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Windows 10 and HoloLens: quick thoughts and questions following the January reveal

Microsoft is revealing its Windows 10 plans in stages, presumably in part to build up expectation and get feedback, and in part because some pieces are ready to show before others.

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Today in Redmond Microsoft shared a number of new features. In quick summary:

Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for all Windows 7 and 8.x users, at least for the first year.

Comment: this is necessary since the refusal of Microsoft’s user base to upgrade from Windows 7 is a strategic roadblock. For example, Windows 7 users cannot use Store apps, reducing the market for those apps. It is more important to persuade users to upgrade than to get upgrade revenue. Windows 10, of course, will have to be compelling as well as free for this initiative to work, as well as providing a smooth upgrade process (never a trivial task).

Windows to evolve to become a service Executive VP Terry Myerson says this in this post:

Once a Windows device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will continue to keep it current for the supported lifetime of the device – at no additional charge. With Windows 10, the experience will evolve and get even better over time. We’ll deliver new features when they’re ready, not waiting for the next major release. We think of Windows as a Service – in fact, one could reasonably think of Windows in the next couple of years as one of the largest Internet services on the planet.

And just like any Internet service, the idea of asking “What version are you on?” will cease to make sense – which is great news for our Windows developers.

Comment: What does this mean exactly, beyond what we already have via Windows Update? What does Myerson mean by “the supported lifetime of the device”? What are the implications for the typical three-year Windows release cycle? I hope to discover more detail soon, though when I enquired whether there will be, for example, a “Windows 11” I was told, “We aren’t commenting beyond what’s stated in post that you reference.”

Project Spartan (a code name) is a new browser developed as a universal app – this means an app built for the Windows Runtime (“Metro”) environment, though in Windows 10 these also run in a window on the desktop, blurring the sharp distinction you see in Windows 8. Project Spartan features, according to Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore, a new rendering engine along with features includes the ability to annotate web pages with keyboard or touch/stylus, and the ability to save pages for reading offline. There will also be “enterprise mode compatibility for existing web apps”, which means that old IE will live on.

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Comment: Creating a new browser is a bold step though it may be as much for marketing reasons as anything else, since IE has a tarnished reputation. The advantages of the new rendering engine, and the way compatibility will be handled, are not yet clear. Another point of interest is compatibility issues caused not only by the new engine, but also by running in sandboxed universal app environment. Looking forward to more detail on this.

Windows 10 across PC, tablet and mobile: the OS will have the same name on all three, universal apps (like a new mobile Office) will run on all three, and there are new efforts to synchronize content. For example, notifications will sync across phone and PC/Tablet.

Comment: Sounds good, but there are a few downsides. One is that Windows Phone is tied to the same release cycle as full Windows, which is rather slow. Currently Windows Phone is falling back as it waits for Windows 10 in respect of both operating system upgrade and also the universal app version of Office – which is already available for iOS and Android. CEO Satya Nadella said today that there will be new “flagship” Windows phone devices, which is good news for what is currently a neglected platform, but it will be hard for the platform to thrive if it is constantly waiting for the next big Windows update. Update: if “Windows as a service” means no more monolithic upgrades but constant incremental improvement, perhaps this will not be the case. Watch this space.

Cortana coming to Windows PC and tablet: we saw Microsoft’s digital assistant, powered by Bing search, demonstrated on full Windows.

Comment: Cortana is impressive and fun, but I am not sure how much the feature enhances the platform. On the phone I do not use it much; the problem is that speaking to your phone “what meetings to I have today” and getting a spoken response is a great demo, but in practice it is easier to glance at the calendar, especially as voice control only works in quiet scenarios. The other aspect of Cortana is the personalisation it brings to things like web search or reminders; more data about our preferences and activities can bring some magic. This is Google Now territory, and while Microsoft’s approach to privacy may be preferable, Google will be hard to match in respect of the amount of data it can draw upon.

DirectX 12: Microsoft showed a demo of its latest DirectX graphics API, claiming up to 50% better performance and up to 50% less power consumption.

Comment: this is solid good news. If games run best on Windows 10 a significant enthusiast community will want to upgrade right away. Further, DirectX is not just for games.

