It’s been a few years since Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer danced across the stage screaming “DEVELOPERS DEVELOPERS DEVELOPERS,” but those are still the three words you’d use to explain this week’s Build conference. Like Google’s I/O or Apple’s WWDC, the annual event is partly a state of the union, partly a product unveiling, but mostly a time to bring the developer community together and pitch them on a vision of the future.
The conference lasts two days, with keynote addresses starting at 8 am on both Wednesday and Thursday. You can watch on Microsoft’s site, and you should definitely hang out with us while we liveblog.
Microsoft seemingly hasn’t left itself much to unveil this time. CEO Satya Nadella and his team already announced the Surface Laptop and the education-focused Windows 10 S software that powers it. They’ve also scheduled another hardware event for later this month. Meanwhile, Harman Kardon showed off the new Invoke speaker, with the Cortana voice assistant inside. The world knows all about HoloLens, and Microsoft’s basically out of the phone game. So what’s left?
Apps and AI
For Microsoft, what’s most interesting and important is the spaces between all those devices. Under Nadella, it has spent the last few years making sure anyone can use Microsoft products, no matter where they are. Expect to hear countless versions of the pitch for Microsoft’s universal apps, which let developers write a single block of code that will work on computers, phones, tablets, Xboxes, even augmented-reality devices. So far, the pitch hasn’t captured anyone’s imagination—the Windows Store is still woefully underpopulated. Since Windows 10 S only runs Store apps, and the company’s many new platforms will rely on them as well, it needs a full store. If the Microsoft team could get away with grounding the thousands of developers in attendance in Seattle until their apps work on Windows, you have to wonder if they’d try.
The conference lasts two days, with keynote addresses starting at 8am on both Wednesday and Thursday.
Another of Nadella’s biggest focuses has been on Microsoft’s artificial intelligence services—he’s particularly interested in figuring out how to apply big-data learning and algorithms outside of huge data centers and in smaller devices and applications, a field known as “edge computing.” Azure, the company’s cloud-service program that compete’s with Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services, is an important part of the company’s finances. AI and cloud-computing services are both huge money-makers and fuel a wildly competitive market, so expect Microsoft to forcefully make its own case.
As Microsoft continues to remake itself as a productivity company, AI is starting to touch everything it does. Cortana should play a starring role in the keynote, as Microsoft tries to fend off Alexa and Google Assistant in order to be the virtual assistant you choose to trust with your life. The same technology goes into the bots Microsoft won’t stop making, no matter how badly it goes. Ultimately, bots could make most mundane tasks easier on the internet—Microsoft’s building them for Bing, Skype, Office, and more. Right now they’re still just racist.
The Build schedule, always a good barometer for Microsoft’s thinking ahead of the conference, indicates that now that the Windows 10 Creators’ Update is out, developers will get a first look at an all-new Windows design language. Office is a constant at Build, too, and should feature prominently this year as Microsoft tries to prove it’s just as collaborative and internet-y as Google Docs. Likewise, you can bet your breakfast that someone will get on stage and show off a bunch of mind-blowing HoloLens demos that are nowhere near ready for launch. A real product timeline for HoloLens would be the biggest Build news in years.
More than anything, you should expect to spend a lot of time in the deep, deep developer weeds. There will probably be people coding on stage, and people clapping at people coding on stage. As the company preps for the next battles in tech—voice, AI, augmented reality, cloud computing—Microsoft’s executives will be in front of a crowd they desperately need, and in fact can’t win without. The team has to convince everyone that what’s coming next won’t be like it was with smartphones. It has to show developers, and the world, that what Microsoft does next is win.