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Neowin 2015: Top 10 tech things we're looking forward to this year

2014 was a pretty exciting year in the tech world, as we explained in our recent review of some of the biggest news stories from the last twelve months. But 2015 promises to be even bigger and better, with any number of awesome new devices, services and other products already revealed – and that’s just the stuff we know about.

HTC, for example, has promised “some big surprises” in its 2015 roadmap, and we suspect they won’t be the only ones to raise a few eyebrows in the coming months. Here, in no particular order, are ten things from across the tech world that we're we’re looking forward to in the year ahead.

Windows 10

It will arguably be Microsoft’s most significant – and its most ambitious – operating system release ever. The new OS will not only be installed on desktop PCs, laptops and tablets, but it will also be used for smartphones, micro-PCs, embedded scenarios (such as point-of-sale devices or printers), the Internet of Things (including smart homes), and even – in some capacity – on the Xbox One.

For the first time, Microsoft is creating a single Windows platform with a unified store and development framework, and with OS feature sets and interface elements appropriate to each class of device. What we’ve seen of Windows 10 so far is only a small part of Microsoft’s plans for the platform.

But even the relatively limited preview that the company has delivered so far – which focuses on business users and developers, to give them an early indication of what Windows 10 offers – is impressive enough to get us excited about the new OS. The latest build, including the most recent patches and updates, is now stable enough for some users - including Neowin senior editor Brad Sams - to rely on it from day to day.

And although it’s not expected to be released until the second half of the year – perhaps as late as Q4 – we’ll find out a lot more about Windows 10 later this month. Microsoft is hosting a Windows 10 event on January 21, at which it will finally open up about some of the most exciting consumer-focused features of the OS, including a spotlight on Windows gaming.

After struggling to attract both consumers and businesses to Windows 8 and 8.1, the company is under pressure to deliver nothing short of perfection with its new OS – we’ll find out later this year if it can meet those insanely high expectations.

Office for Windows

The launch of Windows 10 will – finally – pave the way for Microsoft to release the long-awaited touch-friendly version of its Office suite for Windows. There’s been talk and speculation about the new touch Office apps on Windows for quite some time now, but they still haven’t been released, even after the company launched new Office apps for Android and iOS.

The new apps are expected to launch as part of the next major version of Office for Windows later this year. Leaked images suggest that there are unlikely to be many big changes in the ‘Office 16’ desktop applications, with an emphasis on adding useful features, improving performance, and enhancing cloud support and collaboration.

Windows Phone users also stand to gain plenty from the new Office release. Office has more or less stagnated on Windows Phone, with very few significant features having been added to the already-limited feature set that launched with Windows Phone 7 in 2010. Microsoft has demonstrably done much more for Office on other platforms than on Windows Phone – and that’s becoming an increasingly sore point among users of Microsoft’s mobile OS.

The company’s Joe Belfiore had to actually make the point this week that the “Office team has not forgotten Windows Phone”, but it may be a while before users can finally enjoy the new suite of Office apps on their Windows handsets.

Cortana everywhere

Microsoft’s digital ‘personal assistant’ first made an appearance last April with the launch of Windows Phone 8.1. Cortana remains available exclusively on the mobile OS – and only in a handful of markets – but that will all change in 2015.

Microsoft recently launched Cortana as an early ‘alpha’ preview in several markets, including Spain, Germany and France. In addition to adding new features in these countries, Microsoft will also bring Cortana online in many more markets and languages in the months ahead, making the assistant much more widely available on Windows Phones across the globe.

Recent Windows 10 builds have shown how Cortana functionality will be integrated into the new OS, and we expect this to be part of the ‘Consumer Preview’ that will be released later this month. But there is potential for Cortana to extend even further.

With Windows 10 expected to come to the Xbox One in some capacity, Cortana integration could well be headed to Microsoft’s console too. And let’s not forget those persistent rumors that the company is planning to bring Cortana to iOS and Android, despite its denials.

