Yesterday's Windows 10 event was full of surprises both big and small, not least the remarkable HoloLens (although it's difficult to see it as a practical reality, it really is an exciting development technically).
Microsoft's announcement that Windows 10 would be free for anybody currently running Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 (plus Windows Phone 8.1) was certainly a headline-grabber. But there's an ulterior motive as to why it's so important that everybody is running Windows 10 instead of an earlier version (and probably why it was so important to bring back the Windows 10 Start menu).
The biggest thing that was reinforced by yesterday's keynote isn't anywhere near so sexy as HoloLens, but it is crucial for Microsoft's future. Everything Microsoft does will now be universal. The idea is that everything can work on every device. And specifically that means apps, apps, apps, from developers, developers, developers.
Here at TechRadar we were so critical of Microsoft's inability to inspire developers for Windows 8 (Modern UI) apps and even more critical that Redmond was sluggish to develop its own Skype app, and that it took a year to even get Facebook on the platform (remember that's a company Microsoft owns a little bit of a stake in).
And we were right. Microsoft got too cocky with the success of Windows 7 and clearly forgot it had totally messed up everyone's computer with Windows Vista. It just assumed the apps would come – in the same way as it just thought people would get used to the Start screen. Big mistakes.
With the advent of Windows 10, Microsoft wants to deal with that, but also an even bigger problem – that the developer base just isn't there for Windows Phone. It's one of the many reasons why people aren't that interested in Windows Phone, which is not a bad mobile platform (in fact, we actually rather like it).
But what if developers could develop apps that work on Windows 10 across all devices – Windows Phones, Windows tablets and PCs and Xbox One as well? Wouldn't that be a little more compelling?
That is what is going to happen, and while we've pretty much known it was going to happen for a while, yesterday it not only got confirmed, but we saw many of the basic apps in action across phone and desktop including Photos, People and Messaging, Mail and Calendar plus Xbox on Windows 10.
The thinking is pretty simple – there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of people working on developing apps for Windows PCs right now. There have been for decades. So what if many of those apps could run on phones, too?
What we saw yesterday app-wise was clearly head and shoulders above the terrible functionality of Windows 8 apps. All have the same look and feel across devices and everything is kept in sync, whether you're on a phone or PC. Continuum also plays into this – the tech which means that Windows on 2-in-1 devices now adapts to whether a keyboard or mouse is docked or not.
This is another key pillar of the 'continuous experience' that Microsoft wants to create across Windows devices. Swapping from your PC to your phone or vice versa? Well now the experience should be a lot more fluid. Part of this fluidity could come through Cortana, the personal voice assistant now coming to Windows desktop, but we'll reserve judgement on how well this actually works in practice. Action Center is on the desktop version of Windows 10 – again ported from Windows Phone – and now synchronises across all devices.
Crucially, we also saw Microsoft Office working universally, too, with a touch-first experience across phone, tablet and PC which Microsoft has certainly made us wait for (presumably because of the universality). Interestingly, Microsoft basically confirmed Office 2015 as the next version of the desktop office suite, too (maybe that won't be the name, but it will be out this year and we already know a new version is coming for the Mac, too).
We'll find out a lot more about universal apps in late April at Build 2015. We're expecting to be in beta territory with Windows 10 by then. Likewise, we'll find out more about Microsoft's plans for phones with Windows 10 (presumably they are still called Windows Phones) at Mobile World Congress 2015 in early March.
Another message that was reinforced is that the future of software is to rent it, not buy it. Okay, so we've already seen this with Adobe's Creative Cloud and Microsoft's own Office 365, but isn't it remarkable that in the future you'll buy a Windows device and the software will never date. You'll get updated for the entire life of that device. Obsoleting devices is no longer in Microsoft's makeup.
Can universality happen?
So can Microsoft's utopian dream of universality work? Certainly. Will it? Possibly. It all depends on what devices you have. You'll get way more benefit from this if you use solely Windows devices. And how many of us can currently say that's what we have?
To build a seamless, universal future, Microsoft certainly needs a sea-change in the numbers of people buying Windows Phones and tablets (people are still buying millions of PCs, somewhere around 80 million were shipped last quarter). But we'd no longer bet against that happening – providing Microsoft can get the message across that its app ecosystem is now strong on phones and Xbox as well as the desktop. We're really keen to see how that will play out.
You certainly wouldn't bet against Microsoft making it happen. Post-Ballmer, this is a reenergised corporation. It's easy to remember the numerous mistakes Microsoft has made, but we are still talking about one of the most successful and dominant corporations of all time. Who can possibly say Redmond can't make it work?