Microsoft Build's biggest reveals: The future of Windows, Windows Phone's slumber, and super-smart bots

Microsoft's Build 2016 conference may be for developers, but it was brimming with news about Windows 10, PC gaming, Cortana, and more.

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The future of Windows and more

Developers, developers, developers! The ghost of Steve Ballmer past lingers heavily over Microsoft’s annual Build conference, but despite ostensibly being an event dedicated to code monkeys, Build’s always brimming with consumer-friendly news about the future of Windows, Office, and more. This year was no exception—and it even managed to squeeze in a few eye-opening surprises.

Let’s dig in to the biggest reveals from Microsoft Build 2016. Hit the links on any slide to dive deeper into the nitty-gritty details for each announcement, and be sure to check out this week’s Build-centric episode of the PCWorld Show for our candid reactions to all the news.

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Windows 10 keeps on climbing

A mere four months after announcing that Windows 10 was running on 200 million devices after the holidays, Microsoft’s racked up another 70 million new users— Windows 10 is installed on 270 million devices now, the company announced at Build.

Some of those are no doubt due to holiday purchases, and some no doubt stem from Microsoft’s heavy-handed upgrade tactics. (In fact, Windows 10 adoption surged in March after Microsoft pushed the upgrade as a Recommended update for Windows 7/8 users.) Either way, it’s a hell of an impressive number, making Windows 10 the quickest-growing OS in Microsoft’s history.

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Windows 10 Anniversary Update

The long-rumored Windows “Redstone” now has a name, as Microsoft announced that the far-more-boringly-titled “Windows 10 Anniversary Update” will roll out as a free update to Windows 10 users this summer.

Microsoft didn’t talk too much about what’s in store, but spent a lot of time showing off the update’s new Windows Ink capabilities, which expand on Windows 10’s current stylus capabilities. You’ll be able to pull up an “ink workspace” with tools and apps that support styli, draw a line between two points and annotate stops in between in Maps, and auto-create reminders based on written notes, for example. It sounds pretty cool.

The update extends Windows Hello functionality to Windows Store apps and Microsoft’s Edge browser, so you can use biometric authentication to log into apps and services that support the feature. The Anniversary Update will also hit Xbox One, and bring Universal Windows Platform apps along with it.

Oh, and…

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Hell freezes over

…the Anniversary Update will bring Linux’s legendary Bash shell command to Windows 10. Not emulated or in a virtual machine, either. Microsoft partnered with Canonical to bring native Ubuntu Linux binaries into Windows. This is the real deal, folks—and it’s starting to look like Microsoft’s love affair with Linux is more than mere dabbling.

Check out World Beyond Windows columnist Chris Hoffman’s deep dive into Bash on Windows 10 for full details on how Microsoft and Canonical performed this dark magic.

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PC gaming concerns

Beyond bringing the Windows 10 Anniversary Update to Xbox, Microsoft’s listening to PC gamers concerned with the nerfed Windows Store situation, too. Xbox boss Phil Spencer took the stage to say that Windows Store apps have already begun supporting PCs with multiple graphics cards, with FreeSync and G-Sync support scheduled for May. You’ll also be allowed to disable V-Sync in Windows Store games at that time.

The timeline for support for mods, full-screen game usage, and overlays like FRAPS is murkier, but Spencer says they’ll all be addressed in the coming months. Microsoft’s also adding bundles, season passes, and preorders are coming to the Windows Store,

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Universal Windows Platform

Microsoft’s also rolling out a new conversion tool that transforms Win32 (read: traditional desktop) software—including games—into the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps, with support for Live Tiles, automatic updating through the Windows Store, and more.

That’s a big deal, and some big-name native UWP apps are on the way, as well. Microsoft said Facebook’s working on universal apps for Instagram, Messenger, and Facebook main, in addition to much-needed banking apps from American Express and Bank of America.

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Mark Hachman

Buh-bye, bit rot

Microsoft’s had a tough time convincing users that universal Windows apps are superior to traditional desktop programs, but in a supplementary session on Thursday, the company talked about a UWP feature that PC enthusiasts should love. Unlike traditional software, universal apps won’t suffer from “bit rot” and slow down your PC over time. Could the days of clean installs be behind us?

“A big part of [bit rot], especially on the boot time,” Jason Ronald, the principal group program manager of Microsoft Game Studios, explained, “is what people refer to as ‘registry bloat.’ That’s because each time you load a traditional Win32 .EXE application, the registry file within a PC grows and grows.”

Universal Windows apps won’t be subject to those same conditions, Microsoft says, which means your PC should feel faster, longer.

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Xbox's first universal Windows apps

Speaking of apps, Microsoft revealed some of the first universal Windows apps for Xbox One when the Anniversary Update arrives later this summer. Look for Nickelodeon, Dailymotion, NASCAR, and Hulu to launch Xbox versions when the new, singular marketplace hits and makes universal Windows apps even more universal.

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HoloLens ships to developers

One of the big draws of universal apps is that they run on any Windows 10-powered platform—PCs, phones, Xboxes, Raspberry Pis, you name it. Another one is about to enter the fray.

After more than a year of teasing and invite-only preorders, the $3,000 HoloLens Dev Edition augmented reality headset started shipping to developers today. We managed to sneak an extensive peek at the HoloLens Dev Edition early, along with a look at 8ninth’s absolutely wild part physical, part virtual holographic desk of the future. Check ‘em out!


Cortana improvements

Cortana, the personal digital assistant baked into Windows 10, is about to get more powerful and even easier to converse with. Microsoft’s building more utility and contextual awareness into Cortana, including more proactive actions where she offers to perform tasks without even being prompted, and putting it all at your beck and call with powerful natural language tools.

A quick pair of demos by Marcus Ash, the group product manager for Cortana at Microsoft, drove home how useful the new skills can be. In one, he asked Cortana to “send [a colleague] the PowerPoint that I worked on last night.” This seemingly simple command is actually deceptively complex; to fulfill it, Cortana has to know what PowerPoint document Ash was talking about, when he was using it, and who the colleague is. Powerful stuff. In another, he asked Cortana “What toy store did I visit during last year’s Build?” to summon a location.

Microsoft didn’t say when the new features are rolling out, but smart money’s on the Windows 10 Anniversary Update’s launch.

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Conversations as a platform

But Cortana’s only the beginning. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella revealed “Conversations as a platform” at Build—an audacious vision of a future filled with personal digital assistants and smart bots that tap into machine learning to organize our lives, all via natural language conversations. Cortana could automatically connect you with a hotel’s bot in Skype to arrange a reservation, for example, then follow that up with the unprompted suggestion to arrange a hook-up with a friend who lives in that town.

You’ll want to read our full Conversations as a Platform coverage to get all the details. It’s a pretty awesome idea, and one that plays into Microsoft’s strengths in cloud computing and consumer products. Microsoft’s already launched a series of frameworks, APIs, and the “Cortana Intelligence Suite” for developers to tap into Cortana and create bots of their own.

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Skype bots

You may not need to wait long to experience the potential of Microsoft’s Conversations vision. The company hopes to infuse Skype chats with artificial intelligence in the future, and it’s releasing an updated version of the Skype mobile app with support for bots today. Developers, start your engines.

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Mark Hachman

Office Ribbon apps

And while those engines roar, devs, turn your attention to Office. At Build, Microsoft announced that Office’s interface is becoming a platform all its own, and users will be able to add apps to the Ribbon itself, making them look and feel like a natural part of Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, and Word.

In a demo of the potential usefulness of Office Ribbon apps, a service called Boomerang coded menu options (pictured above) that allow users to quickly compare calendars and schedule meetings, all using native Office dialogs. This sort of extensibility feels like it could evolve into a powerful future for Office over time—assuming developers get on board.

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Mark Hachman

Goodnight, Windows Phone

Finally, what wasn’t talked about at Build proved just as momentous as all the new stuff. Windows Phone’s no-show demonstrated Microsoft’s mobile neglect yet again, and after the keynote, Windows chief Terry Myerson confirmed that while the mobile OS isn’t dead, it’s definitely on ice.

“We’re going to do some cool things with phones, but this year phones are an important part of our family but not the tip of the spear,” Myerson told The Verge. Phones, he said, “is the wrong place for us to lead.”

That must feel like a slap in the face to anybody who plopped down good money for a Lumia 950, but on the bright side, if Microsoft manages to coax developers into creating universal apps, Windows Phones should still see the benefits—even if the core OS stagnates.

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Cortana <3 Android

But hey, Microsoft didn’t neglect mobile entirely. Cortana will soon be able to pull your Android phone notifications over to your Windows 10 PC, and even let you dismiss or reply to them—assuming you have Microsoft’s Cortana app for Android installed, of course. The same feature won’t be available with the iOS version of Cortana, as Apple’s mobile ecosystem is much more restrictive.

Look for Cortana’s cross-platform notifications to land in a “future version of Windows”—presumably this summer’s Anniversary Update.

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