Under the leadership of new CEO Satya Nadella, a humbler and hungrier Microsoft
(NASDAQ:MSFT) is emerging. It's not quite a revolution, but it certainly is an evolution for a company that, in recent years, has sometimes seemed pig-stubborn about making its mistakes and sticking to them.
Much the same could be said of the many changes announced this week at its annual conference for app developers. Taken all together, they add up to a significant change in direction for the company.
However, a three-hour presentation to a roomful of developers has to be about as much fun as a stick in the eye -- so here are the important bits summarized for a quick look at where Microsoft is going in the near future.
Windows Phone Talks, Too
There's no getting around the fact that Microsoft is playing a "me, too" game with Apple
(NASDAQ:AAPL) in giving Windows Phone a voice. Its answer to Apple's Siri is Cortana, a "personal digital assistant" that, like its human counterpart, is expected to fill many roles. Its most important function, though, is answering questions, and it gets its answers from the company's Bing search engine.
To the uninitiated, "Cortana" sounds like a circa-1980s economy car, but fans of the video game Halo
will recognize it as the name of a character, an artificially intelligent personal assistant voiced by actress Jen Taylor. She has reprised her role here by voicing the phone app.
Cortana may be a knockoff, but Microsoft at least tried to build a better Siri. According to Re/code.net
, its developers hired screenwriters to write some of Cortana's dialogue to give it a natural, conversational style. They interviewed actual personal assistants to find out what kind of tasks Cortana ought to undertake. And they talked to Halo
's creators to help them flesh out its personality and give it an attitude.
No word yet on when Cortana will be installed on Windows Phone or Xbox, but a beta version of the software will be released soon to developers.
More, Better Features on Windows Phone
The big-tile "Start" screen on the new version of the Windows Phone is customizable, so users can play with the content and the layout, mixing app tiles with selfies and personal reminders. The phone also automatically connects with available Wi-Fi hot spots. And, since Cortana is able to interact with third-party apps, there's no-hands access to various other functions -- not the least of them being Skype, which Microsoft now owns.
Windows Phone 8.1 also supports encrypted messages, an obvious but important step to developing a corporate user base. The new version will be available this summer as a free update for current Windows 8 Phone owners.
Windows Goes Retro
With its latest update, Microsoft makes some serious concessions to longtime users who were disconcerted, if not dismayed, by the mobile-centric touch-friendly design of Windows 8. Users of Windows 8.1 will boot directly to either the familiar Windows "Welcome" screen or the parallel touch-friendly interface, depending on whether they're using a mobile device, laptop, or desktop.
The title bar and task bar will return to the traditional version. So does -- doh! -- the "Start" button, though it won't be included in this round of updates. At the same time, the big-tile look is mimicked in the new-old traditional version, with a mouse click substituting for a screen touch.
The update will be sent to current users of Windows 8 as a free download next week.
Windows Goes Free
In possibly its most wrenching adjustment to the times, Microsoft will now offer the Windows operating system for free to manufacturers of devices smaller than 9 inches and makers of objects with Internet connectivity -- catering to the "Internet of things" that is now capturing the attention of technology entrepreneurs.
They might be giving away one of the crown jewels, but it's past time to face up to Google's
(NASDAQ:GOOG) license-free Android system. It also may help Microsoft get back some of the device manufacturers who backed away from building or showcasing Windows Phones or touch-screen hybrid devices after the company decided to branch out into manufacturing on its own.
Making Nice to App Developers
What the Window Phone needs most right now is the enthusiastic support of app developers. The phone won't sell without all of the most popular apps, plus a huge selection of miscellaneous apps and, ideally, the next breakout-hit app.
And that really was the whole point of this week's event, which was aimed at the small but crucial group of people henceforth referred to as "our beloved app developers," to quote Windows Phone executive
Joe Belfiore in a recent blog posting.
The main message: Microsoft will offer consistency to its users among all of the company's various device platforms, including mobile, desktop, Kinect, and Xbox. No more duplication of effort in app creation.
Update on Windows for iPad
All of the above comes just a week after Nadella introduced Windows Office for the Apple iPad, in itself a jolting concession from Microsoft.
Early users have a couple of quibbles. First, there's the odd omission of a "Print" function. And then there's the subscription price: At $99 a year for installation on up to five mobile devices, it may be priced for corporate rather than consumer use.
Nonetheless, the early reviews are generally positive from those who didn't really expect a miracle of workhorse functionality on an itty-bitty device.
The Wall Street Journal
sums it up: Windows for iPad is
like a microwave in your kitchen. You may use it often, but you'll still need the oven for a real meal.
And that's probably exactly what Microsoft wanted to do.
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Author holds positions in Microsoft.
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