Microsoft's Build Developer Conference wraps up today, and as we pack away our (metaphorical/emotional) lanyards and look forward, we're mostly excited about how Microsoft's latest consumer electronics fever dream is shaping up.
Best: HoloLens is achingly close to a faceputer regular people might want
Microsoft's craziest idea right now is by far it's most exciting. HoloLens is an augmented reality headset first introduced back in January, and now we're seeing how this technology will theoretically work. It's not a completely immersive eye-goggle like the virtual reality experience of Oculus Rift. Instead, the HoloLens, as its name implies, projects holograms onto the world in front of you.
When we first saw HoloLens, it was a lofty gadget that would let you explore the surface of Mars like the Curiosity Rover, or immerse yourself entirely in the world of Minecraft. At Build, we got to see HoloLens in action in a much more practical way: A regular Windows interface.
Strapping a computer to your face is an old science fiction fantasy, remember Hackers? Waving your arms around to navigate cyberspace. Microsoft's HoloLens is a more subdued version of that fantasy, sure, but it's also more likely to be something you really want to use.
Worst: Hololens is still all prototype
Sure, Microsoft has thousands of HoloLens units at the conference, but that's a long way from a faceputer in every living room. It's developed a bit since the cobbled together prototype we tried in January, but HoloLens is still nascent.
Sure, building the future takes time and it's easy to get excited about demos for headgear, but usually it's safer to bet against them. Remember how exciting Google Glass was the first time we saw it three years ago? Remember how we swooned when we put our head inside Oculus's DK2 for the first time in the early days of 2014? Only a few thousand people own any of those products, and I doubt anyone but developers and nerds uses them every day in the near future.
Right now, it exists as an intriguing tech tease, and the anticipation is killing us.
Best: Windows 10 could be the first universal OS
There are a lot of big ideas in Windows 10, but maybe the most important is Continuum. Microsoft introduced this concept a few months ago. Basically, Windows 10 is design to work on all different form factors, and Continuum is the bit that detects what type of device you're using and scales it to the appropriate dimensions. At Build, Microsoft expounded the concept with a demo of a single device that powers screens of different form factors. So imagine you have a small computer that you take everywhere, and send over your session to either a phone-sized screen, tablet-sized screen, or computer screen with a keyboard, depending on which is appropriate for a particular situation, basically obliterating the hardware boundaries between varying form factors. Cool!
Microsoft also showed off its plan for how its going to port apps from different platforms to Windows 10. Not just Xbox content either, as we'd seen before. You'll be able to port Android and iOS apps, and even webpages, to Windows 10 seamlessly, at least according to Microsoft. We'll soon see if that Windows app store balloons or stays deflated.
Worst: No new hardware for Windows 10
We've heard a lot about Windows 10, its forward-thinking scalable UI and upgraded Edge browser. Windows 10 will be your operating system for every device! Will it be a single superpowered device that you use with different kinds of screens? That sounds cool! What device is that? Will we ever see a new Lumia flagship smartphone? What will a Windows 10 phone look like? What crazy ideas does Microsoft have for the future of Surface? We just don't know, and that's a pretty huge missing piece to this new Microsoft equation.
Best: Microsoft Edge may be the browser of our dreams
Microsoft has been in the long process of trotting out its replacement for Internet Explorer for some time. At Build it got a real name: Microsoft Edge. We've already seen a bundle of its new features, and it looks fantastic. Extensions and well-designed "new tab" start menus!
In particular, we got a nice look at how Microsoft's increasingly amazing Cortana voice assistant will make intelligent suggestions for you as you perform different tasks in the browser. Also awesome: Cortana won't just be a woman anymore. You can change her to a dude.
Worst: Microsoft has a tough road ahead
Microsoft is painting a rosy picture full of unicorns and candy for the future of computers, but history says we should temper our expectations. Two of the company's most ambitious products in years, Windows 8 and Surface both promised big things only to disappoint. Windows 8's beautiful revised UI ended up being too clunky and simplistic to be practical, and Microsoft ended up back-pedalling some of its biggest ideas. Likewise, the Surface originally had the trappings of a revolutionary design, that ended up being more futuristic than any reasonable person wanted. Even though Surface is now gaining some respect, it's far from the game changer Microsoft desperately wanted.
Let's hope this time Microsoft finishes turning it all around.