It’s been coming for a while. Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen Phil Spencer rejuvenate Xbox and focus back on the games, Windows 10 roll out at record pace (not hard when it’s free but the numbers are still staggering) and Satya Nadella make huge strides to reposition the business for a mobile world.
Still, yesterday’s press conference felt like a turning point for Microsoft with the launch of a series of excellent products, all delivered with a surprising light touch and a visible swagger. Key questions remain like how will this translate in terms of sales? But in the meantime, here’s our quick take on yesterday’s big event.
Xbox was largely absent from yesterday’s event with no Phil (don’t call me Bill from True Blood) Spencer and barely more than a new TV ad to show. However, we were reminded that the new Windows 10 based dashboard is coming to Xbox One this side of Christmas along with backwards compatibility for over 100 games. In the context of yesterday this simply reiterated just how far Microsoft have come with the console – from consumer-hating DRM, a laggy operating system with an empty marketplace to a slick, crowd-pleasing games machine, linked in to the Windows 10 ecosystem.
How can I be so positive? As a member of the Xbox preview program I received the new dashboard yesterday and it’s a huge step forward (yes, even with the current bugs). More detailed thoughts coming soon.
Microsoft Band 2
A quick one here as I seem to be one of the few people interested in this thing. Having owned a couple of smartwatches and fitness trackers I was impressed with the first generation Microsoft Band despite its obvious flaws. I’ve argued (since before gen 1 was announced) that a wearable smartband with the display on the inside of your wrist is the optimal design – being more ergonomic for reading and more private.
Scratch proofing and a curved screen are massive improvements and the added sensors are also very welcome. As with the changes to Xbox One, the second generation band also shows that Microsoft is either listening or genuinely putting people at the centre of their design. Impressive, whether you want one or not.
Restricted field of vision aside, the potential of Hololens just blows me away. Yesterday’s demo of “Project X-ray” added the idea of wearable holograms and is embedded below, take a look:
As a gamer, the possibilities for untethered mixed-reality gaming are something I just can’t stop getting excited about. But I can also see the the professional and commercial applications could be enormous.
Hololens is definitely an eye-catcher and once again threatened to steal the show yesterday. However, it’s also a real signal of intent by Microsoft and a sign that they are not content farming their PC customers or chasing mobile, they are innovating.
So what’s the catch? Well the limited field of view has had its fair share (and maybe more) of criticism and expectations will need to be adjusted for anyone coming to the device from seeing only the third-person stage demos. Cost and launch date are also unknown at this point but based on the development edition that was announced ($3,000, coming 2016) it might be some time before consumers get to use one and they might also want to start saving now.
Windows Phone 10
While Hololens could be the future it was then over to the “so pumped” Panos Panay to take us through the present, starting with two new Windows Phone 10 devices, the Lumia 950 and 950XL. After multiple leaks (which Panay referenced with good humour in his presentation) the specs themselves were not such a surprise but both devices look incredibly capable. However, it was really Continuum (a feature that adapts the OS to suit, not just scale to, the display it’s using) that jumps out and not just for Bryan Roper’s awesome hat. While the talk of having your “PC in your pocket” is still a stretch, it could soon be viable for light users to ditch the laptop.
The key question for Windows Phone 10 (and to a lesser extent Xbox and other devices) is where are the universal apps? Yesterday we had announcements that Facebook were working on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger apps but the list of other partners was still incredibly short given the competition. My view is that this is still the biggest challenge for Microsoft and the main concern that I took out of the event yesterday.
Surface and the Surface Book
Still with Panay (who was infectious in his energy and clearly on a roll) it was then on to the new Surface, or rather Surfaces.
You know a Microsoft is feeling confident when they roll out the Macbook comparisons. However, here we got was not just a “spec-off” but Microsoft really throwing down the gauntlet. Talk of competitors “chasing” to catch up and reinventing the category were fun, as was the refusal to even compare Surface to any kind of “Pad”. All this would be pointless without some stellar products but the new Surface Pro and, even more, the Surface Book sound like they have the specs and design to back it up.
These are powerful, flexible and, yes, beautiful machines. Combined with the excellent Windows 10 it’s only price and prejudice that would stop someone at least considering Microsoft in 2016. But they are premium products with premium prices so, once again, the question is how well will they sell? Again, only time will tell.
Wrapping up – the future looks bright
So Microsoft finally nailed not just one product launch but did it multiple times in the same event.
Specs and software are all well and good but where the presentation really shone was typified by on recurring refrain from Panay – “what’s the point?” or sometimes “what does it mean?”. More than anything else on the day, this was the defining memory for me, with Microsoft taking the focus off the technology itself and onto what it adds for the user.
As Satya later summed things up “we make things that help you make things, or make things happen”. Simple, helpful and surprisingly human. Welcome back Microsoft.