Microsoft gets its Windows mojo back

Analysts impressed with how Windows 10 is shaping up, predict 'huge' upgrade cycle from free deal

PC mode in Windows 10

A tablet running Windows 10 being used in PC mode, even though it's not connected to a keyboard, with the task bar showing

Credit: MIcrosoft

Microsoft today showed off more of its still-under-construction Windows 10, focusing on features like the voice-activated Cortana digital assistant and its "universal" app model that aims to put the same apps on PCs, tablets, smartphones and hybrid 2-in-1s.

The company also announced that upgrades to Windows 10 will be free to all devices currently running Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 on PCs or tablets, or Windows 8.1 on Windows smartphones.

"One of the key questions for today was 'Can they get lots and lots of people onto the new platform?'" said Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research. "The free upgrade is going to be huge, because lowering the upgrade barrier like this should produce a huge upgrade cycle."

Tablet mode in Windows 10 Microsoft

Windows 10 switching to tablet mode so that the app in use takes up the whole screen.

"They're showing a positive direction for Windows 10," said Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, of the presentation overall. "They like to say, 'It's a journey,' and this one still has months and months to go. But I think they're creating an OS that will be very well received by both consumers and enterprises."

The two hour-and-a-half-hour keynote -- which kicked off a day-long, invite-only press and analyst event on the firm's Redmond, Wash. campus -- both summarized earlier revelations about Windows 10 and then offered up more information about what is coming in impending previews.

"This is the second of several conversations we'll be having with you [about] Windows 10," said Terry Myerson, the Microsoft executive who leads its operating systems group, implying that the company will be doing more than just a developer-centric presentation in April at Build conference before it releases the OS into the wild.

Myerson claimed that Microsoft had accumulated about 1.7 million participants in its Windows 10 preview program, and that the sneak peek had been installed more than 3 million times.

"They showed that they're interested in what the Insiders are saying and taking that feedback and responding to that feedback," said Dawson, using the label for the those registered with the Windows 10 Technical Preview program.

Cortana on the desktop

Most of the presentation was dedicated to trumpeting additions to Windows 10, notably Cortana, the now-on-phones-only voice-activated service that Microsoft bills as its answer to Apple's Siri on iOS. Cortana will be baked into the desktop version of Windows 10, and will accept commands, transcribe emails, search for documents and more.

If Cortana is as useful on PCs as Microsoft showed today, Apple may be pressed to add Siri to OS X, a long-rumored move it has not yet made.

Joe Belfiore, who leads Windows' design, conducted a long, sometimes tedious demo that introduced Cortana and a number of other new aspects of Windows 10, including universal apps, Microsoft-speak for its effort to let developers write one app that runs on multiple device categories, from smartphones and tablets to PCs and 2-in-1s.

Windows 10 will have a core set of universal apps common to all devices running Windows 10, Belfiore said, which will range from a photo editor and mapping app to a music player that taps Microsoft's OneDrive and a new browser, code named "Spartan."

That browser, which had been leaked earlier, sports a new rendering engine, but Belfiore did not specify its origin, meaning that it's still unknown whether Spartan relies on Microsoft's own Trident, the foundation of Internet Explorer (IE), or if Spartan will allow extensions, as rumored. Cortana will also be built into Spartan for natural-language queries.

IE will continue to be packaged in Windows 10, presumably for legacy support reasons, although Microsoft will stress Spartan as the OS's "go-to" browser.

"We're going change the way people use PCs," promised Belfiore.

Cortana in Windows 10 Microsoft

Cortana sending an email from a PC.

Not right away, though. What Belfiore showed won't be available, even in the preview, for some time. "These will be coming to Insiders over the next few months ... three, four, five months," said Belfiore.

A next preview will appear shortly: Myerson said a new build would ship "in the next week" for PCs, while the first preview of Windows 10 for smartphones would show up next month.

Myerson's announcement of free Windows 10 upgrades may have been the most significant of the keynote, considering the company's past practice, which has relied on some minor revenue from consumer upgrades but more importantly sparked new computer sales.

Windows 10 for free

"I'm impressed with the progress they've made on Windows 10," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, as he agreed with Dawson that the free upgrade was one of the most significant moves touted today. "They've removed a lot of the barriers of enterprises to upgrade -- they're excited about the new security [features in Windows 10] -- and as far as consumers, they've removed all barriers."

For the first year after Windows 10's official release -- today Microsoft said only that would be "later this year" -- customers running either Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 on personal computers or tablets will be able to upgrade free of charge to the new OS. The same one-year grace will hold for Windows smartphones running Windows 8.1.

Myerson labeled the upgrade and the new, regularly-released updates planned for Windows 10 as "Windows as a service," even though the OS will not, as most services are, be cloud-based. No did he hint that by "service" he meant "subscription."

Even so, Myerson banged the drum. "This changes the rules of the game," he said of the radical-for-Microsoft model.

Microsoft declined to get specific, however, on pricing and packaging for Windows 10 after that first year, saying in a question-and-answer period that it had yet to work out those details. Nor would the company say whether there will be a Windows 10 upgrade for customers who own a Surface or Surface 2 tablet, which are powered by the largely shunned Windows RT operating system.

"Overall, I was impressed," said Dawson, echoing Moorhead. "But they were short on some details today. Many of things they talked about triggered more questions."

Nadella weighs in

CEO Satya Nadella took stage near the keynote's end, and as he has repeatedly, talked about Microsoft's mission as "mobile-first, cloud-first," a mantra that rolls of the tongues of all the firm's top-level executives. But he also trumpeted Windows 10's position in the company.

"We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows," said Nadella. "This is our bold goal with Windows."

But he also tacitly acknowledged the potential problems that Windows 10 presents, and the difficulty in making its promises come true. Nadella called the new upgrade and update practices "pretty profound changes" and "fundamental" in that the firm will "align our goals for success with customers' experiences and their engagement," again hinting that revenue won't be the measuring stick.

Nadella touched on complaints from long-time Windows users, too, when he spoke of how Microsoft will balance its expansion into other operating systems with keeping loyalists, well, loyal.

"We will have services everywhere, but when it comes to Windows, we're not bolting on apps," Nadella said. Windows, he added, will "be the home for the very best Microsoft experience."

"What I really get a sense of is that Microsoft is much more about encouraging a dialog," said Miller of not only the talk of feedback from preview participants, but the keynote as a whole. "The overarching tone now is that what they're building is what customers want."

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