Here's what to expect from Microsoft's Build conference that starts tomorrow

Developer conference season is upon us again. Google I/O will be in May, Apple’s WWDC will be in June, and of course, Microsoft’s Build is taking place this week in San Francisco.

Most developer conferences (certainly all of the ones just mentioned) have a keynote, in which companies tell the world what’s next for their platforms. Apple will announce iOS 10 and OS X 10.12 at WWDC and well, it’s a bit confusing as to what Google is going to announce, since they quietly dropped Android N on the world without notice.

The reason that these announcements come at developer conferences is because these are the things that developers need to know. They need to know the new features that they can implement into their applications and the new APIs that they can call – but of course, these announcements also reveal plenty about what users can expect in the weeks and months ahead.

Microsoft has a lot to talk about this year. Neowin's Managing Editor, Andy Weir, and I have been considering what the company may have in store for its big event this year. Here’s what we’re expecting, and what we'd like to see, at Build 2016.

Introduction

Rich: We’ve seen a lot of Windows 10 builds from the next Redstone wave already, but while some of them have included new features, few have been worth getting excited about. In fact, many features worth noting have been brought into the Production ring builds, such as the ability to send a picture through a Skype message in Messaging + Skype. I think that they have to be saving all of the big Redstone news for Build. That just makes sense.

They have to go big or go home on Redstone. We recently found out that Redstone 2 will be pushed back to early 2017. All of the major features that we’ve been waiting and hoping for, those have to come now or we’re going to be faced with another Windows Phone 8.1 situation, where we know better things are coming, but not for a while.

Andy: Indeed, Microsoft has been focusing heavily on stability and under-the-hood improvements with its Windows 10 development work over the last few months. One of the most recent Redstone builds, 14291, introduced some new features, but many were incremental improvements, such as the ability to pin Microsoft Edge tabs, and others were focused on specific apps, like Alarms & Clock, or Maps.

Mind you, there was one big feature in 14291 that was rather more exciting: Edge extensions. Like many others, I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more about that.

Windows 10 for PCs

Andy: 14291 wasn't the only thing that caught our eye on the Windows 10 front recently. Earlier this month, we spotted a couple of tweets from Microsoft program managers, one of which referred to unspecified 'new Windows 10 features' which, it was said, would make users "FREAK OUT" with excitement. Another said that "these features are going to CHANGE EVERYTHING".

Curiously, both of those tweets have since been deleted, but another tweet, which said "I think you'll all agree after //Build!" is still up – so Microsoft clearly has some exciting stuff ready to show off this week. Whether or not people will be freaking out as predicted remains to be seen, of course...

Rich: I still have trouble wrapping my head around what they could possibly do that would warrant a "FREAK OUT", or what could change everything. OneDrive placeholders are something that I'm certainly hoping for in Redstone and we've seen leaks of a redesigned File Explorer.

Obviously, there will be significant Cortana improvements, as well as Messaging + Skype improvements. As it stands, the current app is terrible. We just recently got the ability to send a picture in a Skype message with the app. They have to add SMS, and they have to add call forwarding to the new Phone app. Cortana stands as a bridge between PC, phone, Band, HoloLens, and Xbox. That bridge will obviously continue to be strengthened.

If it’s not obvious, I also think they’ll talk more about extensions for Edge.

Andy: Messaging + Skype is, indeed, appalling; it boggles the mind how Microsoft ever thought that it was ready for release. Of course, Microsoft announced last week that it's now rethinking some of its Skype integration in Windows 10 with the upcoming launch of a standalone Universal app, rather than baking Skype functionality into other core apps on the OS. The first preview will be PC-only, but Microsoft says a Mobile version is also coming "soon". We'll probably hear a bit more about that at Build, and perhaps get a proper look at the app in action.

We've been hearing about Cortana tweaks on the way for a while, including don't-compare-it-to-Clippy functionality allowing the assistant to 'float' around the OS to help with docs and apps. The latest build also lays down the groundwork for some of the cross-device features for Cortana that we heard about recently, such as low-battery notifications for your phone appearing on your PC.

But some of the responses following those 'freak out' tweets suggested that Cortana wasn't what they were referring to specifically.

Windows 10 Mobile

Rich: Windows 10 is essentially the same OS across the board, so there’s always going to be a sort of feature parity between Windows 10 for PCs and Mobile. I expect Continuum to come into maturity. They now have enterprise devices that will launch this Summer. Obviously, these devices – such as the HP Elite x3 – are waiting for Redstone to be available. As mentioned above, Redstone 2 has been delayed to 2017, so they really have to get as much done in Redstone 1 as they can.

I'm hoping that Continuum will soon function in the same way as desktop Windows, allowing for snapping apps, windowed apps, etc. Unfortunately, it would surprise me to see Microsoft really put that much effort into it.

