//build, Microsoft’s annual developer conference kicked off on April 2 and the marathon keynote included several announcements that finally bring Microsoft’s “One Windows” vision closer to reality.
Although it may not be an official or formalized mission, “One Windows” seems to be an ever-so-close possibility since the time Windows Phone moved to NT kernel to make it very similar to Windows 8 on PCs. First, the relevant announcements:
Windows Phone 8.1: The version number incremented by .1 would seem to imply an incremental change, but that is absolutely misleading. The number, and magnitude, of changes in Windows Phone 8.1 from Windows Phone 8 is perhaps far greater than the changes Windows Phone 8 itself introduced over Windows Phone 7. Consumer features like lock screen themes and Start Screen background image and enterprise features like VPN support are just a few. The biggest change perhaps, is the presence of digital personal assistant called Cortana, which seems to be a smart mix of Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google now.
Windows Phone 8.1 walkthrough by Joe Belfiore
Universal apps: Even though it is possible to create apps for Windows Phone and Windows 8 where a lot of code is shared between the two, Microsoft announced what they are calling “Universal apps“. These apps are actually built with the intention to be run on the phone as well as on tablet and PC. It is a single binary which potentially could render differently depending on the device on which it runs. In order to make this possible, developers would need to modify their apps and with the appropriate changes applied, have their customers purchase once and (optionally) use it on multiple devices. Until now, even though much of the code could be reused/shared, it was not possible to have a single binary nor was it possible to allow the customer to buy on a phone and use it on a tablet. That has now changed, and is a huge step in the unification of Windows. What’s more, in their “vision” part of the keynote, Microsoft executives also promised that the Universal apps would extend to the Xbox as well, thereby making these apps truly “universal”.
Windows Universal app icons
Windows for “Internet of Things”: Also as part of the vision, Microsoft introduced a new as yet unnamed version of Windows aimed at all other kinds of devices which are proliferating around us, and generically called it “Windows for the Internet of Things“. These devices, until now, have all been using Android or something else, but definitely not Windows, so it was clearly an opportunity Microsoft did not want to miss out on. The operating system will be released in preview form this Spring.
Windows license cost of $0: Along with this announcement, Microsoft also took a bold step towards increasing interest in and adoption of Windows among developers by making all versions of Windows free for devices under 9 inches in size. Essentially, this signals that device makers making devices in this hugely growing category would have no barrier in terms of cost, to sell Windows in those devices. Given that Android indirectly costs money (potentially to use Google Mobile Services on top of Android Open Source Project, but additionally, surely for patent licensing fees), device makers will find themselves looking at Windows as the *cheaper* OS for their devices!
Shared experiences: In addition to announcing keyboard and mouse user-friendly updates to Windows 8.1, Microsoft also demonstrated how experiences will span Windows Phone and Windows on tablets and PCs. With Internet Explorer 11 on Windows Phone 8.1, users will now be able to share IE settings, tabs, passwords, favorites, etc. between the phone and tablets/PCs. Similarly, via their Microsoft account, customers will also be able to have the same theme across phone and tablet/PC along with several other settings that are already possible to be synced between Windows 8.1 devices.
There were several other announcements but the above items show the steps Microsoft has taken, listening to customer feedback as well as executing on their product roadmap, to make it seamless for customers to use Windows regardless of the device they use it on. The developer story therefore becomes even more compelling because it is not just phones or not just tablets that is the addressable market. Suddenly, any device that ships with Windows, will be able to consume the apps and games developers build and not just in theory. This has always been the advantage of the iOS ecosystem and Apple executed it well from the beginning because they were in a much better position to do so, having defined the entire path themselves. Google’s Android followed, although in a slightly different way – Android phone apps stretch out on a larger screen if there is no specific tablet version available. Microsoft’s vision is definitely more like iOS but at the same time, due to the excellent tooling in the form of Visual Studio, it also seems like it may be much easier to build a universal app targeting Windows. The devil of course is in the details and we will see how developers react to this vision by observing how many existing developers convert their apps to Universal apps and how many new developers enter the ecosystem with their creative ideas.
This is a solid move by Microsoft and while some (including yours truly) may say it was long overdue, it is also better late than never. Microsoft is doing its best to court all kinds of developers including many in the Silicon Valley and many with an affinity towards open source projects, and they will have to continue to do even more going forward. Nothing matters more though, than hard numbers. If Windows devices get a decent market share and continue to prove to be higher revenue generators than the competing platforms, developers will automatically flock to the ecosystem.
Until then, Microsoft can only hope that “One Windows” matters to a developer as much as it is necessary for Microsoft.