On Wednesday, Microsoft held a press event to make some major announcements regarding its next operating system, Windows 10. That’s right–the company that Bill Gates built is skipping the number 9 and gunning straight for the solid number 10 for its next OS release. MSFT demoed many new features found in Win10, many of which highlight the fundamentally cohesive nature of the fresh new OS. With Windows 10, Microsoft aims to bridge the gap between hardware and software to create one unified Windows that stretches across phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and even the Xbox One. Also, Win10 will power a new product category for the company: augmented reality. For more, jump after the break.
First let’s talk availability. MSFT is remaining mostly coy on this front, though they did reveal which kind of devices will get Windows 10 for free within the first year of its release. If you own a device currently running Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1, or Windows 7, you are guaranteed a free install of the new OS when it comes out. Pretty good deal if you ask me, especially for those who never made the plunge into “Metro”-Land that is Win8.
Universal apps is all the rage today for Microsoft. In a nutshell, with Windows 10, the company is giving developers the tools to code and create apps that can easily run across a wide variety of devices–from phones to PCs to Xbox One. Since Win10 is still in development, MSFT was shy to invite third-party devs to the stage to show this initiative off. However, they still hit the point home by demoing the next version of Office (now known as Office 2016) and showing how users will be able to seamlessly work on projects on their mobile devices and continue right from where they left off on their PCs, and vice versa. Microsoft apps like Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote are written with code that can transfer from one device to the next without skipping a beat; for the consumer, this equates to a unified user experience no matter the hardware at hand.
A quick glance at the Win10 user interface and you’ll surely notice that Microsoft has heard customer complaints regarding Windows 8 loud and clear. User will be presented with the standard desktop Windows customers had been used to through Windows 7–Start Menu, Taskbar, and all. Win10, however, will retain the Live Tiles introduced in Win8; they will live inside the revamped Start Menu as well as in a familiar full-screen “Metro”-mode which will make itself present when appropriate. For example, if you’re operating an all-in-one PC fitted with a keyboard and mouse, you’ll feel most at home with the standard desktop. Switching to a touch-enabled tablet? The Live Tiles will be more present for a better, more intuitive touch experience. Note, however, that you are not locked into these appearances. MSFT is touting a new feature called Continuum: your device will adapt to how you use it, automatically switching between the standard desktop and Live Tiles depending on the device and application at hand. But at any time you can flip the switch and tell the machine which environment you prefer playing in.
This one’s not major, but it’s something. MSFT is releasing a new messenger client that magically integrates conversations across multiple services into one threaded space. For example, if you frequently speak with a friend across text messaging, Skype, and Google Hangouts, this new client will combine it all into one so you won’t have to hop around all three third-party apps. This here is merely an example, of course; developers will have to jump on board and support this before it can happen.
Cortana is coming to Windows. If you’re a Windows Phone user then you are likely more than familiar with Microsoft’s virtual assistant. Cortana is, at its core, MSFT’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google Now. You can speak actionable commands and questions and Cortana will act accordingly. In Win10, she’ll live right next to the Start Menu icon along the Taskbar. Cortana gets her vast knowledge from Microsoft’s Bing search engine; she can tell you the weather, look up the latest sports scores, set calendars events, all that fun stuff. And she’s completely transparent about what she keeps filed on you; at any time you can open up Cortana’s settings and browse her “Notebook” to see what services she’s connected to and where, exactly, she’s getting her information from.
So long, Internet Explorer! You most certainly won’t be missed. The clunky, slow, malware-prone web browser is (finally) being replaced by a brand new, built-from-the-ground-up for Win10 browser codenamed Project Spartan. From all accounts, Spartan appears to be secure, light and lightning fast, not unlike Google Chrome. In addition to speeding things up, a new rendering engine allows for new kinds of browser features like the ability to “snap” or freeze web pages and clip specific areas out to add annotations and share across your social networks. Spartan also supports offline reading and PDFs; in fact, Win10 in general comes with PDF support meaning less reliance on Adobe Reader and those pestering updates. And last, but not least, Microsoft’s exciting new browser comes built-in with Cortana; she’ll provide weather reports, flight status, and even handy links to Yelp reviews if you’re searching for a restaurant in the URL bar.
