Microsoft users got a glimpse this week of some impressive Windows 10 features, along with new hardware and a surprise innovation straight out of Star Wars.
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The sentiment among IT pros following Microsoft's webcast showcasing these new technologies was "I hope it all works." And at least during the webcast, they did.
Dubbed Microsoft's best enterprise operating system ever, Windows 10 will include simplified management for IT, hardware-based security that protects corporate data better than ever and stronger user privacy controls.
The next version of Windows will use the Universal Apps development platform, so applications written for it will work across laptops, PCs, tablets, phones and even Xbox One. The digital assistant Cortana will be deeply integrated into PCs and new browser Project Spartan, which replaces Internet Explorer.
As different as this OS is from existing versions of Windows, Microsoft said it has invested heavily to make upgrades from older versions as seamless as possible. For one year following the launch, upgrades from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 devices to Windows 10 will be free. Analysts said they expect hardware designed to run Windows 7, and possibly even Vista, to support Windows 10.
The free upgrade offer and Cortana integration impressed industry observers such as Amit Panchal, an IT manager based outside of London.
He said he expects business users to open their doors to more types of Windows devices, since there will be only one OS to manage, and apps will work across all device types.
"Products like System Center Configuration Manager should be able to manage all devices and also push and remove applications from a single user, which is then carried out on multiple devices," Panchal said. "This could be a winner, especially in the adoption of devices that are not already in the enterprise, such as the Surface 3 and also Windows Phone."
Microsoft has also done away with the idea of "versions." Windows 10 devices will receive updates from Microsoft as they become available for the supported lifetime of the device, at no additional charge. This approach is similar to cloud app updates from competitors such as Google that are pushed out automatically.
However, IT can opt out of the consumer updates, or lock down mission-critical environments to receive only security and critical updates to their systems, Microsoft said.
An important capability for businesses is the Windows 10 "Continuum" feature for 2-in-1 devices. This is intended to allow users to switch back and forth between laptop and tablet modes in a natural way. Apps written for modern devices or 32-bit systems will work on touch-enabled tablets, Microsoft said.
Having a consistent yet adaptive OS that takes advantage of the capabilities of the hardware underneath is among the most important improvements for business users, said Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent analyst firm in Kirkland, Wash.
"It provides a desktop and Start menu for users [who are] used to that on their desktop, and Start screen with immersive full-screen touch apps when touch is available, as it would be on a tablet," Miller said.
Questions remain about what's under the hood in Windows 10, but Microsoft had said previously that IT will be able to connect devices via Azure Active Directory (AD), and users can log in to Windows with Azure AD accounts or add their Azure ID to gain access to business apps and resources.
Cortana for PCs, Spartan and universal apps
Microsoft also disclosed information on unfinished builds that will continue over the next five months, including deep integration of Cortana on the PC and Project Spartan.
Office apps originally designed for PCs, such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, have been tuned for use on either touchscreens or a keyboard and mouse. Windows 10 will also support wireless printing for mobile devices.
In addition, Outlook email in Windows 10 uses the Microsoft Word engine and includes the familiar Word ribbon. Outlook users can swipe left or right to quickly delete or flag mail items -- a capability that will also be available on PCs.
The addition of Cortana may be useful for business users who want highly personalized desktops. The digital assistant keeps a "notebook" of what she learns about users, which can be edited by users for improved engagement, Microsoft said. The speech recognition software in Cortana appears improved, with correct name spellings (pulled from contact lists) and punctuation.
Microsoft also showed off new hardware called the Surface Hub, an 84-in. display screen with integrated compute, built-in sensors, cameras, speakers, microphone, Wi-Fi and other capabilities including a whiteboard that presenters can mark with a digital pen. Combined, all of this should amount to more productive meetings for remote users. It will be available later this year. Pricing has yet to be disclosed.
Holograms become a reality in Windows 10
While the new Windows 10 features are grounded in the reality of what businesses need today, the sci-fi "Windows Holographic" technology got the biggest accolades from IT industry watchers.
Microsoft created a holographic computer called Microsoft HoloLens -- essentially a pair of glasses that serve as an untethered computer reminiscent of Google Glass -- which will be available around the same time as Windows 10, expected sometime later this year.
Developers can create holographic applications via the Universal App platform that can run on Windows 10.
HoloLens allows users to view holograms in high definition and hear them in surround sound. Microsoft invented a holographic processing unit that moves a step beyond the built-in CPU and GPU to support spatial mapping, gesture and voice commands, and more. HoloLens runs without wires while processing terabytes of information from sensors in real time. It requires no markers, no external cameras, and no phones or connections to a PC, Microsoft said.
The most obvious uses are for applications such as Skype or for developers who want to see their creations in three dimensions. In the webcasted demo, a developer used HoloStudio, the holographic development environment, to create a three-dimensional object.
"HoloLens is immersive, and is much more of an output and input device," Miller said. "I can see many uses for it, from enterprise to consumer. A lot will come down to costs and when it is available, but it is pretty impressive technology, especially for a [version] 1 that will also run Windows 10 Universal Applications."
Microsoft has worked on the hologram program for years, hiding development in a lab below the Microsoft Visitor Center. This well-kept secret from a company that normally leaks information like a sieve was unexpected, and it impressed many industry watchers.
"Today was the most vision Microsoft showed in years," said Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc.
In the next week, Microsoft will release the latest build for Windows Insiders running the Windows 10 Technical Preview on PCs. Next month, the technical preview for Windows Phones will be available.
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