Build At its Build 2017 developer conference in Seattle, US, on Wednesday, Microsoft turned its attention to Windows and cozied up to competitors.
The day before, CEO Satya Nadella said Microsoft now sees its business in the context of edge devices and cloud services, informed by artificial intelligence algorithms.
Terry Myerson, executive vice president of the Windows and Devices Group, made clear that Microsoft hasn't forgotten about Windows. He presented a preview of the Windows Fall Creators Update, which will arrive – spoiler alert – this fall, at some point.
In a press briefing, Microsoft communications chief Frank Shaw insisted day two should be seen as a continuation of day one, as if none of Microsoft's offerings were more important than others.
But it's hard to see Azure as anything other than the favored child with Microsoft's repositioning of Windows as one platform among many. Of course, Windows and Office must be tended and milked for cash, but they don't promise to grow at the same rate as Microsoft's Azure and cloud-related businesses.
The conceit of "Windows everywhere" and the Windows-centric worldview implied by the company's home address, One Microsoft Way, has given way to Windows somewhere. Or as Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president in the Operating Systems Group at Microsoft, put it, "Windows PCs will love all your devices."
Those who recall Apple's 2001-era Digital Hub strategy may experience a sense of deja vu. The difference is that today the hub endpoints may be platforms in their own right.
Nadella's observation that the typical Microsoft customer will have multiple network-connected devices assumes that some of them will not be running Windows. It's a practical acknowledgement that Microsoft products must play nice with Android or iOS devices.
It's been evident for several years that Windows uber alles has given way to resignation and realpolitik. At Build 2017, it became obvious. Microsoft has no answer to Android or iOS. So it is accommodating them.
Microsoft updated Project Rome, otherwise known as Microsoft's Remote Systems platform, with an iOS SDK. Project Rome consists of a set of APIs on various platforms that link client devices and host services through a Microsoft Account. The software is designed to connect Android, iOS, and UWP apps to the Microsoft Graph. If you can't beat them, capture their data. It has worked, so far, for Facebook.
Lamenting that "platform wars have made it harder for customers," Myerson said Microsoft is focused on creativity.
There's little doubt that competitive conflict has hemmed in Microsoft's once vast hegemony. Staking a claim as a creative leader represents a different tact, a page out of Apple's playbook. It could work, particularly in light of Apple's failure to break new ground with its recent desktop and notebook computers, not to mention Google's scattershot hardware strategy.
Microsoft showed off an app included with the forthcoming version of Windows that lends some credence to its artistic aspirations. Windows Story Remix combines photo and video management capabilities with automated editing and scoring, alongside augmented reality special effects.
Think of it as "aiMovie." Using assorted AI-oriented algorithms, it can generate an edited video from multiple video clips, not to mention a soundtrack assembled from audio files. The app can track specific individuals, can recut the video on-demand, and can layer effects so they follow specific objects or people in the video. A demonstration of its capabilities – turning a soccer ball into a fireball in a short clip – prompted more audible enthusiasm than any other announcement at Build.
iTunes in the Windows Store
The Windows Fall Creators Update comes with a new design scheme, Microsoft Fluent Design System, previously known as Neon. Its goal is to help developers create more expressive and more engaging apps. Certainly, it's an aesthetic improvement.
In keeping with the platform detente, iTunes will be coming to the Windows Store. So too will Autodesk Sketchbook and SAP Digital Boardroom.
Stranger still, Microsoft, which previously made Ubuntu Linux available through the Windows Store, plans to offer SUSE Linux and Fedora Linux available too. The Windows Store in short has become a Linux store.
Microsoft's cross-platform development arm, Xamarin, introduced Xamarin Live Player, a live coding environment for development, testing, and debugging. Live Player requires Visual Studio, or Visual Studio for Mac, and an iOS or Android device.
By pairing the mobile device with Visual Studio, via QR code, developers deploy their application to the Live Player app, for iOS or Android, where they can test changes without recompilation and redeployment.
Microsoft is upgrading its cross-platform foundation, for code through its forthcoming .NET Standard 2.0 UWP, and for interfaces, via the XAML Standard 1.0, also coming later this year.
The cross-platform value proposition – write once, run anywhere – is generally seen as a promise that can't be kept. Developers understand that it often means write once, test everywhere, and lowest common denominator features.
But the prospect of cross-platform code combined with cross-platform UI, from a company that offers capable development tools and isn't likely to fold overnight, makes Microsoft's development ecosystem look fairly appealing.
And it keeps getting better. The Visual Studio Mobile Center, cloud services for building and managing mobile apps, now supports automated builds, distribution, analytics, and push notifications for UWP users. A preview of the Crash and Test services for UWP application is planned for later this year.
The Mobile Center's Build service now works with Bitbucket, GitHub, and Visual Studio Team Services, making it possible to set up a Continuous Integration and Delivery pipeline.
Mobile Center has added support for iOS and Android test frameworks XCUITest and Espresso. Its Distribute service can push app builds to app stores or corporate Intune portals. And it has gained a Push service with user segmentation and targeting.
Windows 10 Fall Creators Update will include a much requested capability, OneDrive Files On-Demand. This allows users of the cloud storage service to access remote files using Windows File Explorer without having to download them and store them locally on a device.
This ability to access remote files as if they were local is available from within desktop apps or Windows store apps via the Windows file picker. Files On-Demand supports both OneDrive and SharePoint Online team sites.
OneDrive has been bestowed with another feature, Offline Folders, which caches folders on mobile devices and allows them to be accessed even when there's no network connection. Offline Folders are available on Android drives for Office 365 Personal and Home customers and for OneDrive business accounts. Support for iOS devices is expected in a few months.
iPhone users may find some use for OneDrive for iMessage, which allows Apple's messaging app to display OneDrive content.
Windows 10's next iteration includes a feature called Timeline that provides a visual history of file interactions. It's complemented by a capability called Pick Up Where You Left Off. Using Cortana, you can work a document on your PC, pause, and resume work on another Android, iOS, or Windows device.
On a related note, a feature called Clipboard provides copy and paste support across connected devices to open OneDrive files. It sounds promising.
Microsoft showed off its forthcoming Windows Mixed Reality motion controllers, peripherals designed for VR and AR applications to track movement within the user's field of view through headset-mounted sensors.
The company said it is accepting pre-orders for the Acer ($299) or HP ($329) mixed reality headset from the Microsoft Store. Acer is also planning to selling its headset bundled with the motion controller ($399) during the holiday season. ®