Microsoft envisions a world where its new operating system, Windows 10, runs on more than a billion devices across the globe, from desktops to phones to Xboxes to headsets that project holograms onto your living room carpet. It’s a world, Microsoft says, where “universal” software applications run across all those devices, where you can plug your Windows phone into a TV and turn it into a PC, where even iPhone and Android applications will run on Windows hardware.
Here at Microsoft Build—the annual developer conference where Microsoft is sharing this vision via a long string of keynote speeches, technology demos, videos, pop music, and shameless hyperbole—the gathered techno-types are applauding the company’s new direction. Its effort to rope in software originally built for the iPhone and a world of Android devices, they say, is particularly noteworthy—and particularly necessary, given how far Microsoft trails in the mobile world. “Microsoft has taken a realistic view of its place in the world,” says one coder.
But they also question how close Microsoft will come to realizing its ambitious vision. “It makes sense. But it’s never going to be as easy as they claim,” says Logan McKinley, a developer who builds software for the University of Virginia. “It looks like they’ve done some cool stuff. But I’m not going to assume it’s going to work.”
This tension will largely determine the success of Microsoft in the years to come. The Windows operating system is still the primary way the world runs PCs and laptops. But on the devices supplanting PCs, namely phones and tablets, others have eclipsed the Microsoft way. According to IDC, Windows Phone controls only 2.8 percent of the smartphone market. Microsoft’s hope is that by allowing the same software to run across a wide range of devices, coders will embrace Windows on more than just desktops and laptops and, as a result, consumers will do the same.
In short, Microsoft can use its hold on one market to lift itself in so many others. The company could revive its fortunes in mobile devices, and it could grab hold of the technology that will define our future, like the augmented reality provided by its Hololens holographic headset. But if the past is precedent, realizing this future will be exceedingly difficult.
‘That’s Proof For Me’
As Microsoft demonstrated at this week’s conference, it’s now offering tools that coders can use create apps that run on all Windows devices, from desktop to the Xbox One gaming console to phones to the Hololens headset. With these tools, coders can even transform iPhone, Android, and web software into such “universal apps.” And if Microsoft’s demos are to be believed, all of this is incredibly easy. “They’re showing that it worked on stage,” says Matt Emerson, a coder with a company called Health Stream. “That’s the proof for me.”
But this kind of thing is never as easy as it seems. “I’m skeptical of anything that pretends to be the magic bullet,” says one coder, who requested anonymity because he works closely with Windows. In many cases, coders must manually modify their apps so that they run on disparate devices (these devices, after all, are quite different). And even if Microsoft’s tools provide an onramp to all Windows devices that’s as simple as promised, that’s no guarantee that coders will actually use them to build apps for things like Windows phones or Hololens—particularly if these coders are already focused on other operating systems.
“There are a lot of developers who are married to their platforms, whether its Android or iOS,” says Michael McCurrey, who oversees software development at Ping Golf, a company that makes custom golf clubs. “That goes back to the language wars of the ’90s.”
But McCurrey also says that, if Microsoft technology works as the company says, some coders will indeed fall in line—coders already intent on building for multiple OSes. “I think that for the more popular apps, the chances are pretty good,” he says. In fact, he says, his own company is likely to embrace this vision.
The big wildcard here is Hololens, a technology that provides something radically new. Because it’s so different from what’s already out there, its success is far from assured. But the novelty of it could also attract tech-hungry consumers, and it could provide real benefit in the business world. “I was heartbroken when they only allowed a few people to see it,” says McCurrey, referring to the demos here at the Build show. “We’re extremely intrigued by it.” Ping could use holograms, he says, in designing its golf clubs. “It could really revolutionize our business.”
The People Problem
Joe Belfiore, who oversees the team building the desktop, phone, and tablet versions of Windows 10, is adamant that building “universal apps” is far from difficult. “It’s easy,” he tells WIRED without hesitation. Transforming older Windows apps to this new paradigm is more of a challenge, he acknowledges. “You have to rewrite a fair amount of your code,” he says. But even remaking an iPhone app for use across Windows devices is relatively straightforward.
At this point, he says, Microsoft’s big vision is not a problem of technology. It’s a problem of people.
The big question, he explains, is how quickly coders and consumers will embrace the Microsoft vision. And that’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. The coders may not build for all Windows devices unless many people are using them, and the people may not use them unless coders have built apps for them. In an effort to kickstart things, Microsoft is letting existing Windows users upgrade to Windows 10 for free (for the first year). But that’s not gonna help all that much on mobile devices.
This kind of thing was also an issue with other technologies that sought to bridge the gaps between the world’s devices—technologies like Java and, well, the world wide web. The web did pretty well on desktops and laptops. But on phones, it has taken a back seat to what we call apps. Now, Microsoft is trying to take hold of the app model. That’s an enormous task. But it might as well try.