I think it's about time that they announce ARM64 support for Windows 10 Mobile as well. A developer conference would be the time to do that. I don't know about x86 support though. That's really something that they could do at a hardware announcement, as all UWP apps already work on x86. On the other hand, an x86 Windows phone would not support Windows Phone 8.1 apps.

We’ve also heard rumors of Edge extensions on mobile. If that’s the case, Build would definitely be the place to announce it.

Andy: I wouldn't be surprised to see those improvements to Continuum, but I would be surprised to see such substantial improvements so soon. If there's one consistent thread that's run through Windows 10 Mobile development, it's that things don't happen quickly (and that's been a common theme for all Windows development on phones way back to the WP7 days).

I agree that it seems likely that we'll hear about Edge extensions on Mobile at Build too – but again, I do wonder if this will be one of those things that will be announced, but which won't come until much later. That said, Microsoft has had quite a bit of time to work on this stuff, so they may yet surprise us.

Windows 10 is indeed one OS for all devices, and Microsoft has made no secret of the fact that its Redstone efforts have so far been focusing heavily on 'OneCore' improvements to ensure greater commonality across devices. My hope is that we'll finally see the gap between PC and phone development narrowed considerably, with both variants of the OS advancing at roughly the same pace.

Rich: Yes, things don't happen quickly when it comes to Microsoft's mobile efforts (well, their efforts for their own mobile platform). We saw Windows Phone 8.1 launch six months after Windows 8.1. This is what I meant by go big or go home. With Redstone 2 coming in early 2017 instead of later this year, they sort of have to get this stuff done in Redstone 1.

Of course, this isn't anything new either. Time and again, we've heard the firm talk about how the next update will solve all of our problems, and then that update is delayed. Windows 10 Mobile is the classic example.

Andy: Agreed – but I think we're finally nearing the point where Windows on phones is no longer considered a second-class citizen at Redmond. For years, Windows Phone development lagged behind Windows for PCs (and far behind its mobile rivals in many, many ways). Now, with a common core OS that can run across multiple devices, Microsoft is getting to the point where desktop and mobile can move forward together.

The problem that it still faces is that its mobile market share has collapsed to 1 or 2 percent, so it's clearly a tough sell. Consumers currently have almost zero interest in Windows handsets, and many businesses have already embraced BYOD (bring your own device) and COPE (corporate-owned, personally-enabled) mobile management policies that furnish end users with the iOS and Android devices that they actually want to use.

But if you take a step back and look at everything that Microsoft is doing, you can see all of the pieces gradually coming together to build Windows 10 Mobile into a hugely compelling proposition for consumers and businesses, and also – importantly - for developers. Perhaps the most significant element of those efforts isn't unique to Windows 10 Mobile – in fact, that's the whole point of it: it's the cross-device Universal Windows Platform.

UWP

Rich: There's been a few rumors/wishes to turn Universal apps into true universal apps, meaning getting them to run on Android. This seems like the logical step, especially given the acquisition of Xamarin. I don't think that we'll ever see UWP apps work on iOS, but getting them to work on Android sure makes developing for Windows a whole lot more compelling. I'm not calling this an official "prediction", but if Microsoft does have something like that planned, Build would be the place to mention it.

What I actually am expecting is more talk of the remaining four bridges (Islandwood, Centennial, Westminster, and the Silverlight bridge). I would be shocked if they didn't at least talk about the prospect of Swift support in Project Islandwood, as developer support for Objective-C is waning in favor of Apple's newer language.

Obviously, they'll also talk more about their plans with the Xamarin acquisition. Personally, I think the smart move would be to make it a free service; however, we're talking about the one major company that still charges for its developer tools.

Andy: I think that what's far more likely than UWP apps, designed for Windows, running on Android, is that Microsoft will simply continue to evolve its already-excellent tools in an effort to become the de facto standard for all mobile app development. We've already seen the company make huge strides in adding new functionality and support for rival platforms in tools such as Visual Studio, and its Xamarin acquisition only strengthens its overall proposition for developers.

When we talk about UWP today, we generally refer to the "build once, run everywhere" concept that the platform offers, with devs able to deploy one app to multiple types of Windows 10 device with only minor modifications. But what if Microsoft's real vision was more greater, and more unifying, than just being able to port Windows apps to Android? What if Microsoft's ultimate 'universal' proposition lies in providing developers with the ability to build an app once and easily make the modifications to be able to run it anywhere, not just on Windows 10 devices, but on iOS and Android, using a single set of powerful tools?

That, I think, is where Microsoft's bridges are likely to meet the path it's taken with its Xamarin acquisition – and that's an incredibly exciting prospect. Of course, the devil will be in the detail of how exactly Microsoft integrates Xamarin's offerings with its own.