A true Windows Phone flagship

When Microsoft dropped its OS licensing fees for small Windows devices last year, it opened the door to over fifty new hardware partners, over half of which have been developing and launching their first Windows Phone handsets. But, without exception, each of these brands has so far joined the platform at the lowest end of the market, abandoning the higher end to just two companies: HTC and Microsoft.

HTC almost doesn’t count, because its One (M8) for Windows is still available only in the United States, despite rumors of an international launch on the cards. In most parts of the world, that leaves only Microsoft’s Lumia range to cater for those with more premium tastes – and on this front, the company needs to do better.

In the latter half of last year, Microsoft effectively had three different flagships: the Lumia 1020, with its mighty 41-megapixel camera, offering a superlative photography experience; along with the 5-inch Lumia 930/Icon and 6-inch Lumia 1520, which share broadly similar specs.

Of these, the Lumia 1020 has now reached the end of its life, with remaining stocks now being depleted. The 930/Icon and 1520 both remain impressive devices with outstanding cameras, but both handsets have been overshadowed by newer Android and iPhone rivals with more features and more competitive spec sheets.

We hope we’ll see some more capable high-end Windows Phone hardware in the near future – both from Microsoft and its partners – especially with newer Snapdragon 805 and 810 chipsets now available. Our fingers remain crossed, too, that Microsoft will launch a successor to the Lumia 1020. With the camera improvements that are now rolling out in the latest Denim firmware update, a ‘Lumia 1030’ could well define a new standard in smartphone imaging.

HTC One (M9)

The HTC One (M8) is widely regarded as one of the most impressive Android devices of all time, and its Windows counterpart has also received high praise. HTC has promised that its 2015 roadmap will be its “best ever”, and given how high it has set the bar with many of its recent devices, including Google’s new Nexus 9 tablet, that’s reason to get excited.

The company has promised some “huge surprises” ahead this year, but what we’re really looking forward to is the next version of the HTC One.

Recent leaks have indicated that the device – which is also known by its codename ‘Hima’, and may eventually be called the ‘One (M9)’ – will actually be available in two variants: a standard edition, and a larger phablet model. Each model will reportedly be sold in both Android and Windows flavors - and with specs rumored to include a Snapdragon 805 chipset, 3GB RAM and Quad HD display, it could well be worth the wait.

OnePlus Two

Another Android device that we’re looking forward to in 2015 is the OnePlus Two. We still don’t know if the company met its target of selling a million units of its first and only handset, the One, by the end of 2014, but one thing is certain: the device remains hugely popular.

That’s a remarkable achievement considering the well-documented screw-ups that OnePlus itself has become famous for. But despite its sexist photo contest, the design failures it admitted to when it cancelled its swappable rear covers, and all the other mistakes it's made, many smartphone buyers looked past the ineptitude of those running the company, and focused instead on the device itself.

That’s understandable, to some degree, since the OnePlus One is a remarkable handset, offering flagship-class specs, but with a price tag that’s almost half that of many of its range-topping rivals. We can only hope that OnePlus has consigned its penchant for missteps to the past (and that it ditches the god-awful ‘invite system’ too), because if it does, the OnePlus Two could well be amazing.

Project Ara

What started off as an R&D project will soon become a real – and rather exciting – product: a smartphone with modular components that can be easily removed and replaced.

Unlike conventional smartphones – which come pre-assembled and cannot be upgraded – the idea behind Project Ara is that users will build and upgrade their handsets around their specific needs. With Ara, users would buy a basic ‘shell’ into which components – such as the camera, processor, RAM, battery, and the like – would slot in, with new modules available to purchase as desired.

What makes this all even more compelling is that Google aims to sell the core shell of the device for just $50, with components keenly priced to encourage users to regularly purchase more upgrades. When the company was preparing to send out its first 100 developer units, it received applications from over 90,000 people keen to get their hands on a working prototype of Ara, indicating a healthy level of interest in it, even at this relatively early stage.