Xbox One integration: Microsoft showed how Xbox Live team or competitive games can work across Xbox One and PC, and how games can be streamed from XboxOne so that the console becomes a kind of games server for your Windows 10 tablets and PCs. Xbox One will also run universal apps.

Comment: Better integration between Windows devices and Xbox is long overdue and can help to promote both. Xbox One though has a bit of a Windows 7 problem of its own, with Xbox 360 remaining popular simply because of the huge numbers of games that have not been ported. If only Microsoft could introduce backwards compatibility …

Surface Hub: this is a giant 84”, 4K display wall-hanging PC which you can use as an interactive whiteboard for meetings and so on. It seems to be the next innovation from the Perceptive Pixel folk who also developed the table-top Surface device.

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Comment: Looks cool, but it will be expensive. May help to encourage businesses to keep faith with the Windows client.

Microsoft HoloLens: this was the big reveal, a secret project that, we were told, has been developed in the basement of the Microsoft Visitor Center on its Redmond campus.

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HoloLens is a headset which enables 3D augmented reality: projected images are seen like holographic images in the space around you, and you can interact by gesture detected by cameras and motion sensors in the headset. Look carefully at the following image:

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In this example, the demonstrator is assembling a quad copter using a palette of 3D components in Holo Studio, an application which uses the technology. However, note that you only see the quad copter through the HoloLens headset, the image from which in this case is merged with a view of the demonstrator herself using a custom camera:

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If you had been in the room, you would see the quad copter only on the screen, not in the room itself. Therefore I suspect this is more accurately described as augmented reality than holography, though the scene does look holographic if you are wearing the headset.

In a final flourish, Microsoft a 3D printed version of the quad copter which duly flew up and down; I am sure the motor and so on was NOT 3D printed, but it made a lovely demo.

Apparently NASA loves the technology and will be using it with Mars Rover in July in a project called OnSight – read the NASA release.

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Bringing it down to earth, Microsoft also stated that all universal apps will have access to the HoloLens APIs.

Comment: This looks amazing and must have potential for all sorts of scenarios: architects, planners, marketing, games and more. The tough question I suppose is how much it has to do with Windows 10 as experienced by most users.

In closing

Microsoft surprised us today and deserves kudos for that. Nobody can accuse the company of lack of innovation; then again, Windows 8 and the original Surface were innovative too, and proved to be a disaster. I do not think Windows 10 will be a disaster; we have already seen in the preview how it is an easier transition for Windows 7 users.

A key thing to note from a developer and technical perspective is that universal apps are right at the centre of the Windows 10 story. That is a good thing in many respects, since we get Store deployment, sandbox security, and a degree of compatibility across phone, PC, tablet and Xbox One. But is the Store app / Universal app platform mature enough to deliver a good experience for both developers and users, bearing in mind that in Windows 8.x it is really not good enough?

Look to Microsoft Build at the end of April, which Myerson said is the culmination of the Windows 10 reveal, to answer that question.

Related posts:

  1. Quick thoughts on Xcode and Objective C versus Microsoft’s tools
  2. Quick thoughts from QCon
  3. Windows 10 at Mobile World Congress 2015: a quick reflection
  4. Microsoft’s broken Windows Store: an unconvincing official response and the wider questions
  5. Last thoughts on Windows Phone

3 comments to Windows 10 and HoloLens: quick thoughts and questions following the January reveal

  • Niclas Lindgren

    Why do you Believe that windows phone will be tied to a major release train, when they at the same time say windows 10 will be upgraded incrementally when features are ready?

    I am pretty sure they will continue the release train they have going on windows phone, with 3-4 release per year and migrate that way of thinking to Windows as a whole, not the other way around.

  • tim

    Hi Niclas, you might be right, I am trying to discover what the “Windows as a service” thing really means which is part of the puzzle. Right now though, Windows Phone is doubly suffering from the wait for Windows 10, first through lack of new high-end devices, and second from the delay to Universal Office which now puts it behind iOS and Android. Is this the last such delay?

  • Vic Klien

    http://bit.ly/1Cl6Aon
    “Could Microsoft’s Foggy Windows 10 Plan Be Any Smarter?”

    The above article is an optimistic spin on the potential benefits of Microsoft switching to a more Apple-like OS pricing and release strategy.