I am recently attended Microsoft’s Developer’s Conference, Build 2014. When I have attended conferences, in the past, I have blogged about all the great announcements usually throughout the conference. As I sit here, at the beginning of Day 3, I have not written about a single announcement. I have decided to change up how I report on the conference. This time around I am going to give my two cents on different announcements made. There are plenty of articles that list the many announcements made. In future posts, I will dig deeper into different topics.
Windows Phone 8.1 – Long Live Silverlight
So one of the biggest announcements was the next version of their phone operating system, Windows Phone 8.1. This release caps the “Blue” series of products that started with Windows 8.1. For the last couple of years, Microsoft has talked about operating system convergence. Their goal is to have one operating system core run across all devices and to have a common API to code across them. With Windows Phone 8.1, they are one step closer to reaching that goal.
Windows Phone 8.1 is basically WindowsRT with a phone app and a Silverlight emulator or at least that is how I think about it. And with this leap Microsoft has reached 90% convergence with Windows 8.1 and Phone 8.1. You can now write phone app using the same WinRT API and Xaml as modern apps (more on that later). You can also continue to write phone apps using Silverlight so your past investments on the phone are not lost. In fact Microsoft has advanced the phone Silverlight to 8.1 and allows developers writing apps in Silverlight to access the same functionality as a Windows Xaml (that is what they call the new app paradigm) phone app.
A lot of great new features are coming in the next release and you can read about them on the Windows Phone site. Overall I am impressed with what Microsoft. has done with the phone. Some of these features should have been there from the beginning and are catch up and some are innovative and can’t be found on other platforms. This new version will be available to all devices running Windows Phone 8 later this summer. A developer preview will be available the beginning of April.
Cortana is a fictional artificially intelligent (AI) character in the Halo video game series. ~Wikipedia
With Window Phone 8.1, Microsoft has introduced the world to Cortana. If you play Halo this is a reintroduction. Cortana is Master Chief’s AI assistant. As with Master Chief, Cortana is a personal assistant for the masses. Cortana is part Apple Siri and part Google Now.
Microsoft went and interviewed real personal assistant to learn what is needed to provide a real personal assistant experiences. The key point they heard over and over again is the Notebook. This book contains all the personal information that allows the assistant to be productive. Cortana has a notebook where your personal information is stored for analysis. The key thing to remember is that the user is in control of what information to provide. The more they provide the better Cortana can help. Remember it is all about context.
One of the difference between Siri and Now and with Cortana is that Microsoft has allow developers to integrate their applications with Cortana. For instance a user can say “Facebook Find Jane Doe”. Cortana will pass that “Find Jane Doe” to the Facebook application. Then Facebook can handle what to do with what is passed.
There were a few devices available at Build to play with. Microsoft is releasing Cortana as beta. They are saying that her voice algorithms are still being trained. The more they are used the better they will become. I had fairly good success with the recognition and the functionality that I tried worked pretty well. If Cortana is half as good as they advertise she will surpass the capability of Siri and be on par with Google Now. Only time will tell how Cortana will do. Currently Cortana is only available on the Phone but it is not hard to guess that she will be coming to Windows devices and Xbox’s in the future.
Windows 8 Update 1
Microsoft is also updating Windows 8.1 with Update 1. This update brings some more enhancements for mouse and keyboard users. The three main updates include, right click context menus on the start screen, title bars in modern application, and pinning modern applications to the task bar. These small steps should help make the experience better for non-touch devices.
The update will be available for free for all Windows 8.1 users and will be required for user to continue getting Windows update. The Update will be generally available with the April Patch Tuesday (April 8). Microsoft provided the update to attendees. I have been using since day 1 of the conference. It is okay, I don’t have an opinion one way or another. I have been using Windows 8 since the first developer preview and have adapted to it nicely. Some people seem to like this update. If it makes you more productive then great.
Microsoft did not call this Update 1 they just called it Update. There was a rumor that they were going to talk about the next version of Windows. They did not explicitly say “Windows 9 will be…” but they did hint at a few pieces that are coming, potentially in an Update later this year or vNext. The Start Menu is coming back…with tiles and modern apps will be windowed. More to come so stay tuned.
One of the key points of Day 1 is “convergence’’. Carrying that theme forward, Microsoft announced Universal Apps. As of Visual Studio Update 2, developer will be able to create Universal Apps. What does that mean? Since Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1 have 90% convergence of APIs, including Xaml, it makes sense that you will want to create applications that reuse as much code as possible.
You can currently do that with Portable class libraries (PCL) or shared files. Each of these are still possible. Universal apps have behaviors of PCL but are implemented like shared files. Think shared files with better tooling. Universal apps have a shared project that contains no reference, only files. The shared files live here. Since there may be times when you will need to access an API that isn’t part of that convergence you can use conditional compilation. That tells me that the shared files care complied for each project and not as a PCL dll.
The week before build Microsoft announced Office for iPad. These are touch first variation of the worlds most popular productivity suite. Windows Tablet users have has office on their devices since the beginning but not the touch enabled ones. These were the full blown versions. At Build Microsoft showed off the Touch Enabled Office (to be released later this year). We have known that they have been working on these apps for a while. They did show off PowerPoint last year at Build 2013. What they did announce was that the Windows versions are being built as Universal Apps, so the functionality you get on Windows will also be available on the Phone.
So there is no surprise that Windows 8 has not taken off. They were late to the game. Apple and Google have the market share when it comes to mobile. By bringing Office to the iPad first shows that Microsoft has shifted for a Windows first company to a mobile first company. That is yet another theme that continued throughout the conference. There were more demos using iPads and Android devices than in any other Microsoft conference combined.
iOS devices tend to be geared toward the high end users as such Android has been able to chip away at Apples market share with low end devices. In order to be more competitive, Microsoft is making Windows 8.1 free for 9” devices and small to include phones. The seem to be geared towards make more money off of services than off of operating systems. This makes sense since people don’t upgrade OS’s often but they do renew useful services. In fact, in order to use all the features of Office for the iPad, the user has to have an Office 365 account. Services are the future.
Day 1 Keynote
The Day 1 Keynote ended with Stephen Elop marking three new Windows Phones that won’t be available until later this year and not in the US. And with Satya Nadella delivering pre-canned answers to pre-canned questions, delivering the same talking points that he has been handing out since he took over. If I sound sarcastic it is because I am. The keynote was 3 hours long with Elop and Nadella taking about an hour. Three hours in an uncomfortable chair in a crowed room will make people a little antsy. Next time keep it around 2 hours and have the CEO play more of an active roll.
That aside I think that Day 1 delivered a lot of good stuff. It shows that Microsoft is moving in the right direction, even to the point of being innovative. It seems the days of complete secrecy are coming to an end. They not only showed off what is here but what is coming in the near future. I still have a lot of sessions that I want to take a look at to really understand what was announced but overall I am happier with this years Build than I was with the last one.
In the next post I will cover Day 2 keynote and give you My Two Cents.