Microsoft would like to reintroduce you … to Microsoft.
Microsoft kicks off its long-running Build developer conference in San Francisco this week, and it’s undoubtedly going to spend a lot of time reminding everyone of its “One Microsoft” message—its attempt to line up its various products and services into a single strategy that encompasses them all, from Windows and Windows Phone to Azure and the OneDrive cloud and Office 365.
The star of the show will be someone not named Bill or Steve. The ringmaster for Build 2014 will be Satya Nadella, the new Microsoft chief executive officer. Nadella will present the progress that Microsoft has made in streamlining its horizontal suite of products, bringing the desktop, mobile, productivity and the cloud together for both users and developers.
It’s going to be a good moment to take stock of Microsoft’s success in unifying its approach to computing.
Windows 8.1 And Possibly Windows 9 Preview
So what should we be looking for specifically from Microsoft this week? The key numbers to look for will be “8.1” and “9.”
The primary news to come out of Build on Wednesday will have to do with Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1. Microsoft’s distinct-but-similar operating systems for PCs and smartphones are both slated for significant updates this week, with new features and functions for developers building apps for them.
Microsoft, which provided an outline of Windows 8.1 Update 1 in February, will undoubtedly take the opportunity to lay out its changes in greater detail. The update will offer interface improvements for mouse and keyboard users, such as a new app switcher and launcher for mouse users. Microsoft may also sketch out plans for making Windows 8.1 less of a resource hog, possibly allowing for Window 8.1 tablets and laptops with as little as 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage.
For Windows Phone 8.1, look for big news on the personal assistant front. Cortana, Microsoft’s long-rumored answer to Apple’s Siri and Google Now, may finally get an introduction. The next Windows Phone 8.1—codenamed Blue—will also offer integrated VPN support, a new battery saving feature, an update to Internet Explorer 11 and an updated camera layout. For developers, a new diagnostics hub is on the horizon, as are updated debugging tools and more.
Microsoft will probably also show off an extremely early preview of Window 9, codenamed Threshold—but don’t expect it to say too much about the next OS.
New Nokia Lumia devices are almost assuredly coming as well. Nokia is holding an event on Wednesday afternoon to “discuss” new gadgets. Microsoft didn’t announce any new devices itself at Build 2013, but it did highlight a long list of hybrid Windows PC and hybrid tablets on stage with former CEO Steve Ballmer.
One App Store To Rule Them All
As for “One Microsoft,” the biggest announcement we’re likely to see at Build 2014 will be a “universal” app store that marries the Windows Store and the Windows Phone Marketplace. Microsoft has worked hard to unify the software kernel that powers Windows Phone, Windows RT and Windows 8 to simplify development of apps across its various operating-system flavors.
Now its goal is to showcase “universal apps” that are easier to design for both Windows and Windows Phone OSes, although Microsoft stops well short of promising full cross-compatibility.
As Microsoft’s Greg Sullivan, a senior product manager for Windows Phone, said in an interview with ReadWrite at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona:
The fact that we have built a common core we did that with Windows Phone 8 so now we have the same kernel and class systems and device driver and security and all the stuff under the hood is consistent. And we have a user experience that cuts across that range of devices. It is not identical, but it is consistent. We have cloud services that connect them all. We have an app (ecosystem) that needs to be more consistent and we are getting there and that is kind of what we will talk about at Build.
ReadWrite editor-in-chief Owen Thomas, mobile editor Dan Rowinski and enterprise reporter Anthony Myers will all be on scene at Build 2014 for all Windows 8, Azure and Windows Phone 8.1 news.
Enterprise Preview: Azure
On the corporate-computing side of things, Microsoft’s cloud service, Azure, is likely to take center stage. For starters, it’s getting a very One Microsoftian renaming—to Microsoft Azure from Windows Azure. Also, Nadella’s previous job was running Microsoft’s cloud and enterprise group, highlighting the importance of that business to the company.
Azure is a fast growing segment of Microsoft’s business, so much so that the company plans to add 14 new Azure data centers in 2014, Azure general manager Steven Martin recently told Business Cloud News. Martin said that demand for Azure “continues to double every six to nine months” and shows no sign of slowing.
Some Azure news is already out—on Monday, for instance, Microsoft slashed Azure pricing, following similar cuts at Amazon and Google. And at Nadella’s first public announcement, we learned about the launch of the company’s Enterprise Mobility Suite, a portion of which is called Azure Active Directory Premium. This lets businesses create online portals for employees to download apps for work, for example.
Microsoft is also due to spill some more details about new, designed-for-touch versions of the company’s Office productivity tools—essentially the Windows equivalent to its just announced Office for iPad. The “touch first” version of Office is due out later this year.
Less clear is what new Microsoft may announce from its Bing search engine. Last year, Microsoft showed off APIs that allow developers to build access to Bing’s underlying tools directly in their apps; perhaps more to the point, Microsoft started talking up Bing as an essential “knowledge” component of its approach to the Internet of Things—another area where the company needs its ducks in a row to really begin competing.
Image of Satya Nadella by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite