On Monday, while many of us dissect the latest episode of Game of Thrones, thousands of developers will convene in Seattle to talk about all things Microsoft at its annual Build conference. Where once that meant speculating about cool new laptops or a fancy mixed reality headset, this year things will probably be focused on more esoteric tech.
The company has rapidly shifted over the last few years, investing more in more in its cloud platform, Azure, which is a competitor to Amazon’s beastly AWS. Microsoft has always been a software company, and though a gigantic mass of humanity still uses Windows daily, the company has bet its future on a cloud platform most people wouldn’t recognize by name. As with AWS, most of the magic of Azure is behind the scenes. You and I don’t interact with these cloud services, we interact with apps that tap into them.
Which is why Build can be kind of lame for regular people. We know that it’s a developer conference and not the venue for product launches, but as we’ve seen with Google and Apple, the updates from a developer conference often reflect a company’s vision for the future people experience.
Every year we all get optimistic. Maybe this will be the year of Windows Phone’s rebirth, or the dual-screen Andromeda, or maybe there will be an announcement around HoloLens and hints about its future as a realistic consumer product. Yet instead of cool hardware, this cloud-focused company gives us weird Orwellian tech demos and an announcement of the Bash shell coming to Windows 10.
Getting your hopes up for fantastic hardware is probably a fool’s errand. Is there anything Build might have to offer that would be interesting to the rank-and-file nerd?
Sure! The company has been working on a new version of Edge based on Blink, a hugely popular web browsing engine by Google that’s also found in Chrome. It’s pretty radically different from the previous EdgeHTML version that came before, and it should be easier for developers to create extensions for, as well as more capable of handling the wide variety of code streamed across a web browser nowadays,
That spiel probably bored a lot of you. Browser engines? Really? That’s what you’re supposed to get excited about?!
Yes? Edge has been the best looking browser around for quite some time. It’s far prettier than the outdated Safari or Chrome and infinitely better looking than the dinosaur that is Firefox. Now besides being sleek and good looking, it should be faster and will work with all the great Chrome extensions already available. Most of the world’s websites are built with Blink in mind and switching to it means Edge will finally, hopefully, operate as well as it looks.
But admittedly, I just tried to tell you to get excited about a browser engine change. (It entered into public beta last month, so we’re hoping it will launch next week.) So if we’re talking about how exciting Build could be Monday, that’s not an awful lot to go on.
But consider this. Microsoft just announced a new developer edition of HoloLens 2 this week for those who weren’t into the more expensive version intended for enterprise customers. It features the same hardware, but no commercial use rights and more plugins intended for small indie developers. Why did the announcement come a few days early? Microsoft usually announces some kind of hardware at the conference itself. If it’s already come and shown off HoloLens 2, then what could be in store at Build? Could it be a new Surface? Maybe! But part of me prays it will be a better taste of the dual screen future Windows keeps teasing and never delivering. First, there was Courier, and then Andromeda, and late last year there was the rumored Centaurus. All are Microsoft dual screen or folding screen devices that operate in the nebulous space between phone and tablet. The time is right, with the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Mate X storming onto the scene this year.
It’s a space that Microsoft’s competitors in both software (Android) and hardware (Lenovo and Asus) have started to flirt with, and it only makes sense that Microsoft might wow us with a tease for a future it’s kept meaning to deliver and then scuttling at the last moment.
But I probably wouldn’t get my hopes too high. In the last few years, Microsoft has been painfully practical at Build. So there’s probably going to be a lot of cloud APIs and maybe a Blink-based browser. Hmph.