Microsoft to highlight its 'One Windows' progress at Build 2014

What's on tap for Microsoft's Build conference this week? Here's what we know and what we think we know.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

While Microsoft execs have made substantial progress in the past couple of years toward breaking down silos inside the company, there's still a long road ahead.


This year's Microsoft Build conference, which kicks off in San Francisco on April 2, will highlight how far the company has come -- and also shed more light on how far it has yet to go -- toward delivering "One Windows."

(Microsoft published the list of sessions for the conference on the Build site on March 31.)

At the developer confab this week, officials are expected to disclose fully the feature sets of the Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8 Update 1 operating systems. They also, according to sources, will share a bit about the next major version of Windows -- Windows 9, codenamed "Threshold," aka Windows 9, which is supposedly due to arrive in the spring of 2015.

Few expect Microsoft to unveil the full feature list or even the target arrival date for Windows 9 at Build 2014. Instead, Microsoft officials are likely to discuss at a high level the company's goal to create a new Windows 9 SKU that would run on Windows Phones, ARM-based Windows tablets/PCs, phablets and other kinds of devices. According to previous tips, this "modern" SKU might not include a Desktop for running legacy Win32 apps. It would be updated frequently and regularly by Microsoft through the Windows Store.

On the Windows 8.1 Update 1 front, Microsoft officials are expected to elaborate on the changes that the company is making to Windows 8.1 to make it more palatable to mouse and keyboard users. Many, if not all, of these changes have been well-documented over recent months as a result of the Update 1 bits leaking to the Web. Microsoft will be providing Windows 8.1 users who interact primarily with a mouse and keyboard a task bar and other visual cues to make navigating Windows 8.1 easier, according to sources and those who downloaded the leaked bits.

Microsoft is expected to make Windows 8.1 Update 1 available to MSDN subscribers on April 2, the first day of Build 2014. Those without MSDN will get the update via Windows Update on April 8, tipsters have said.

Information about the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system also has been leaking, especially during the last month following Microsoft's distribution of a preview build to select developers in February. The coming OS update, codenamed "Blue," is believed to have just been released to manufacturing over the past few days.

Windows Phone 8.1's biggest consumer-focused feature is the inclusion of a personal digital assistant, codenamed "Cortana." The OS is expected to include a lot of other new features, including VPN support; a new notification center; an updated user interface allowing more tiles to be displayed; updated camera layout; Google calendar compatibility; IE11 functionality and more.

Nokia may show off one or more of its next-generation Lumia phones running the 8.1 OS during a press conference on April 2, some have speculated. Others have speculated that the Lumia press event may focus more on software/services or possibly even a wearable device.

Steps toward a more unified dev world

On the developer front, Microsoft also is making a lot of tweaks to the Windows Phone 8.1 platform, sources have said. Among the new and changed features, according to WPCentral, are the replacement of XAP by APPX; availability of SemanticZoom, DatePicker and TimePicker to developers; support for background tasks and more.

With Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, Microsoft took steps toward bringing these two different app platforms closer together. Developers can write Windows 8/Windows Phone 8 apps that share a lot of code. But they also can end up writing apps that can't be ported at all across the two platforms.

At Build this week, Microsoft execs are expected to share progress toward bringing the phone and Windows client platforms closer together in terms of language support, layout/rendering engines, libraries, dev tools and distribution platforms. But Microsoft still has a way to go before achieving something even close to that perfect world. 

Another hot button at Build is likely to be the touch-first versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint for Windows 8/8.1 -- the app suite I've been calling "Gemini." Last week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said Microsoft execs will talk about this suite, the Windows complement to the just-announced Microsoft Office for iPad suite, during Build 2014. Microsoft execs showed a brief glimpse of the Gemini PowerPoint app at last year's Build conference, calling it an alpha. Officials also said last year that Windows 8 users should expect the touch-first Office suite to debut some time in calendar 2014.

I haven't heard whether Microsoft plans to allow the public to test the Gemini suite or if the company will just deliver it as a finished downloadable suite without a public beta/preview. But Microsoft needs this suite of apps in order to do away with the Desktop in Windows -- as is rumored to be happening in the spring of 2015 with the aforementioned"modern" version of Windows 9 for tablets and Windows Phones.

Microsoft's Office team also will be talking up the application programming interfaces (APIs) in Office apps like OneNote, focusing on how developers can include support for them in their own apps.


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