Microsoft 2014: Another exciting year ahead

2013 was an incredible year for Microsoft. A year ago, when we looked forward to some of what the company had in store, we could hardly have imagined just how many exciting developments were still to come.

The last twelve months have seen some major product launches from Microsoft, including the Xbox One and the second generation of its Surface tablets. Office 2013 was released at the beginning of the year, along with a new Office 365 subscription for home users. We also saw the launch of the greatly improved Windows 8.1, along with three updates for Windows Phone 8, as the mobile platform finally made significant gains in the smartphone market.

Perhaps the biggest changes were not on the product front, but rather to the organisation itself. 2013 was the year that Microsoft’s ‘devices and services’ vision really began to redefine and reshape the company as a whole, and the announcement of its plan to buy Nokia’s devices business was a huge and significant step in that direction.

But it was also the year that its larger-and-louder-than-life CEO, Steve Ballmer, announced his retirement plans, leading to endless speculation about who might take over at the top.

Yes, 2013 was an extraordinary year indeed for Microsoft – but there is so much more to come. We take a look through what we know for sure, along with the stuff of rumour and conjecture, to see just what Microsoft has in store for the year ahead.

 

Microsoft’s support for the aging Windows XP finally comes to an end on April 8, 2014. In the company’s own words, this means “no new security updates, non-security hotfixes, free or paid assisted support options or online technical content updates”. Microsoft has already begun its campaign to convince customers to upgrade to Windows 7 and Windows 8.

The number of businesses – including banks and other large enterprises – and individuals across the globe still running Windows XP to varying degrees leaves the door open for potential security disasters to unfold beyond the support cut-off date. Expect to see Microsoft pushing its customers more aggressively to upgrade as the deadline grows closer.

Those who have already made the jump to Windows 8 received the much-needed Windows 8.1 upgrade in October, but Microsoft is already working on what comes next. In Q2 2014, ‘Windows 8.1 Update 1’ will be delivered; few specifics are currently known about this interim update, but the first device to launch with it pre-loaded is expected to be Microsoft’s long-awaited ‘Surface Mini’.

Beyond Update 1, the company is already making preparations for its next major update to the OS, codenamed ‘Threshold’. It will be an important stepping stone in Microsoft’s ‘One Windows’ vision – a common core with differentiated experiences for the varying form factors and usage scenarios available, such as handset, tablet, desktop and console.

While Threshold won’t fully unite Windows, Windows RT and Windows Phone, it will narrow the gaps between them, particularly for developers, as the company inches its way towards a single, unified app platform and store for all of its various operating systems.

For end users, Threshold – which may end up being called Windows 8.2 – is expected to bring far more significant changes than Update 1, including the return of the Start menu in some form (appeasing those who dislike the Start screen), and the ability to run Modern (or ‘Metro’) apps in windows on the Desktop.

However, it is not entirely clear whether Threshold will arrive in 2014 or not. Two journalists with outstanding track records covering Microsoft news and rumours – Mary Jo Foley and Paul Thurrott – have heard different dates for its availability; while Paul says that it will arrive at the very end of the year, Mary Jo has heard that it won’t launch until early 2015.

 

Many believe that 2013 was the year in which Windows Phone ‘turned the corner’, and its considerable growth – reaching double-digit share in many significant markets – certainly seems to support that. Many high-profile apps have finally launched on Windows Phone too, leading Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore to declare that the platform’s “app gap” is finally closed, although we didn’t entirely agree with that assessment.

But even the most dedicated fan of the platform will admit that Windows Phone is far from perfect, and there is still work to be done. Thankfully, Microsoft is on the case and – having already delivered two interim updates to Windows Phone 8 this year, with a third now starting to roll out – the new year will see the first major update to the mobile OS since its launch in October 2012.

Windows Phone 8.1 will bring a wave of new features and improvements to the platform. One of the most significant will be the arrival of a unified notification centre, accessible via a long swipe down from the top of the screen. A short swipe down will reveal a customisable ‘quick settings’ menu, allowing users easy access to regular simple tasks, such as switching WiFi on or off.

