2013: An exciting year ahead for Microsoft

2012 was an incredibly exciting year for Microsoft. From the launch of Windows Phone 8, Windows 8 and Windows RT, to the incredible buzz created by its Surface announcement, to the death of Zune, the birth of Xbox Music, the growth of SkyDrive and the genesis of Outlook.com, the entire year was packed full of news from Microsoft, as the company worked to bring all of its products and services together into a more unified, harmonious whole.

Even the old logo was consigned to the great Recycle Bin in the sky, as the once-disparate and disconnected portfolio of products was gradually updated into one big happy family of complementary brands.  

After such a busy and hectic year, you might be forgiven for believing that Microsoft will be putting its feet up for a bit, if only to catch its breath. But the good news for us is that there’s every indication that Microsoft will be keeping up the pace of development in 2013. While much of what is to come remains the stuff of conjecture, hearsay and – dare we say it – wishful thinking, there’s plenty that we’re confident we’ll see from Redmond over the next twelve months.

So this isn’t an exhaustive or complete list by any means, but here are five products that we’re looking forward to seeing from Microsoft in 2013:

 

It’s almost hard to believe, but more than six months have passed since Microsoft finally put an end to global speculation over the secretive press conference that it hastily arranged in Los Angeles, announcing its two Surface tablets. The announcement was significant: not only had Microsoft demonstrated that it could generate Apple-like buzz around its products, but it also marked the company’s first foray into building its own PC hardware – which some of its existing hardware partners didn’t like at all.

The company finally launched the Surface with Windows RT alongside Windows 8 in late October, but as stated back in June, we’ll have to wait until late January (“around 90 days later”) for the Surface Pro to go on sale with the full-fat Windows 8 Pro OS.

But Microsoft has made no secret of the fact that it’s now a “devices and services” company, and speculation has been rife that work is already well advanced on a range of additional devices in the Surface family, including an Xbox tablet (see below). Only a few weeks ago, we reported on info from well-connected Microsoft watcher @MS_nerd, who had received details of a second-generation Surface RT, an updated Surface Pro with a larger display and new processor, and an entirely new ‘Surface Book’ model with a 14.6” display.

Lest we forget, too, the persistent rumours of Microsoft building its own ‘Surface Phone’ – although as Nokia, HTC and Samsung are still rolling out their Windows Phone 8 devices across the globe, with Huawei soon to formally announce its WP8 handsets, it seems unlikely that Microsoft would muddy the waters any time soon by launching its own smartphone hardware.

For now, the Surface Pro remains the only confirmed addition to the Surface range; the rest is merely wishful thinking at this stage. But if you fancy stretching your imagination a bit, Paul Thurrott wrote a great article last week suggesting a few Surface devices that Microsoft should consider launching in the next twelve months.

 

There is one addition to the Surface family that hasn’t been officially confirmed, but seems virtually certain to arrive, given information made available by various well-placed sources. We first heard about the Xbox Surface hours ahead of the Surface RT/Surface Pro announcement back in June, and more information emerged about the device in early November.

More than just an Xbox-flavoured version of the existing ARM-based Surface RT, the Xbox Surface would be an entirely new piece of hardware. The 7-inch tablet is said to have a HD (720p) display and ARM processor, running on a customised Windows kernel, and offering a user experience focused on gaming and the new Xbox Music and Video services that replaced Zune.

Those services – and many others like it, including Netflix, Lovefilm, BBC iPlayer, Hulu Plus and HBO GO, among many others – are increasing in popularity on the Xbox 360. Indeed, many consumers are using their console as a media player more than ever before, with some even buying additional Xboxes specifically to fulfil that role around the home. It’s no surprise then that reports persist suggesting that Microsoft is working on an Xbox-branded set-top box dedicated to audio and video playback.

Stripped of the hardcore gaming abilities of the full Xbox console, the ‘Xbox TV’ device is said to run “the core components of Windows 8”, but with a low-power chipset offering quick-boot abilities and access to TV, video and entertainment services and apps. It’s also believed that the device will offer “casual gaming” abilities, but more intensive titles such as those from the Halo or Call Of Duty franchises would still require the more capable and fully featured Xbox console.

Neither of these devices has yet been confirmed or even acknowledged publicly by Microsoft, but there’s plenty of weight behind the rumours that continue to swirl around them, and we’re confident that we’ll hear more about them by the middle of the year, before they go on sale ahead of the holiday season.

