Today Microsoft detailed its vision for the future of personal computing. Under its old management, the company was floundering a bit: Windows 8 didn't take off, the Xbox One lagged behind the PlayStation 4, the Surface is only good for a niche audience, Office lost marketshare to Google Docs, and Windows Phone has largely been a non-starter. New president Satya Nadella is here to clean house and return Microsoft to its original glory, if such a thing is possible. Today's presentation was about outlining a major cornerstone of that plan.
Good Ol' Windows
Windows 10 is the name of Microsoft's next operating system because Windows 8 tanked so hard that the company needed to put some perceptive distance between both operating systems. The major idea from Microsoft's perspective is that Windows 10 is completely cross-platform: the same operating system runs on desktops, tablets, and phones. It scales to the specifics of the platform at hand; in the case of tablet/laptop hybrids or Microsoft's own Surface Pro, it scales dynamically. It's something that the company tried to do with Windows 8, but it didn't completely work.
I honestly had no problem with Windows 8 and even less problem with Windows 8.1 - it comes across as a faster Windows 7 in my day-to-day work - but older Windows users were reticent to jump into the new visual layout. If Windows 8 was a break with the past, Windows 10 is the safe middle ground. On tablet platforms, it still acts like a tablet OS, but Microsoft has added a much clearer delineation between modes; in fact, the OS will switch automatically when you disconnect a mouse and keyboard.
Desktop Windows 10 is Windows 7 + 8.1. Clicking the Start Button takes you to the Start Screen from Windows 8, but you can shrink that screen into something akin the older Start Menu. For most people, this will be enough to get them to jump back on board the Windows train. Microsoft decided that wasn't enough.
For the first year out from launch, Windows 10 will be a completely free upgrade for Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and Windows Phone 8 users. This is a pretty big carrot, because many older users are rocking rocking those Windows 7 builds. The Enterprise and RT versions of Windows are excluded from the upgrade because Microsoft needs money and RT was a complete dead-end idea, but all told, this is a pretty big deal for the company. It's never been able to give the operating system for free because it doesn't tend to make the hardware itself, like Apple does.
For gaming, it's business as usual. It's still Windows, so your games will run just as well as they do on current Windows platforms. In fact, some of them may run better due to the new Direct X12, which brings performance and power improvements to the table. Engine developers like Epic and Unity are already onboard with Direct X12 and as we get farther out, we should see more performance benefits overall.
The Lonely Xbox One
Microsoft is also doing weird things to bring the Xbox One and Windows 10 closer together. No, the Xbox One won't be running Windows 10 like the rest of Microsoft's devices quite yet, but its stripped down version of Windows allows for some hooks. Cross-platform play between Xbox One and PC platforms is one small bone for players, but it'll probably only work with a small subset of titles unless Microsoft gets aggressive about making developers support it. Currently, Fable Legends is the only title that will use the new cross-platform system.
The most perplexing announcement was the ability to stream Xbox One games to your desktop PC. Think of it like a more expensive version of Sony's PlayStation 4 to Vita streaming; the feature is local network-only, connecting to products like a desktop PC or your Surface. Not that I don't enjoy Vita streaming, I'm just not seeing this as a compelling addition to Windows 10 or the Xbox One. It's a bit of added value if your PC is too weak to run some demanding games or if family wants to take over your main television, but it's not that exciting.
A better reveal was the fact that the Xbox One's Game DVR feature would be built into Windows 10, allowing you to record game clips on the fly, much like Nvidia's Shadowplay. The feature will be a part of the Xbox app on Windows 10. Gameplay clips can be saved by simply hitting "Windows + G" and there's a small flashback feature that covers the last 30 seconds of play. There's no word on the Windows 10 Game DVR will have the same clip length restrictions as the Xbox One. Otherwise, the improved Xbox app will still let you keep track of your friends, check achievements, and upload gameplay clips.
Microsoft has potentially more on its plate, but it's remaining quiet until Game Developers Conference 2015.
"While Xbox is coming to Windows, Windows 10 is also coming to Xbox One," said the company on Xbox Wire. "As you know, Xbox One runs on Windows today for its app environment. Later this year we'll update to Windows 10 to enable seamless interaction with PC gamers and to give developers who want to extend their applications to the television an easy path to do so."
Shiny, Happy Future
The truly surprising part of Microsoft's presentation today, involved a brand-new product: Microsoft HoloLens. While everyone else is going hard on virtual reality, Microsoft is erring on the side of augmented reality. The HoloLens is the interface device, while Holographic is the streamlined version of Windows 10 that runs on it. Like Google's defunct Glass platform, the HoloLens displays UI elements so they look like they're floating a few feet in front of you. You can then mess with these elements using voice commands and a Kinect-style gesture system called AirTap.
Game-centric uses of augmented reality technology are rather slim, much like motion control before it. There's specific cases where you can make compelling titles with AR; even Nintendo played with the idea on the 3DS before leaving it behind completely. According to Engadget, Microsoft has a game-related demo that's basically Minecraft projected over reality, but I'm not seeing that overtaking simply playing Minecraft on your TV.
Microsoft has offered up some pie-in-the-sky ideas about how the technology will be used and it seems like a legitimate product for collaborative efforts and enterprise productivity. In fact, the tech is the fruit of a partnership between Microsoft and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who may be able to use it on space missions. Right now it's a vision of a future. The problem is we're not sure if the vision will turn into reality. Microsoft's been here before with the Kinect, which was a lot of promise for very little product.
The Kinect is many things, but it's not as great as that original tease. For me, it works really well in Dance Central and Just Dance. Otherwise I use it for voice commands, not gaming. I'm seeing the HoloLens going in a similar direction, where the functional reality ends up coming in just a bit lower than these early marketing trailers. Even then, the point of such a product when it comes to gaming seems very slight. The HoloLens years off at this point; while Microsoft showed of the snazzy marketing version of HoloLens on stage, the real device is a wearable computer and a open-circuit board headset. It'll be years before we see a finished product.
So that's Microsoft's vision of the future. A malleable version of Windows, streaming Xbox One games to your PC, and fancy future glasses. A conservative reality and ambitious future. Will that be enough to help Microsoft? I'm not sure, but at least Windows 10 is free!