//build 2014 Re-cap: Microsoft Digital Personal Assistant 2014 SP1

So instead of posting initial impressions of the Microsoft Build conference the day of (because of procrastination) I’m doing a recap.

Most walking away from the Day 1 keynote will talk about two things: Cortana and the return of the Start menu to Windows. A few will talk about Microsoft’s focus on Windows Phone 8.1 (formerly Blue) and talk about how its really Windows Phone 9. And then there will be those who few the whole affair as an act of Satya Nadella’s will to change the company in 6 whole days (literally someone wrote just that). And even after all that someone will have a complaint about all that transpired.

Watching the kickoff to Build, I was looking to see where Windows would sit in the mobile first, cloud first world Microsoft was building. It was only last week the software company was showing off Office for iPad and everyone was wondering if it were a sign that Windows no longer mattered. I was wondering what would be the vision that the new Operating Systems Group would show.

In many ways it was the idea of “3 screens and a Cloud” the company has pushed for the last few years but it also was a sort of return to Microsoft of old with a developer conference focused solely on selling to developers (there were even callbacks to old conferences like PDC).

Now what I have found interesting is how much the story was Windows everywhere and yet not in the ham-fisted way people associate with the idea. Maybe it was the fact that the team selling it wasn’t as bombastic as Steve Ballmer or as surgical as Steven Sinofsky. Terry Myerson doesn’t cut the profile Sinofsky did. He was a bit quieter; he focused the opening remarks on developers and Windows place as a platform the supported the work of developers.

It was telling how when discussing Windows and Windows Phone they used the word platform and also didn’t refer to version numbers. I get the sense that the OS Group is thinking less in terms of major releases than in incremental improvements.

Of course the big story was Windows Phone. 8.1 brings with it features that will bring parity to the eyes of reviewers (Action Center) and a feature (Cortana) that could make Windows Phone an interesting third party.

Cortana is of course Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Now; it’s a digital assistant that gathers and aggregates information for the user. Cortana is interesting because it’s the first real outgrowth of Microsoft TellMe voice service and Bing’s big data work. Microsoft has long been in the speech and machine learning space but its been more on the back end and research. Cortana brings all that forward. Using both voice and text, Cortana like Google Now learns about the user to gather information they can use or want. With Cortana that information will be localized both to the phone and controlled by a user’s access to Cortana’s notebook (a digital collection of a users preferences and information a user can control and change.) Cortana will be able to tie into 3rd party applications given it additional functionality.

In addition to Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 brings a host of business features such as VPN to the platform. Such features were part of Windows Mobile and the new features are a benefit of moving Phone to the NT kernel. 8.1 also brings changes to the Calendar, Photos, and apps like Music and Video. Internet Explorer 11 has been added bringing webGL, in Private mode, and reading mode to phones.

Lastly 8.1 brings the ability to add an image to the Live Tiles but not the actual phone background (which I still want along with app grouping).

Microsoft also briefly went over Windows 8.1 Update which brings changes to the OS to make it easier to use on traditional desktops and laptops. The Update will bring the Metro tablet applications closer to the desktop allowing users to pin Metro apps to the Taskbar.

Perhaps the biggest developer news from Day 1 was the announcement of  Windows Universal apps. One of the issues with Windows development was the disconnect between Windows Phone (which used first Silverlight and later  WinPhoneRT) and Windows 8 (which was based on WinRT). The new Universal App model allows the creation of applications that can run across all screens from Window Phone and soon the Xbox. As proof of its ability to build deep apps Microsoft showed off its PowerPoint Metro app built using the Universal app model. This cross Windows experience was carried over with graphics and the forthcoming DirectX 12.  

The second biggest hidden news item was Microsoft dropping the price of Windows and Windows Phone for tablets (under 9 inches) to $0. This follows the reduction of Windows licenses for devices under $200 and indicates Redmond is serious about competing with Android and Chrome OS. Microsoft also previewed a revamp of Windows Embedded for the “Internet of Things” and announced it too will be $0 at launch.

And all of this happened before new chief Satya Nadella took the stage for a brief Q and A. The entire Day 1 keynote set the stage for Day 2 and a Microsoft that seems to be coming out of the doldrums.

Okay this went long and honestly I left out things I know people will think is more important and that is why there will be a few more posts.

So tune back  in soon.

images: Microsoft Corporation


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