 

The Xbox 360 is no spring chicken by any means, yet it’s still managed to outsell its Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii rivals almost every month for the last two years, even outselling the brand new Wii U in the US during Thanksgiving week. But the 360’s days are numbered, and it’s something of a poorly kept secret that Microsoft is well advanced on development of its replacement.

Often referred to as the ‘Xbox 720’ – though more formally known by its internal development codename, ‘Durango’ – the next Xbox is expected to arrive ahead of the 2013 holiday season. We understand that Microsoft will announce the new console (and possibly also the Xbox Surface and Xbox TV) at a standalone event – similar to the Surface announcement in LA last June – ahead of E3 in June, where more details will be made available, but this is of course subject to change in the coming months.

A few weeks ago, Xbox World magazine claimed to have the scoop on various details of the new console, stating that it will introduce second-generation Kinect capabilities, 3D sound, Blu-Ray, and a case fashioned from the same VaporMG magnesium alloy used on Microsoft's own Surface tablets.

We’ll have to wait and see just how much of that pans out – but either way, we’re confident that the new Xbox will be absolutely mighty. We can’t wait.

 

Windows 8 only launched two months ago, but attention is already turning to what comes next. While there have already been incremental updates to the OS, the first major update to Windows 8 is expected in the middle of next year. Known by its internal codename, ‘Blue’, it’s said to be more than just an OS update, marking a major step towards a standardised annual update cycle across both Windows and Windows Phone.

For Windows 8, Blue will introduce new user interface improvements; we at Neowin have heard from knowledgeable sources that this will include broader customisation options, including new colour and background choices and more flexible tile sizes and configurations on the Start screen. Beyond these relatively superficial changes, Blue will usher in more substantial platform changes, which will also see the release of a new SDK, with developers being encouraged to create apps that take advantage of the new capabilities that the update will bring.

Perhaps the most interesting development is that Blue will introduce optimisations allowing the launch of smaller Windows tablets. First-generation Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets are all larger than 10 inches, but with Blue, manufacturers will be able to offer devices with smaller displays, down to 7 inches, allowing the platform to compete more effectively with similarly sized devices such as the Amazon Kindle Fire range and Apple's iPad mini.

The update is expected to be made available to existing users at low-cost, although there is some speculation that it may even be offered free of charge, as Microsoft is said to be keen to ensure that Blue is “the next OS that everyone installs”.  

 

Windows Phone 8 users are starting to see the first OS update, codename ‘Portico’, being rolled out to devices, albeit not quite as quickly as many had hoped. Portico includes a range of relatively minor enhancements and bug-fixes, but a more substantial OS update is expected later in the year. Known as ‘Apollo Plus’ (a reference to the 'Apollo' codename given to Windows Phone 8 while in development), little is known about what it might include, and internet speculation at this stage appears more fanciful than well-informed.

It’s expected to be detailed by Microsoft in the first quarter of 2013, and The Verge claims that it will be officially announced at Mobile World Congress in late February.

But for those who haven’t yet been able to upgrade to Windows Phone 8, the long wait for an update for Windows Phone 7.5 ('Mango') continues. Microsoft disappointed its existing user base back in June when it confirmed that Windows Phone 7.x devices could not be upgraded to WP8, but promised that it would continue to actively support the platform, by delivering a Windows Phone 7.8 update instead. After months of silence, the company finally spoke up on 7.8 just a few weeks ago, detailing a fairly modest list of enhancements that the update would bring.

Microsoft has still been frustratingly vague over when 7.8 will be made available, promising only that it will arrive in “early 2013”, and the frustrations are even greater for some users – such as owners of Dell and LG Windows Phones – who won’t see the update at all.

 


After such an exciting 2012, Microsoft has set the bar pretty high and will have to work hard to top its achievements over the last twelve months. But even at this stage, it’s clear that the company has plenty of exciting products and enhancements in the pipeline, and there's still plenty to come that hasn't even been hinted at above - from the full launch of Office 2013 to the opening of more Microsoft Stores (including one in London) to all the stuff we don't even know about (or can't talk about!) yet.

2013 looks set to be another phenomenal year for Microsoft, and we can't wait to see all that they have to offer. We hope you’ll keep returning to Neowin over the year ahead to share it all with us.

A very happy new year to you all!


Xbox Next image via geeky-gadgets.com; Microsoft Store and Windows Phone 'snowflakes' imagery via Microsoft

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