Windows 10: Triumphs and tragedies from Microsoft Build
Redmond's OS needs to be cool for consumers, but its best chances are with business
Microsoft presented its latest Windows 10 strategy to developers at its Build event in Seattle last week.
Microsoft states that Windows 10 is now installed on more than 500 million devices, halfway towards the goal of 1 billion by 2018 that it set itself at Build 2015.
In July 2016 the company acknowledged that its target was not realistic, telling the press that "due to the focusing of our phone hardware business, it will take longer than FY18 for us to reach our goal".
"Focusing" in this context meant killing Windows Phone, other than for a business niche the company (and partners like HP) thinks may exist for multi-purpose devices that work like a PC when docked.
Still, 500 million is not bad, and shows that Microsoft's carrot-and-stick approach to Windows 10 upgrades has been effective.
Build saw the announcement of a new Windows 10 release, the Fall Creators Update, along with key new features.
The name of the update is the first misstep. The "Creators" concept is rather tangential both to the new features and to Windows users in general. As for Fall, I remarked to another journalist at Build that the name was US-centric. "Imagine how it goes down in Australia," he replied.
Mixed Reality: Who cares?
Welcome to Windows Mixed Reality
Leaving aside the name, what are the prospects for the new features announced at Build? Mixed Reality, for example, by which Microsoft means a variety of things, including the whole spectrum from Augmented Reality (like HoloLens) to immersive Virtual Reality, using headsets, as well as adding special effects and 3D models to photos and videos. A new app, called Story Remix, will make this easy for consumers, a companion to Paint 3D in the first Creators Update.
HoloLens is cool technology, and Story Remix drew a cheer at Build, but Microsoft's problem is that the momentum in consumer technology is with mobile devices running Android or iOS, which is also where the source images or videos for Story Remix are likely to originate. The thinking is to make Windows 10 an ideal companion for a mobile device (it used to be the other way around), but you can be sure that Google and Apple have other ideas.
PCs do have a strong niche in gaming, and this is where new, just about affordable headsets and motion controllers from Acer and HP have most potential. The motion controllers do not require external sensors. Unfortunately, hands-on demos of the new controllers were not available at Build but we may see more at the E3 event next month, where Xbox chief Phil Spencer has promised "new experiences with different IP".
The Windows 10 app platform: Desktop Bridge is key
How about Windows 10 as an app platform? The failure (so far) of the Windows Store sums up everything that has gone wrong for Microsoft since the Windows 8 upheaval. It is still not the first place you look for Windows applications. It is unattractive for developers, partly because users do not look there, partly because of limitations of the UWP (Universal Windows Platform) used by Store apps, and partly because they need to support users on Windows 7.
The Windows 10 Store – a glimmer of hope?
Build 2017 offered a glimmer of hope for the Store. Windows boss Terry Myerson announced that Apple iTunes is coming to the Store, perhaps the most significant sign of adoption yet.
The reason for this is not newfound love for UWP, but the Desktop Bridge, formerly known as Project Centennial, that lets developers wrap desktop applications for Store delivery. There are real benefits for the user, in that such applications are partially isolated and both install and uninstall are simplified. There are also benefits for Windows. Desktop Bridge applications extend rather than write to the Windows Registry, preventing Registry bloat when they are uninstalled. Store curation should also protect users from malicious or badly behaved applications.
Still, Microsoft has some way to go. For example, there are certain free applications that I generally install on Windows, including FileZilla, PuTTY, foobar2000. None are currently in the Store.
The hugely popular Steam store is another problem. Users who purchased Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare – Digital Deluxe from the Windows 10 Store say performance is great, but multiplayer useless, because most other players have Steam installations and it is incompatible.
Compatibility issues with Store vs Steam game installs
OneDrive fixed at last
Microsoft is in a stronger position when it comes to business users, especially when they are also customers for Office 365. The success of this cloud-hosted Office platform is currently the company's biggest strategic asset.
The best news here is OneDrive Files On-Demand, announced at Build. This means that Windows will now show all the files that exist in Microsoft's cloud document store, but only download those that are required offline. This smarter approach will also improve performance. "Today, when someone syncs a SharePoint Online team site, files are re-downloaded on all synced devices when anyone makes a change. Files On-Demand will reduce network bandwidth by eliminating the need to continuously sync shared files on every synced device," says Microsoft's announcement.
Since Build, Microsoft has also announced that you will able to share cloud-stored files directly from File Explorer.
It seems that Microsoft is at last fixing the integration between Windows and OneDrive/SharePoint online, which has historically been a pain point and driven users towards competitors like Dropbox or Box.
Fluent Design System – a better-looking Windows?
Microsoft also announced the Fluent Design System, an evolution of the original Metro design concept introduced for Windows Phone and Windows 8. In practical terms, this also means new and refreshed components for UWP. At Build, Microsoft's Joe Belfiore emphasised the strong support for pen users. "We want to make it so that users can navigate all of Windows just using a pen," he said.
UWP applications often do not look great, and visually richer components are welcome. This touches on a deep issue with Windows, though, which is inconsistency of design. The problem is worse with Windows 8 and Windows 10, which have some elements using brand new design and interaction models, and some which survive from way back when. A new design system will not fix this, and could make it worse if the Windows team are kept busy redoing the user interface for the next new thing, rather than focusing on fixing the many inconsistencies. It needs to do both.
The mysterious Microsoft Graph
Finally, what about the Microsoft Graph, widely referenced at Build, and described by Myerson as "an intelligent fabric that helps connect dots between people, conversations, projects and content within the Microsoft Cloud". But what is it really?
This is a big topic, and sure to make privacy-conscious individuals nervous as it depends on personal data. At its heart, though, the Microsoft Graph remains what it has been for a while: a family of APIs though which developers can query data stored on Microsoft's cloud, subject to whatever permissions are granted to the account with which they authenticate.
Activity Cards in the forthcoming Windows Timeline
Project Rome (or Roam, haha) extends the Microsoft Graph with new APIs as well as providing new services. The goal is ambitious: "A personal operating system that is not tied to a device or a platform." The RemoteSystems API could enable an app running on a mobile device to launch itself on a nearby PC or Xbox, for example, to take advantage of a bigger screen. UserActivity APIs allow apps to publish activities (such as creating or editing a document) so that it can be surfaced in Windows as a notification, or a card in a Timeline (a new feature in the Fall Creators Update).
Microsoft itself will make good use of these features in Office 365, integrating Windows with Office apps running on iOS and Android, for example. Developers who target Office 365 users – a smart move given the growth of the platform – might well also take advantage.
These new features are unlikely to do much for consumers, though. It depends on users signing into a Microsoft account – either consumer or Azure Active Directory (Office 365) – within apps that support such features. The primary sign-on on Android is to a Google account, and for iOS, an Apple ID. Facebook is next, ahead of Microsoft in consumer mindshare.
Windows is in better shape with businesses than with consumers and that looks set to continue. ®