REDMOND, WASH. Holograms. An 84-inch, 4K display. A bigger stage for the Cortana voice assistant. Microsoft left little doubt that Windows isn’t just for traditional PCs anymore. Indeed, when Microsoft first announced in September that it was skipping the Windows 9 moniker and instead naming the next version of its venerable operating system Windows 10, the move spoke volumes. The company seemed to be suggesting that it couldn’t move past Windows 8 fast enough.
At a news media gathering Wednesday on its campus here, Microsoft spilled more of the beans for doing just that, with a major emphasis on how Windows 10 will affect consumers. The Windows 10 interface will be tailored for the devices on which it will run — touch-screen computers, phones and tablets, though it doesn’t end there. For instance, Windows 10 will mesh with Xbox One. You’ll be able to stream games from an Xbox One console to computers with Windows 10. The really mind-altering, science-fiction-y stuff, potentially anyway, comes with Microsoft’s ambitious move into the world of holograms, via a new head-mounted contraption called Microsoft HoloLens. It has sensors, see-through lenses, spatial sound and what Microsoft refers to as a “Holographic Processing Unit.” The company says it will arrive around the time that Windows 10 itself reaches the masses.
That’s most likely in the fall, and when the new operating system shows up it will be a free upgrade for anyone with a Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 computer or tablet, or a Windows Phone 8.1 handset, at least for the first year. Microsoft hasn’t specified what happens in year two and beyond. But the new Windows largely resides in the cloud with Microsoft pushing the services end of Windows, so I suppose some sort of subscription model is not out of the question. The current version of Windows, Windows 8, hasn’t been the unmitigated disaster that was Windows Vista. But it hasn’t exactly been widely embraced either.
According to Net Applications.com, Windows 7 still claims more than 56% of the PC desktop market, compared to about 13% for Windows 8 and 8.1 computers. Even Windows XP, an operating system Microsoft no longer officially supports, still has more than an 18% share. Traditional Windows customers never took to the schizophrenic nature of an operating system that was trying to appeal to PC users as well as the tablet crowd, a balancing act that confused and in practice didn’t fully satisfy either constituency. Microsoft hopes to fix that with Windows 10. One goal is to make it easy to stop working on one Windows 10 device and pick up where you left off on another. Through a feature called Continuum Mode, Microsoft wants to make the transition seamless if you’re switching on a “2-in-1” computer from, say, PC mode to tablet mode or vice versa. “We want to make Windows 10 the most loved release of Windows,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. “One of the things I’m excited about is Cortana’s expanded role.”
Microsoft’s impressive voice assistant, which first appeared on Windows Phones, moves to PCs and tablets. Cortana gets to know you and customizes her responses. (Catering to the local crowd, she predicted a major victory for the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.) On a PC, you might ask her to play music or launch a Power-Point presentation. Incidentally, PowerPoint is one of the so-called “universal apps” that will function across all kinds of Windows 10 devices. Along with its touch-capable Office siblings, Word and Excel, it will be pre-installed on Windows 10 computers. So will other universal apps: Photos, Videos, Music, Maps and People & Messaging and Mail & Calendar.
Microsoft also showed off a new browser under the code name Project Spartan. Though I haven’t gotten to try it yet, you’ll be able to mark up the browser with handwritten notes, and turn on a reading mode (similar to what Apple has in its Safari browser) that promises to eliminate distractions as you read. Consumers shouldn’t get too excited about the 84-inch 4K display called the Microsoft Surface Hub, not that it isn’t cool. (There’s also a 55-inch version.) But it is designed more for the boardroom than living room, at least initially. Nadella told me he refers to it as an “enterprise TV,” though longer term he didn’t rule out home use, an integrated computer with a display you can write on. You can use it as a digital whiteboard, run Skype, conduct remote meetings and employ it in conjunction with Office 365. Microsoft hasn’t said what it will cost.
Nadella seems to be taking Windows along the right path. The ultimate proof will be in how the company pulls it all off.