Another greatly anticipated addition will be ‘Cortana’ – Microsoft’s take on Apple’s Siri and Google Now. This digital assistant will allow users to interact with their devices using natural language, rather than prescribed voice commands. It has been suggested that Cortana will launch exclusively in the United States, before rolling out later to other markets.

Around the same time as Windows Phone 8.1 launches – or possibly as an integrated part of it – Microsoft will also deliver some much-needed improvements for business users. The ‘enterprise feature pack’, first promised in July 2013, will introduce a range of high-priority features for companies, including auto-VPN, encrypted email and enhanced MDM policies, as well as greatly improved app management for organisations.

Some minor UI changes are expected in Windows Phone 8.1 too, including a modest reorganisation of the status bar icons shown at the top of the display, and multi-tile select on the Start screen. More significantly, Microsoft is also allowing device manufacturers to ditch the trio of hardware buttons – Back, Start and Search – in favour of on-screen buttons. While this move has riled some die-hard fans of the platform, it will allow OEMs to reduce hardware costs and save money on device development, by enabling greater hardware commonalities between Windows Phone and Android handsets.

This may well have been an important factor in Microsoft’s success in attracting more manufacturers to the platform. Two of India’s leading device brands, Micromax and XOLO, have both committed to launching their first Windows Phones, with the latter also confirming plans to launch Windows tablets in 2014. ZTE – which abandoned the platform after launching two Windows Phone 7 devices – has also confirmed that it will return with new WP handsets in 2014. However, it is not yet clear what plans are in store for existing Windows Phone manufacturers HTC, Samsung and Huawei.

Nokia remains the largest Windows Phone vendor of all, currently racking up 90% of all of the platform’s device sales. Pending final regulatory approval, Microsoft will formally take over Nokia’s devices business in 2014, bringing a massive boost to its own hardware aspirations.

The purchase could be completed by Microsoft’s BUILD 2014 conference in April, at which we expect Microsoft to launch the Windows Phone 8.1 update.

 

2014 will see a major new addition to the Office suite, with the release of “touch-first” versions of its core applications. Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook are all expected to join OneNote with Modern/Metro-style versions designed for finger-friendly input on Windows tablets and touch-enabled notebooks and hybrids. Expected in the middle of the year, the new apps will also pave the way for Office apps to launch on the iPad and Android tablets.

The company has already released versions of its Office Mobile apps for iPhones and Android handsets, exclusively available to Office 365 subscribers. Microsoft’s outgoing CEO, Steve Ballmer, confirmed in October that a version of Office is in development for the iPad, although it is not yet clear whether it plans to make it available at the same time as the touch-first Windows versions of the apps. The company’s Qi Lu said in September that these apps will launch on “other platforms when ready and financially sensible for Microsoft”.

Before then, we’ll see the launch of Service Pack 1 for Office 2013, as well as SharePoint 2013 and Exchange 2013. SP1 is expected to bring these applications up to date with improvements released for their Office 365 counterparts, which see more regular quarterly updates.

Additionally, the suite of Office Web Apps will see further enhancements, while SharePoint and Lync will gain Yammer integration.

 

After what seems like a lifetime of waiting, 2014 will finally bring the launch of the much-anticipated ‘Surface Mini’. Long rumoured, but still not seen, the 8-inch tablet is expected to be a launch device for Windows 8.1 Update 1 (mentioned earlier in this article), as Mary Jo Foley first revealed, and is likely to début at Microsoft’s BUILD 2014 conference in April.

Little is known about the new small tablet at this stage. It is expected to run Windows RT rather than full-fat Windows 8, allowing Microsoft to marginally reduce its hardware costs and offer greater battery life, which is seen as a priority for this class of device that is largely focused on media consumption rather than content creation.

The new year will also see more accessories become available for the Surface range, including the long-awaited Power Cover with integrated battery, and broader availability of the Docking Station for the Surface Pro and Pro 2. New colour options are also expected for the existing range of second-generation Touch and Type Covers.

A version of the Surface 2 will also be launched early in the year featuring 4G LTE connectivity, making it the first of Microsoft’s tablets to offer integrated support for cellular networks.

