Alex King
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Thoughts on Microsoft Build 2015
APRIL 29, 2015

Wow. I just finished watching Microsoft's Build 2015 keynote, and I haven't walked away that impressed with a tech company's new technologies in a long time. Microsoft has been making a lot of great decisions in the past few years, from open sourcing .NET to their unwavering dedication to evolving and perfecting the Surface line. Today's keynote provided a ton of great information about new products, and I have never been more excited for the future of Microsoft. In roughly the order that they were covered in the keynote, I'm going to walk through some of the most important announcements made today.

Native Compilation of Android and iOS Projects

It's just been an unfortunate truth for a long time that Windows Phone hasn't had the sort of market adoption that it should have. It isn't a bad platform at all, nor are the smartphones that feature the OS underpowered or uninteresting. But at the same time, Windows Phone doesn't really do any one thing that Android or iOS does not, and I completely understand why it's been such a hard sell on people. A large part of it is the lackluster app market, which is undoubtedly due to the small userbase, which is undoubtedly... it's a viscious cycle, and it doesn't make the platform very attractive for users or developers.

Something has changed, though. Visual Studio will now let developers import Android and iOS applications written in Java, C++ and Objective-C. A demo was run on stage where an Xcode project for an iOS app was imported into Visual Studio, messy Objective-C code intact, and the app was able to be run right on Windows. It was remarkable. Another demo showed the Choice Hotels Android app running natively on a Windows phone. This requires the Android core to be embedded in Windows Phone now, but what's fantastic is that it's not an Android emulator; it was able to take advantage of the native Windows location services and keyboard.

The real kicker came when Microsoft revealed that King, the company behind Candy Crush Saga, had used these developer tools to port the game to Windows Phone. Apparently, only a "single digit" percent of the code had to be revised to get it working completely. This is beyond huge for the Windows ecosystem. It drastically lowers the barrier to entry for small and large app developers, making it far easier to get code running up on multiple platforms with minimal porting and refactoring. With these new technologies, along with finally allowing old-school Win32 apps into its store, Microsoft is firmly pegging Windows as a platform that can do it all.

Microsoft Edge (formerly Project Spartan)

I use Safari on OS X. I used to use Chrome, and before that Firefox. Years and years ago, before I knew any better, (before anyone knew any better), I used Internet Explorer. IE has become the butt of too many jokes lately, even if its latest incarnation on Windows 8.1 is quite fast and usable. But a rebrand will serve Microsoft well, because I am a firm believer in the power of native and optimized web browsers. Safari is smoother and more pleasant on OS X than any of its rivals, it allows for multiple hours more battery life, and generally, its design and behavior aligns well with the rest of OS X. I'm hoping that Edge will deliver the same for Windows 10.

I'm more confident than ever that it'll be able to do so, because today at Build they announced extension support. In doing so, they demonstrated one of the key extensions that keeps me from using Internet Explorer whenever I'm on Windows: Reddit Enhancement Suite. Microsoft claims that with very little code modification, they were able to get RES up and running on Edge, and that is enormously good news. Even though Safari doesn't have the userbase of Chrome, RES is still available for it, ostensibly because it was so easy to port over. For years, the extension market for IE has been pretty awful, but this news is promising. If we see a few popular extensions like uBlock show up before too long, I will personally see no reason not to use Edge.

Continuum

Continuum is a neat philosophy that Microsoft is setting forward, essentially focusing on making responsive apps that look great regardless of screen size. The same principles of responsive web design apply, and the demo they showed of a single app working on a tablet or a desktop was nifty. But the real exciting thing is Continuum for Windows Phone, which is specifically focused on using Continuum-enabled apps from a Windows Phone to replicate a full PC. The demo shown included PowerPoint, which is a single app that runs on Windows Phone and Windows Desktop. On the phone, it is a limited environment, but when the phone was docked to a second screen, PowerPoint expanded to become its full desktop self.

People have tried this before, namely Canonical and its push for Ubuntu for phones. But nothing has really stuck yet. I can easily imagine Microsoft being more successful than any other company in this venture. In a few more years, phones will be powerful enough to replicate ultraportable laptops, and this could be an incredibly convenient feature.

The next question becomes whether or not we'll see an increasing use of ARM-compatible apps because of this, or if instead it will lead to a new generation of Intel smartphones. Ironically, Windows RT was almost ahead of its time, trying to replicate a full Windows experience with an ARM processor behind the scenes. Windows RT was Microsoft's vision for a computer that was driven entirely by universal Windows apps, and it seems that Continuum is just another way of packaging that ideal. But if Continuum ever takes off for more than just simple apps, it will require developers to embrace universal apps, which is something we've yet to see.

HoloLens and Windows Holographic

HoloLens is just insane, and Microsoft today showed how it is more than just a tech demo. The image at the top of this post shows a Microsoft engineer wearing HoloLens, with the device's projections superimposed from another camera. The demo showed Windows Holographic, effectively the Windows platform imagined in a flexible, dynamic 3D space. He demonstrated having a beach-themed weather widget sitting on a coffee table, pinning Skype to a wall near his couch, and expanding a video to play on an entire wall. It was utterly futuristic.

Later on, more practical applications of HoloLens were reiterated, focused on things like architectural design. I don't know if I have a ton more to say about this other than how unbelievable the technology is. I can't wait for it to be more prevalent.

Microsoft is the most interesting company in tech right now. I recently bought Apple's new MacBook, which is by many accounts a pretty forward-thinking piece of equipment. But typing on it now, it feels entirely pedestrian compared to the sorts of things Microsoft showed off today. Microsoft is designing hardware for the real future, not just the future that's a few years away. And they're preparing their software so that when the hardware is a reality, it'll be the most robust and flexible ecosystem available. I can't wait to see what they announce next.

© 2015-2017 Alex King