Conversation-as-a-service and an emphasis on bots as the next evolution of human-computer interfaces were the main messages from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during the first keynote of the Build 2016 developer conference in San Francisco today.
The Windows Anniversary Update, which is going to arrive this summer for the 270 million people now using Windows 10, includes relatively unexciting keeping-up-with-the-Joneses features such as biometric security for apps and Microsoft Edge and a virtual ruler for improving stylus penmanship.
More interestingly, Ubuntu Linux will be able to run natively in Windows. Kevin Gallo, Microsoft's corporate VP of Windows Developer Platform, explained: "We've partnered with Canonical to offer this great experience, which you will be able to download directly from the Windows Store."
With a pure Linux experience, a potentially unlimited range of Linux applications should be able to run cleanly in Windows, he said.
Along similar lines, the Desktop App Convertor, a part of Microsoft's Project Centennial concept that focuses on bridging between platforms, was also demonstrated.
The demo included Sage software being swiftly wrapped into a Modern application. A gaming demo followed, showing popular title The Witcher 2 being recompiled as a Modern application.
Xbox chief Phil Spencer promised that features such as downloadable content for games would also be compatible with the Modern UI.
Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of the Windows and Devices group, said: "The original genesis [of Project Centennial] still holds. To have a truly secure experience we think you need these Universal Windows Platform Apps, written in a way to make them well behaved. Until you have that, you're going to have viruses and bugs."
But it's not just about security. "It's about the overall computing experience for the user. That's what we're trying to achieve, so this merger is the best of both worlds," explained Mehdi.
Applications will be "well behaved, well architected and not trying to install crazy code", and the ability to put apps in the Windows Store has "a bunch of advantages", he added.
In another announcement, Microsoft is shipping HoloLens development kits today, and the augmented reality device's SDK and emulators have already appeared on Microsoft's developer pages.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took the stage to promise a range of approaches to helping machines interface smoothly with humans, including plans to "augment human abilities and experiences" to be "trustworthy, inclusive and respectful".
Nadella swiftly addressed the failure of the Tay bot which became a racist, sexist Holocaust denier less than 24 hours after being activated. He said that Microsoft is going "back to the drawing board" on that.
He went on to explain the new approach to human-machine communications. "Bots are like new applications you converse with," said Nadella. But it doesn't end there. We can expect digital assistants, such as Microsoft's Cortana, to converse autonomously with bots on behalf of their human owners.
Cortana will begin integrating with applications such as Slack and Kik to become bot-functional in the Windows environment. A Visual Studio demo of a simple bot to order pizzas from Domino's was shown off to delegates.
Mehdi explained Microsoft's game plan for bots. "It's going to happen rapidly. We're going to go from the notion of every company needing a website ... to needing a bot for consumers and employees," he said.
"You can imagine some great scenarios. I could ask: ‘Hey, what are the retail figures for Windows in China?' and it would come back and answer the question. Or I could ask: ‘Where do I go to get my expense report filled out, and what if I'm travelling to a foreign country?'.
"You can imagine that, instead of having to remember where that app is on the corporate network, you just ask the bot and it does it for you. You can take your website and turn it into a bot, effectively."
Microsoft is currently working with Slack and Kik to achieve integration, but these are at an experimental stage.
The day ended with a demonstration of a Pivothead application that allows a pair of special glasses to photograph and speak about the surrounding world to a blind wearer ('I think it's a girl throwing an orange Frisbee in the park' etc.). It's a good demonstration of Microsoft's stated aim to push technology into interesting new directions.
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