Microsoft’s new dawn: key points from Build 2013

28 Jun 2013

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At Build 2013 in San Francisco, California, this week, a much-transformed Microsoft showed that openness and heterogeneity rather than being closed and controlling are the routes to long-term success. It could prove to be the winning strategy.

Build once, iterate often

Microsoft at Build 2013 came across as a very different beast to the company we once knew. If it was initially wrong-footed by the emergence of tablet computing and smartphones in recent years you got the sense that a lesson was learned and a fundamental transformation effort was embraced at every facet of the organisation. Superiority, if at least perceived, has been replaced by humility and a growing conviction, acceptance and vision that the future is open and that consumers’ choices of devices will be manifold.

The key takeaway here is that old adage of business, the customer is always right, has been augmented by the fact that the customer now has more choices.

Various tools and platforms revealed at Build, including in particular the new Visual Studio 2013 and Azure Mobile Web Services, indicate that Microsoft is more than happy to be the starting point of the creation of compelling apps that will sit not only on Windows and Windows Phone devices but that will also adorn iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox and various other mobile and computing platforms. It intends to enable apps that will also straddle a panoply of cloud platforms including its own Azure as well as Google, Amazon, Dropbox, Box and Apple’s iCloud, not to mention integrating infrastructure as a service (IaaS) into dynamic enterprise software as a service (SaaS) platforms like Salesforce.com.

azure

The PC isn’t dead, it has just spawned a bigger family

Talk about the demise of the PC is premature and this is anything but the post-PC world. If anything the PC as we once knew it has been transformed into a variety of shapes and sizes – including ultrabooks, all-in-ones and two-in-ones – and the family has grown to include tablets and smartphones in what really is a “personal” computing era.

Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer this week highlighted the new Windows 8.1 which is in preview mode just eight months after Windows 8 debuted. The update is almost an entirely new operating system in many respects, with more interactive tiles, the return of the ‘Start’ button, better ways of finding and discovering apps and some really nifty new features such as a hands-free mode for controlling touch-screen devices using the camera Kinect-style and compiling playlists into Xbox Music based on the web page you are browsing.

While Windows Phone didn’t get an enormous mention, it was nevertheless present throughout all presentations, in particular when it comes to building apps that run across a myriad of devices. Ballmer didn’t say it explicitly but Windows now embraces all form factors. “The PC of today doesn’t look a lot like the PC of five or 10 years ago. It’s really in the last several months that we’ve launched Windows 8 and we’ve seen an explosion in the range of devices designed and with Windows inside.”

He talked about the form factor Microsoft calls the “small tablet” as espoused by devices like the Acer Iconia 8.1-inch tablet computer with full Windows 8.1 running on it.

Ballmer said that Microsoft is about to pass the 100,000 app mark for desktop apps for Windows 8 and said there are between 2m and 3m apps in production amongst developers.

Windows Web services chief Antoine Leblond said that by the end of this year there will be 3,000 different Windows 8-certified computing models in the world.

In his message to the 6,000 developers present at Build, Ballmer said that in terms of the choices available to them the software giant wants to be a destination for getting things done.

“We have the highest volume platform on the planet – we will sell hundreds of millions of Windows devices this years. PCs, tablets, smartphones … Windows, Windows, Windows … we’ve made an interesting transition to new form factors embracing phones, tablets, two-in-ones, all-in-ones, the Xbox One. The opportunities for developers are immense and the next generation of mobile connected experiences have never been better.

“The future of Windows is very, very bright,” Ballmer said.

windows

3D printing could soon be mainstream in most homes

The new Windows 8.1 comes with over 5,000 APIs, signalling uses of the technology most of us have not yet imagined. But what was very evident at Build this week is the inclusion of SDKs to facilitate the emergence of consumer-friendly 3D printing devices.

Throughout the exhibition area at Build there were a myriad of different 3D printer companies demonstrating how they can turn plastic into beautifully sculpted products from ornaments and toys to a full-sized 3D-printed electric guitar.

Leblond said that Microsoft itself will soon begin selling 3D printers to consumers such as the MakerBot Replicator 2 and the Cube printer from 3D Systems which currently is available at Staples for under US$1,300.

“Windows 8.1 will be the first and only platform to support 3D printing with drivers for app creators built-in,” he told Build in San Francisco.

Watching these 3D printers in action and studying how compact and silent they are, it is easy to see them adorning the home office or the garden shed in years to come.

3d

Gamers: you will be more than just the controller, you will be the creator

One of the most curious developments to emerge out of Build isn’t in fact a business software but rather a new game title enigmatically titled Project Spark.

This new gaming title is a development engine that allows users to draw their own worlds, envision their own characters and in effect invent games. This could actually go a lot further and could see the emergence of a marketplace where kids and fans can conceive their own video games and/or digital productions like movies and dramas unfettered only by the bounds of their imaginations.

Project Spark, which will be released later this year by Microsoft Studios for the Xbox 360, the new Xbox One and Windows 8 machines, is a touchscreen/gesture based “digital canvas” that allows users to create stunning landscapes and add in characters and share and potentially sell their creation across a global community.

project spark1

project spark 2

Bing intends to up the ante against Google

Gurdeep Singh Pall (pictured below), corporate vice president in charge of Microsoft’s Bing search engine revealed not only how Bing integrates with apps and the structure of Windows 8.1, but how the search engine is growing at a rate of 7pc a month and is launching new tools and services.

He said that Bing powers Facebook’s Graph Search and Apple’s Siri and that 3D mapping is coming with Windows 8.1 along side voice commentary and image and text scanning and translation.

“In this coming decade apps will have eyes, ears and a mouth resulting in seamless experiences for developers and users,” Pall said said.

gurdeep singh pall

Building for tomorrow

In conclusion, it seems Microsoft has decided that rather than being dismayed or put off by the rise and rise of powerful competitors like Google and old adversary Apple, it looked at its own heritage and contribution to the evolution of computing and realised that the sum was greater than the parts.

The logical step is to be a facilitator and enabler, not solely the principal character. This means openness and heterogeneity across a myriad of devices and platforms. It’s a wise move that will only make Microsoft stronger in the long run.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com