SLIDESHOW

Microsoft's seven biggest Windows platform reveals at Build 2014

For a developers' conference keynote, Microsoft's presentation rocked from beginning to end with exciting product announcements that directly affect consumers.

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Best Build ever?

Wednesday’s Build 2014 keynote may have lasted a punishing three hours, but aside from a mid-point deep dive into code that only developers could love, the event was packed with product reveals aimed directly at consumers. 

Windows PC users in particular should take note: Many annoying Windows 8 foibles will be addressed in a system update planned for April 8, and the long-term Windows roadmap looks even cooler.

And there was important Windows Phone news. And app news. And Microsoft is embracing the Internet of Things. Read on for the seven Build 2014 announcements we found most exciting.

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Windows makes nice

I do not utter these words to provoke Internet trolls: With the Windows 8.1 Update, mouse-and-keyboard PC users can finally migrate to Microsoft’s latest OS with confidence that their lives won’t be plunged into a chasm of darkness and confusion. Seriously. I’ve played with the new update that Microsoft announced Wednesday (and leaked in March), and it corrects multiple Windows 8 problems.

Non-touch PCs now automatically boot straight to the desktop. There’s a familiar taskbar on the modern Start screen. Live Tiles on the Start screen now spawn right-click menus, as shown here. And there’s an easy-to-find Power button on the Start screen too. And that’s just the beginning. This Update really does make a difference.

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Start button is on the roadmap

For all of the fantastic mouse-and-keyboard additions to Windows 8.1, the new update still doesn’t give us back the traditional Start menu. But fear not—it’s coming. As part of the effort to share its product roadmaps like never before, Microsoft teased the return of the Start menu to wild applause.

Terry Myerson, the exec who demo’d the Start menu, wouldn’t say when it’s coming, but he did say it will be part of an update pushed to all users. The new Start menu will also spawn Live Tiles for modern apps, as shown in the screenshot here.

Now don’t hate. You’re getting your Start menu back. This is progress.

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Cortana gets personal

We won’t know exactly how Cortana works until we put it through the paces, but the new personal digital assistant In Windows Phone 8.1 looks to be packed with a raft of interesting powers. 

For starters, Cortana keeps a “notebook” of all your personal information, and then uses this to feed you helpful reminders throughout the day. For example: It can suss out whether your flight is on time, and then send you an alert when you need to leave for the airport. It can also block incoming text messages during “quiet hours” from anyone who’s not in a pre-defined “inner circle” of friends.

The Cortana demo was cool. But is Cortana more powerful than Google Now or Siri? We can’t wait to see more.

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A slew of more Windows Phone features

It will take a lot for Windows Phone 8.1 to make the world forget about iOS and Android, but in addition to Cortana, a nice set of smartphone system updates shows Microsoft is on the right track.

A new Action Center adds a much-needed notifications shade. New Lock screen themes and customizable Start backgrounds give Windows Phone some visual jazz. There’s also a new “Word Flow” keyboard for swipe-typing (Microsoft says it’s world-record fast), and new tools for better Wi-Fi management.

It’s the little things that count so much in a phone OS, and Microsoft just unleashed a lot of them. You can learn more here.

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Windows is free (sort of)

This announcement from Terry Myerson didn’t consume much time, but it packed a wallop: Any Windows device that measures 9 inches or less (we’re talking phones, phablets and small tablets) will get the OS for free.

Of course, you’ve never had to pay directly for Windows on these devices, but manufacturers have paid up in the form of license fees (which are surely passed on to consumers). Well, now those fees are history. It’s a bold move from a company that’s historically depended so much on licensing revenue, but it aligns Microsoft with the rest of the mobile industry, and it shows the world that Microsoft is committed to the transition from traditional PCs to handheld, touchscreen devices.

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Universal Windows apps

Microsoft CVP of operating systems David Treadwell dropped a bombshell when he explained the concept of ”universal” Windows apps: software built on a common code base that can run on PCs, tablets, phones and eventually Xbox One.

The allure for developers is obvious: With the ability to easily tweak a single application to express itself appropriately on all the various Microsoft hardware platforms, developers can reduce duplicative coding efforts, while reaching a much larger installed customer base.

It’s a trick Apple would be lucky to have—though Apple doesn’t have a living room machine like the Xbox to enjoy the full fruits of such a plan.

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Windows on... things

This announcement was far out. It was vague. And it involved CVP Joe Belfiore dancing on a Telnet-connected piano at the whim of Terry Myerson. But the sum total of Microsoft’s reveal is that it will eventually release a new Windows version to power small-footprint, Internet of Things hardware.

Myerson explained how devices running Intel’s PC-on-a-chip Quark silicon will enable a new world of connected Windows hardware. The example rolled out onstage was a mega-size piano keyboard like the one from the movie Big. Belfiore was a good sport, and danced a jig on it—leaving the audience intrigued, a bit confused, and wanting much more information on how Windows will thrive on... “things.”

But, hey, it was a spectacle. As was the entire keynote. Kudos to Microsoft for wowing the crowd.