You want a major development? Here it is. Windows 10 and Xbox are getting married. I’ll explain. More immediately, Win10 is shipping with an Xbox app that ties you into your Xbox profile and pretty much all of the social aspects MFST’s gaming community offers. You’ll have full access to your friend list, messaging service, the activity feed, and game DVR; that last one means you can record, edit, and share your PC gaming sessions with friends across Win10 and Xbox One. DirectX 12 support enables better overall graphics, as well as cross-platform play. That’s right–with Win10, MSFT aims to unite PC and console gamers with cross-play; a live demo of Fable Legends showed a gamer playing it on a Win10-powered PC alongside another gamer originating from an Xbox One console. This is the future we’ve been waiting for. Oh, and there’s more. So you know how Xbox One technically runs a version of Windows 8 (hence the Live Tile UI)? Well, MSFT fully intends to update its console to Windows 10 when the OS comes out and this, my friends, will enable gamers to stream Xbox One games to Win10 PCs. Boom. Imagine cracking open your tablet, picking up an Xbox controller and wirelessly streaming your console game on your PC? Radical, I know. Of course, at least initially, you’ll be locked into streaming so long as you’re connected to the same network as your console. However, much like how the Wii U and its GamePad operate, Xbox One to Win10 PC streaming would open up a TV in your house for House of Cards binging while you are gaming elsewhere…within the vicinity. Still–this is next level stuff!
Moving onto hardware, Microsoft made a couple announcement on this front. First up there’s the Surface Hub. Picture a 4K 84-inch all-in-one PC boasting an array of cameras and sensors, WiFi, Bluetooth, and NFC–that’s the Surface Hub. The massive display supports touch and stylus input and if you didn’t guess it by now, it’s being aimed at business folk who would gather in a conference room with the Hub as a presentation and collaborative tool for sharing and discussing pie charts and such. No pricing or release date just yet–but you can sleep well knowing it’ll come running on Windows 10 and Skype for Business built-in.
And now, for the grand finale, I’ve saved the most surprising news for last. Microsoft is getting into the hologram business. Yep, you read that right. The Windows maker has big plans to tie together the physical and digital worlds into one sandbox from which consumers can play, work, and create. The very real initiative is called Windows Holographic, and MSFT even showed off a new piece of hardware that will take advantage of this new era of computing. Microsoft HoloLens looks like a pair of polished, futuristic ski goggles. Of course, what was shown on stage is a proof-of-concept since the product is still in early stages of development. Still, this is their vision for what HoloLens will become. What’s inside? MSFT doesn’t get very specific, but here’s what we know: HoloLens indeed runs Windows 10 (boy, this operating system is gonna be everywhere), and it’s powered by a high-end CPU, GPU, and a Microsoft-invented HPU, or Holographic Processing Unit. Sitting in front of the wearer’s eyes are see-through holographic lenses and the device supports spacial sound, meaning you can hear holograms coming from any direction, including behind you. HoloLens will provide a completely untethered experience; no wires, no connection to a PC required. This, mind you, is a major differentiating factor against the competition. Sony and Oculus VR’s virtual reality headsets, in their current developmental state, do require wired connections to external devices to function. It’s a lofty goal, but Microsoft promises HoloLens to be the first untethered holographic computer.
So what can it do? Speaking of the competition (read: Sony’s Project Morpheus and Oculus VR’s Oculus Rift), Microsoft’s HoloLens is not being hailed as a “virtual reality” device but instead an augmented reality one. When you wear the device over your eyes like a set of glasses, it’ll act more like Google Glass than anything else: the physical world around you will remain in front of you, overlaid with holographic images constructed of light and aided by sound. Preliminary demos (see video embedded below) show the HoloLens displaying 3D representations of the weather, your day’s events, and even apps like Skype and Netflix. With this device, you’d theoretically be able to video chat and watch TV wherever you are. Somebody taking up the display in your living room. Hop on your bed and project Netflix (as a floating hologram) in front of you as you stare into your ceiling directly above you. You can even resize this virtual display to your liking depending on your environment. What else? You can use gestures and voice commands to control and interact with what you see. Is this the future of gaming? Perhaps. Will HoloLens connect with the Xbox ecosystem in any way? Time will tell. The potential for creativity and discovery here is endless. Microsoft is even touting collaboration with NASA; scientists are planning on exploring Mars using holograms of Mars Rover images. With HoloLens, it will appear as if they’re walking on the surface of Mars. Far out, man.
And now to answer the question pressing on your mind: when’s it coming? Hate to sound like a broken record here, but again, Microsoft is keeping specifics close to its chest. In regards to HoloLens they said it will be available “within the Windows 10 timeframe.” MSFT’s giving itself a pretty wide net there–it could release alongside Win10 (this is the most unlikely scenario), or it can come out towards the end of Win10’s run (which could be many, many years from now). Whatever the case may be, Microsoft is working with developers around the world to come up with impossible experiences made possible with holographic computing.
I’m gonna say: Microsoft just got exciting again. Following this Windows 10 event, complete with visions of unity, collaboration, and the future, Microsoft looks and sounds and feels confident. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I’ve felt this way. You know what it is? This is the feeling I typically get during Apple announcements. Except this time it was Microsoft stealing the thunder with a bold, new OS and a fascinating look at the possible future of the industry.