The 10 Things We're Most Excited To See From Microsoft This Year

Last week officially kicked off the Windows 10 era at Microsoft. And it’s promising to be a very interesting time.

Microsoft is doing more exciting things than it’s done in years. After years of scoffing, the tech press, Wall Street, and even Silicon Valley are paying attention again.

So what do we have to look forward to over the next couple years? Quite a lot…

OK, HoloLens was cool. So when can we buy one?

Microsoft wowed reporters with a demonstration of its augmented reality headset, HoloLens, last week. But the test device we tried was far from finished -- it was two glass lenses, a bunch of straps, and a five-pound CPU we had to hang around our necks.

The demo units that Microsoft execs showed on stage look a little bit slicker, like big ski goggles. But it's going to be a challenge to pack all that hardware into such a small package, then manufacture it in volume at a price normal people can afford.

Right now, all Microsoft is saying is that HoloLens will be ready in the 'Windows 10 time frame.' That could mean around when Windows 10 is first released...or could mean at some point before Windows 11 (or whatever it's called) comes out, a few years down the road.

A Windows 10 release date.

Windows 10 looks like it will solve a lot of the problems users had with Windows 8. But for all the features Microsoft showed last week, we didn't hear when it would actually come out.

Late 2015 is our best guess, but it could be staggered so enterprise customers get it first, before it shows up on new consumer PCs.

Microsoft's new smartphone plan.

Most of Microsoft's Windows 10 presentation focused on PC and tablet features, like a new web browser.

But we barely heard anything about Windows 10 on phones, and what we saw looked a lot like the same old Windows Phone we've been seeing for more than four years now.

Microsoft did show off a couple 'Universal' apps, which look and work the same across the PC and phone, and learned about how Skype will integrate so you can start using it easily when you're in WiFi range. But we're not sure that's enough to revive Microsoft's fortunes in mobile.

Small tablets that don't burden us with the Windows desktop.

This 8-inch Acer tablet runs Windows 8.1.

Microsoft had a special version of Windows 8 for low-powered tablets called Windows RT, but it had a lot of problems.

The biggest? When you used certain Windows tools, like Settings, or the bundled Office apps, it kicked you out into a traditional-looking Windows desktop that was almost impossible to use with fingers. It was particularly awful on small tablets.

With Windows 10, it looks like Microsoft will take the phone version of the operating system and make it the default choice for all tablets smaller than eight inches. This is what Apple did with iOS back in 2010, but it's good to see Microsoft coming around to the idea -- better late than never.

Office for Windows 10 touch screens.

Microsoft's version of Office for the iPad, released last March, wasn't just a cobbled-together afterthought -- Microsoft really thought about how people would want to use Office on a touch screen.

The company teased a similarly touch-centric version of Office for Windows 10 at its event last week, but it's not available to test yet. What will it be like? Which apps will it include? How will it really sing on a tablet, and how smoothly will it transition back to desktop mode when you turn your convertible from tablet to laptop mode?

The next Surface.

After a couple false starts, Microsoft's tablet-laptop hybrid, Surface, has become a success, turning a profit on more than $US1.1 billion in sales last quarter. The current product is the Surface Pro 3, which is priced and powered like a full laptop, only with a touch screen and optional detachable keyboard.

So what will the next version look like? Will Microsoft revive a cheaper device like the original Surface, which was meant to go up against the iPad? Or maybe the fabled Surface Mini, which it apparently pulled at the last minute last spring?

The plan to get developers excited again.

Microsoft's EVP of cloud computing, Scott Guthrie.

The next big event on the Microsoft calendar is Build 2015, its annual conference for software developers, which happens in San Francisco on April 2 through 4. This is where Microsoft has to win its most important challenge for 2015: getting developers excited about the platform again.

It's not enough to for Microsoft to say that Windows ships on hundreds of millions of PCs a year, so you should build Windows 10 apps. Microsoft has to explain to developers how easily those Windows 10 apps can be converted to smartphones (and why developers should bother given Microsoft's third-place position in smartphones), how and why they should target other kinds of devices (the 'Internet of things'), how and why they should tie apps back to Microsoft's cloud, and how future interface concepts like HoloLens will fit into the picture.

Will any of Microsoft's new business apps will really take off?

It's been eons since Microsoft had a huge and totally new product in businesses -- the last one was probably Dynamics CRM, which has been taking on Salesforce for a decade now. (Before you argue, Office 365 isn't really new; it's just an online version of the same core Office family products companies have been using for eons.)

Under Satya Nadella, Microsoft has been rolling out new business apps left and right, such as Power BI for visualising data and Sway, a lightweight presentation app that competes with Prezi (and, to some degree, Microsoft's own PowerPoint). Will one of these new products take off and become Microsoft's next huge hit?

Bing as the default on the iPhone.

Google is the default search engine on the Safari browser in Apple's iPhone and iPad. This isn't because Google and Apple are best friends -- the two companies are brutal competitors. It's because Google pays Apple some sum of money, estimated at perhaps 75% of all revenues on search ads clicked through Safari.

Microsoft's Bing is as good as Google on most kinds of searches. At some point, Google's deal with Apple will expire. It would be great to see Microsoft pony up the cash to replace Google and turn Bing into a much more formidable competitor.

Now, let's look back through the last year of changes...

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