Microsoft is a software company. Despite its more recent push into building impressive hardware, it's made its name with code and services -- not phones and laptops. Build 2016, a couple day's sojourn in San Francisco, showcases what Microsoft does best, giving a glimpse of things coming for Windows users in 2016 and beyond. Last year's Build was a giant stage for showcasing Windows 10, the software cure for many people's Windows 8.1 ailments. Although Windows 10 has been officially out in the wild since last July, and received a healthy number of updates along the way, there's still plenty to come.
Here's everything we think Microsoft has in store for us, starting with the keynote tomorrow at 2:30am AEDT (11:30am ET).
The obvious: Windows 10
Windows 10 might be a year in, but Microsoft still has lots of work to do. No doubt CEO Satya Nadella will talk about the platform's adoption rates and number of devices sporting Windows 10 (it's already in the billions).
But we're here for new stuff, and Windows 10 Redstone, the codename for this upcoming swath of updates, will be bringing them. Although Microsoft has done a decent job keeping the rumour mill quiet this time around, Live Tiles will almost definitely be a part of tomorrow's online demonstration. Live Tiles are probably Windows 10's most distinctive feature, and they will be getting some long-desired TLC. One of the Build events taking place on April 1, called "What's New for Tiles and Toast Notifications", says "Live Tiles are evolving with two highly-requested surprises that you won't want to miss."
The above concept video from 2014 shows that Microsoft's been thinking about interactive Live Tiles for some time. Windows 10 was supposed to ship with it but didn't. If this is the "highly-requested" surprise, then Live Tiles might finally live up to its full potential.
Additionally, Microsoft Edge will likely see a bit of spotlight after finally adding browser extensions just this month. Windows' photos app will supposedly get some very Google Photos-like abilities and Cortana, along with the Action Center, may get a new card-style design. Also, Microsoft announced a new Universal version of Skype for PC and mobile, so we'll more likely than not see Skype demos aplenty.
There will also be loads and loads of dev speak. It is a developer's conference after all.
The less obvious: Windows 10 mobile
The official elephant in the room is Windows mobile, having an extremely lacklustre year and launching a couple cheap and premium devices that didn't turn many heads. Arguably, the most interesting Windows phone wasn't even built for you, but rather for CEOs and Fortune 500 companies. Add to the list a growing number of high-profile apps that are completely ditching the platform, and you're left with a sad state of affairs.
Microsoft's long been developing apps for iOS and Android, and hopefully, we'll learn more about Windows' app-porting tools for mobile platforms, though the Android version has already been cancelled. But mobile is undeniably a huge missing piece in Microsoft's grand universal apps scheme. This has led some to believe that Microsoft is gearing up for a Surface Phone, or at the very least, a Surface-style device that's a unique take on the smartphone that can make Windows stand apart. A couple months back it was even breathlessly reported that Microsoft purchased the surfacephone.com domain name and even Microsoft exec Chris Caposella appeared to confirm its existence.
Considering Microsoft owns 67,000+ domain names and Caposella was speaking in the abstract at best, I wouldn't expect any new hardware announcements at Build 2016. In fact, rumours say we might not see any new hardware until early 2017, so it's best to put those dreams of Surface Phones to rest (for now).
The present: Xbox apps
While mobile is certainly a large chunk of Microsoft's vision of Windows 10, so is its gaming console -- the Xbox One. Microsoft has loooooong promised that full Windows 10 apps would finally be traversing the hardware divide and arriving on Xbox.
Microsoft's already announced that the feature will be ready this summer, so it's possible that Microsoft could hold off on demos and more info until the annual E3 video game bonanza in LA. But hopefully Build will see most of the Xbox apps action.
The future: Hololens
With Oculus launching this week and HTC and Valve's Vive headset not far behind, Build would be an opportune moment to update us on Microsoft's own AR headset. One major announcement will be the availability of the $US3000 ($3936) developer units, which will reportedly be available starting tomorrow.
Hopefully, we'll hear more about Microsoft's time table for a consumer version and maybe, just maybe, something about an Xbox competitor to Sony's PlayStation VR that's launching in October. Realistically, I won't hold my breath. More mind-melting demoes would be cool, though.