 

The launch line-up for the Xbox One wasn’t especially mind-blowing, but there is much to look forward to in the year ahead when it comes to gaming. Xbox exclusive Titanfall looks particularly awesome, as does Destiny, an all-new title from Bungie, creators of the original Halo. And speaking of which, the biggest gaming release of 2014 could well be the next installment in the Halo series. Microsoft showed a teaser-trailer at E3 for the new game, which will run at 60fps with dedicated multiplayer servers.

The first indie games for Xbox One will launch in Q1 2014 under Microsoft’s ID@Xbox programme, which will allow independent developers to self-publish games on the platform.

The indie launches will follow the release of an open beta for Microsoft’s Project Spark for Xbox One in January. While a closed beta has already launched on Windows 8.1, the new year will see the company’s free game-creation tools become available for all Xbox One users (including those without an Xbox Live Gold subscription), while an Xbox 360 version will follow later in the year. The Xbox One version will include unique Kinect capabilities, such as the ability to capture body motions, facial expressions and voice recordings.

But Xbox is now a brand that extends beyond consoles and gaming and, throughout 2014, Microsoft will be working hard to ensure that Xbox becomes more widely known as the home of entertainment, and not just games. Expect new apps to continue to launch for both of its consoles, along with more compelling and immersive entertainment experiences across devices through Xbox SmartGlass.

Keen to beef up the entertainment credentials of the Xbox brand, Microsoft is investing in original content for the platform. The centrepiece of these efforts will be Halo: The Television Series, produced by Steven Spielberg, which will launch exclusively on Xbox Live. Microsoft is expected to announce more of its plans for shows early in 2014. In September, Phil Spencer, vice president for Microsoft Studios, told Reuters that “there will be a certain level of interactivity to what we do” when it comes to original content, hinting at further innovations through SmartGlass and Kinect.

 

With Windows 8.1, Bing saw a major boost, becoming more deeply integrated throughout the OS than ever before. As Bing marches towards breakeven and on to profitability, its importance across Microsoft’s portfolio of products will only increase.

In June 2013, Microsoft opened up Bing as an app development platform, offering considerable opportunities for developers to build deep-search capabilities into their Windows apps. Features such as optical character recognition, language translation, voice interaction and mapping are all offered to app creators to allow them to create richer experiences to help users get stuff done. Microsoft will add further capabilities to the Bing Developer Center over the next year, including a “next-gen advertising” platform, as well as enhancing the core search offering.

Features such as Bing Snapshot will be expanded further, while search capabilities on Windows Phone will be greatly enhanced through the new Cortana digital assistant (detailed earlier in this article).

Just as Xbox has widened its scope beyond gaming and into entertainment, Bing is no longer just a search engine. Through features like Snapshot, and a suite of apps – including News, Finance, Sport, and more – Bing has extended into content discoverability and curation. The next twelve months will see the launch of more Bing apps on Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone, along with regular improvements to those that are already available. A suite of Bing search and discovery apps for Office 2013 is also on the way.

 

Windows Phone users will be delighted to hear that Skype will finally see much tighter integration into the OS with the WP8.1 update in the first half of the year. Improvements are also on the way for the Windows 8.1 app, as well as better notifications across devices and platforms. Sadly, there will be no further updates for the Skype app on Windows Phone 7.x.

Greater integration of Skype is also promised for Office and Outlook.com, while improvements are also in the works for business users. Support for “large meetings” will be introduced, as well as cloud calling, including enterprise voice calls, with enhanced Lync integration.

 

Perhaps the most significant change at Microsoft in 2014 will be at the very top of the company, with the appointment of its new CEO. Whoever takes the job will be responsible for overseeing all of the exciting new stuff detailed in this article (and plenty more that we don’t even know about yet), as well as navigating the company through a major reorganisation, and plotting a course that takes the new, revitalised ‘One Microsoft’ towards the kind of success that its shareholders and fans alike expect.

2014 promises to be another exciting year for Microsoft, but there are many challenges that still lie ahead. As ever, we’ll be following the company closely over the next twelve months – and we hope you’ll continue to join us here on Neowin to share in the company’s ups and downs as they unfold.

For now, we wish you all a very happy new year! 

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