old software giant. It will not only entail getting Windows 10 onto new devices, but also getting existing devices off of older versions of Windows. Plus, the company can't rely on its phones for much help -- at least in the short term. While IDC predicts that a majority of the 300 million PCs that will ship this year will run the Windows OS, the Windows Phone still lags far behind Android and iOS in the smartphone market -- in part because the Windows phones don't have many apps. Developers don't want to build apps for the phones because there are not enough users.

Myerson acknowledged the chicken-and-egg thing: "To make all this work for developers, we know this needs to be widely adopted," he said.

What steps did Microsoft take at Build 2015 to make their vision of a universal world a reality?

Windows 10 will run iOS and Android apps, old Windows apps

For starters, Microsoft created new software development kits (SDKs). Programmers will be able to use the majority of Android programming languages and the code used by Apple to turn Android and iOS apps, respectively, into Windows-compatible versions. Those apps will be available in the Windows Store and use Microsoft's services instead of Google's or Apple's -- Bing Maps instead of Google Maps, for example. The SDKs will also make it easier for developers to move Web apps, as well as older Windows apps built on .NET and Win32 (of which there are currently 16 million), to the Windows 10 platform.

Opening up the Windows OS sounds like it could be a good thing, says ComputerWeekly's Adrian Bridgwater. By letting developers repurpose various languages from previously created apps to get them on Windows, they get to "effectively 'do more' with these same applications, as they get an additional lease of life in Windows," Bridgwater wrote. That assumes Google doesn't get in the way, he added.

Developers can build holographic Windows apps

Whether Windows 10 will wow developers remains to be seen, but there was plenty of wow factor at the show -- holographic dogs following you around, for example. Alex Kipman, technical fellow for Microsoft's operating system group, showed off the Windows Holographic Platform, which takes HoloLens one step further. Not only will users be able to have pretty amazing holographic experiences (a castle on your coffee table?!), but the platform also allows developers and consumers to interact with holograms of Windows apps in the space around them.

One demonstration showed a HoloLens wearer making a Windows video app move by saying "follow me," giving the term mobile app a whole new meaning. Kipman said that all of Windows universal apps will have these capabilities. Do you want Skype on the wall, or the weather on your side table? Say it, and the apps will oblige.

How about the workplace? Gartner's Stephen Kleynhans and Michael A. Silver said that while they don't expect employees to be walking around in the office with HoloLens headsets anytime soon, they do think its blend of the physical and digital offers a natural way for users to interact with Windows and their environment. For example, "a single HoloLens device could in fact replace multiple monitors in a user's workspace, enabling virtual displays to pop up dynamically as needed," they wrote in a recent analysis of Windows 10. Just like in the movies.

Other takeaways from Build 2015

  • Microsoft made some improvements to Cortana, integrating it more deeply into Windows 10. For example, users will be able to use the AI personal assistant to control apps directly from their home screen using voice commands. Microsoft is also extending Cortana to other apps like Uber so the digital assistant can suggest Uber rides!
  • Azure SQL Data Warehouse offers data warehouses as a service. It charges companies separately for storage and compute, and they only pay for the usage they need.
  • Continuum for Phones can turn your phones into PCs. The Windows 10 feature allows users to turn Windows phones to full desktop PCs once they're connected to larger screens. Users can run apps like Excel in a traditional view of Windows, but powered by the smartphones. The feature won't be on all Windows Phone devices, however.
  • How IT should prepare for Windows 10: Gartner's Kleynhans and Silver recommend IT teams to prepare for both BYOD and corporate-owned Windows devices to show up on their networks in 2016; analyze the security implications of Cortana and other features on the workplace; determine how to separate business from personal data and create policies to enforce that; and keep a close eye on whether Windows Phone gains traction with consumers to figure out whether they should plan to support it in their BYOD program.

CIO news roundup for week of April 27

More tech headlines from the week as we launch into May:

  • There are murmurings that Salesforce is seeking help from bankers to field takeover offers. An acquisition of the company, valued at $49 billion, would not only be the largest one of any software firm, but also will seriously bolster the cloud portfolio of whichever rival acquires it, reported Bloomberg.
  • Remember the White House hack into unclassified servers that likely began with a gullible employee? Well, it turns out the hackers might have also been able to access the President's confidential emails. And in other White House news, new defense secretary Ashton B. Carter is turning to Silicon Valley for security talent to boost the Pentagon's new cyberdefense strategy.
  • Education could be the next frontier for the Apple Watch. Researchers at Penn State are conducting an experiment to look at how the wearable could help students learn. Speaking of the Apple Watch, if you're thinking of getting one, you might want to hold off if you have tattoos.
  • Technology and social media companies are changing the way people communicate in the wake of a disaster. Tools such as WhatsApp and Facebook's Safety Check have made it easier for worried loved ones to get in touch with survivors of the Nepal Earthquake, for example.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on how the Lilly for Target commotion was a call for industrialized IT, and whether IBM Watson Health is the remedy for big data hype.

Next Steps

Check out previous Searchlight reporting on Microsoft's Windows 10. Then, head to sister site ComputerWeekly for their coverage on Build 2015, including keynote impressions, how new coding tools will help developers create Android and iOS apps for Windows, and new business orchestration technology using Azure.

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Do you expect more Windows devices to appear on your network after Windows 10 rolls out?
We will certainly have more machines for testing once Windows 10 rolls out, but as to its overall impact on our team and development approach, probably not. I am tempted to live on a Windows 10 laptop for 50% time just to see how much different and what things I'd need to do different the experience would be.
I think more organizations will wait to decide on adding more Windows 10 devices due to the fact they want to see the results first from other companies. If it's showing promise, then yes.
Thanks for this write up!
Very interested in Continuum and how it plays out in the Windows 10 space. Would love more details