Rich: Yes, assuming that they position it correctly, Xamarin can be a very exciting proposition indeed. It would allow developers to target iOS, Android, Windows phones, Windows PCs, HoloLens, and Xbox One, all with the same C# code base.

Xbox One

Rich: OK, to state the obvious, we're going to hear about UWP apps on the Xbox One. I'd be really surprised if we didn't hear something about Cortana too.

Again, this is what I mean by 'go big or go home' since Redstone 2 is delayed until 2017. Every feature that we've heard about across the board has to be made available in Redstone 1, or else users and developers will be facing an intolerably long wait for their arrival - at least seven or eight months.

Ultimately, between UWP apps, Cortana, and Bluetooth keyboard and mouse support, I think we're going to hear about 'Continuum for Xbox One'. Calling it anything else doesn't make much sense.

Andy: Yep, but that's one of the biggest question marks hanging over the prospect of UWP support for Xbox. We know that it's coming this summer - Microsoft has already confirmed that – but we don't yet know what it will look like, or how extensive that support will be.

The idea of 'Continuum for Xbox One' is a pretty logical one; the notion that Microsoft would introduce a secondary user experience for UWP with mouse and keyboard, in a very similar way to its implementation of Continuum for Windows 10 Mobile. It doesn't make much sense to imagine Xbox One owners using their gaming controllers to interact with UWP apps designed for touch or mouse/keyboard; that wouldn't be very practical for most apps, either for users or developers who would have to support that kind of interaction (just as they must make various UI considerations between Windows 10 for PCs and phones).

Given that Microsoft has already said mouse and keyboard support is coming to the Xbox One, a console version of the Windows 10 Mobile Continuum UX seems like a sensible approach. It's not a certainty, but if Microsoft does take that route, it would leave console owners with two interfaces: the 'New Xbox One Experience' with the dashboard introduced last year, and a separate UI with desktop-style Start menu for UWP. That may be the most logical approach, but it's not necessarily the best user experience.

Rich: It might not be the best user experience, but do you remember what they said when they first announced UWP apps on the Xbox One? It was something along the lines of "you might not want to edit an Office document on your Xbox, but you'll be able to".

I really don't see them pushing this as "the console that can replace your desktop". I think it would act in the same way that all Continuum interfaces do. You won't see that desktop interface unless you specifically choose to.

I'm more curious to see if users will have the option of using their Xbox controllers for UWP apps, even though many certainly aren't optimized for it. I really hope that it's not locked down to a Continuum environment because I think that UWP apps on Xbox One will be really important to anyone that makes video content, meaning apps like Amazon Instant Video and YouTube could actually make their way over to all Windows 10 devices, including phones.

Sorry to all of the Windows phone users that read that last paragraph. I'd wipe the drool off of you if I could.

HoloLens

Rich: Obviously, we're going to hear a lot about HoloLens. There's a couple of guesses as to some announcements that they could make.

It wouldn't surprise me if they announced a tentative availability to the consumer model that we're all waiting for, even if they leave it open ended, such as saying it will arrive in early 2017 without mentioning pricing. At some point, they have to say something about it. Development Edition units are already being shipped and developers need to know when to ship their apps.

I would also think that they might talk about Windows Holographic, which is something that we don't hear about nearly as much. We hear the word "HoloLens" thrown around quite a bit though, so some tend to forget that this whole thing is powered by an OS that can be licensed to OEMs.

It's most likely a dream, but I'd love to see them take the stage with representatives from HP, Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba, and a bunch of others to talk about all of their Windows Holographic "PCs".

Other than what I just listed above, which are little more than hopes, I'm sure it's going to be a lot of demos and talk about development for the platform.

Andy: We'll inevitably hear more about HoloLens, but I'm not sure that this will be the place to hear more on the hardware front. We'll probably hear references to Windows Holographic, but I think that what Microsoft will be focusing on is the developer experience, now that the first headsets are in the hands of devs. I expect we'll get a few insights into creating those immersive AR experiences that take full advantage of HoloLens' capabilities, as well as some more discussion of how devs can make 'regular' UWP apps run on the device.

I think it's perhaps a bit early to be talking, even vaguely, about the launch window for a planned consumer release just yet. I would imagine that Microsoft will want to get more feedback and telemetry from the HoloLens headsets that are currently in the wild before it publicly defines the roadmap that includes a launch for consumers.

Rich: I think that even if they don't announce new hardware, they need to at least talk about it. These are the things that developers need to know. Will they be targeting just one HoloLens? Will there be third party devices that have different sizes, resolutions, and fields of view? When should they have their apps ready?

I know that a lot of it is wishful thinking, but I do think that HoloLens is the one area where it's smart for Microsoft to talk about hardware. Either way, it's certainly going to be an interesting Build.

That's what we want to see from Build 2016. What are you looking forward to or hoping for the most? Let us know in the comments!

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