But it remains to be seen if consumers will warm to Ara in the way that Google hopes. You can already buy a decent smartphone – an actual working device, not just an empty shell – for $50. Will buyers be willing to pay more for the convenience of modular design, and being able to upgrade a component on a whim?

We may not get an answer to that question for a while, but nonetheless, we may be just weeks away from finding out a whole lot more about Project Ara. Last April, Google promised that the first version of the device would go on sale in January 2015 – and we’re certainly hoping that those plans are still on track.

Apple Watch

Back in September, Apple unveiled its long-rumored wearable device and, true to form, the company is abandoning the lower-end market to its rivals, most of which are focusing on smartwatches in the $100-$200 range. Instead, the Apple Watch starts at $349, with no official upper price limit set, leading to speculation that versions featuring precious metals might be sold for as much as $5,000.

But let’s not kid ourselves – the Apple Watch will surely be a huge hit. Some may consider it overpriced – often without ever having used it or even touched it – but nonetheless, Apple products are coveted by huge numbers of people, and the prospect of purchasing a new companion for their iPhone, iPad, iMac, MacBook, Mac mini, Apple TV and iPod will be relished by many buyers across the globe.

But those who scoff at the Apple Watch would do well to remember that the company has been a major driving force in boosting competition and forcing its rivals to up their game. Smartwatches aren't exactly a 'must-have' item for consumers at the moment, and with so many mediocre Android watches continuing to flood the market, buyers have little reason to get excited. Apple’s entry into this sector may well encourage its rivals to do better – and in some cases, those companies could really do with a kick in the pants to motivate them to stop making such miserable devices.

But aside from this, we look forward to seeing what the Apple Watch can do in its own right. The company has shown time and again that it is capable of creating exquisite hardware and simple user experiences – and if it manages to get things right with the Apple Watch too, it could well become the defining product that helps to grow the market further.

Image: Cult of Android

The Un-carrier

On the whole, mobile carriers are awful companies to have to deal with. But one major carrier has shown that you don’t need to treat your customers with contempt all the time in order to keep their business.

T-Mobile relaunched itself in 2014 as the ‘Un-carrier’ – an effort to position itself as the champion for consumers among the four largest network operators in the United States. As part of that initiative, T-Mo has introduced a huge range of customer-pleasing measures, such as dropping overage charges, adding the ability to carry over data allowances from month to month, free cellular music streaming with no impact on data limits, free Wi-Fi on domestic US flights, and the offer of paying all early termination fees to allow customers on rival networks to move to T-Mobile without delay.

What will T-Mo and its outspoken CEO, John Legere, have in store for customers this year? We can’t wait to find out.

The Console Wars continue

Whichever way you slice it, the PlayStation 4 absolutely spanked the Xbox One in 2014, with sales of Sony’s console estimated to be three times higher for much of the year. But Microsoft fought back hard, with new bundles and price cuts, which was enough for the Xbone to finally outsell the PS4 in the US for the first time by the end of the year.

Whether or not it can maintain that momentum this year remains to be seen – but either way, it currently remains a distant second to the PlayStation 4 in overall sales. Even so, we’re expecting the fight to become even more intense over the next twelve months.

Expect both Sony and Microsoft to continue adding new features to their respective consoles – for MS, this will be particularly interesting with some level of Windows 10 support incoming, potentially expanding the Xbox One’s app support in a very big way. But beyond this, the year ahead also promises some awesome new games on both consoles.

Until Dawn, No Man’s Sky, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Street Fighter V are among the titles heading to the PS4 this year. Xbox One owners can look forward to some epic new games too, including Rise of the Tomb Raider, Quantum Break, Crackdown and of course, the greatly anticipated Halo 5: Guardians. It’s gonna be a great year.

Image: Phoenix New Times

Bonus: Hoverboard / self-lacing shoes

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