The big number at this year’s Build: 270 Million. That’s the number of copies of Windows 10 that consumers and enterprises have purchased or upgraded to since Microsoft’s latest flagship launched last year. And the message that Executive Vice President of Microsoft’s Windows and Devices group Terry Meyerson sent to developers at the Build conference was that Windows is very much alive and well, and that it’s a great platform for them to build on (pun intended).
But there’s another not so obvious theme in Microsoft’s messages to developers at Build. Satya Nadella painted a picture of the longer term future of operating systems in general and Windows in particular: The decomposition of monolithic OSes that served consumers well when our digital interactions were confined to one or two devices. As devices multiply and input/output mechanisms broaden, it can’t help but affect the underlying services that operating systems have traditionally provided, especially as entirely new categories of connected devices emerge. Here’s how:
  • Cortona is ready for deep developer integration. In my opinion, the biggest change at Build is the emergence of natural language processing as a first class input/output mechanism for. Conversations as a platform (CaaP) takes the power of human language and applies it to digital interactions. Microsoft’s CaaP framework layers in context about people, places and things to enrich the conversations. With CaaP, human language joins window chrome and widgets as a core UI element. And developers can now layer in their own extensions to Cortana via “bots”. 
  • Hololens takes another steps toward commercialization. As of today, Microsoft is now shipping Hololens developer kits, and making sample code available to devs on GitHub. Hololens dispenses with window chrome entirely by mapping digital holograms into the physical world, employing advanced computer vision and multiple sensors to make sure digital artifacts are properly projected into the physical world. 
  • Ink improves advanced tactile input. Enhancement to ink support in the upcoming Windows 10 Anniversary update will put the pen front and center in Windows. But it will provide more than just improved ink capture. The ink aware controls add contextual integration so the words like “tomorrow” or “next Tuesday" get recognized as well as location. Ink (and Cortana) will also be available above the device lock screen, and extended into many more apps, with a special section of the Windows store devoted to Ink enabled apps.
  • Cognitive service APIs. Microsoft announced a preview of the Cortana Intelligence Suite, a set of services that support data acquisition, management, analysis and enrichment at scale. The intelligence suite also includes 20+ machine learning APIs like the Emotion API, Face API, Speech API and Computer Vision API. Consider these services the starting  toolkits for developers that want to build solutions that augment intelligence, and a clear response to IBM’s investment in the Bluemix Watson Developer Cloud.
Combined, these announcements paint a very difference future for Microsoft and for Windows: cross platform services and and new input/output mechanisms (see Figure 1). In this future bots are the new apps, digital assistants are the new meta apps (as opposed to browsers or search) and intelligence is infused into all interactions. None of these require a window to function (although they will certainly be exposed in windows, cards, chat clients, command lines, car dashboards and through microphones and cameras. Developers will need to adjust to a very difference world of multiple modal input and output mechanisms, and anticipate that consumers will move between them quickly and change their habits depending on location, noise levels, and personal preference. The shift will prove as challenging as moving mobile app development.
Figure 1: Developer Input-output Options are Expanding In Windows 10 Anniversary Update