Microsoft knows you don’t run Windows on all of your gadgets, and it no longer cares.
That, above all else, was the message the company conveyed for three whole days at its Build developer conference. Redmond is no longer trying to foist phones on consumers who don’t want them. It stopped plugging its ears and pretending Google Docs and Chromebooks aren’t a threat. And it won’t beg people to throw out all of their devices and buy a dozen new ones so they can live their Best Windows Life. CEO Satya Nadella and his executives made it clear, in every way they could think of, that Microsoft finally understands how the world works. And it has a plan.
That plan, broadly speaking, hinges on using Microsoft services to improve all of the devices you already use. Joe Belfiore, the remarkably coiffed head of Windows platforms, lingered over a slide that would have been unthinkable not long ago: A photo of five gadgets, only three of them running Windows, above the title “Windows PCs ❤️ All Your Devices.” He says the company designed the next version of Windows 10 to make life easier for people who use Windows computers and Android or iOS stuff—a group that includes just about everyone. The update, arriving in the fall, will let you start a document on your iPhone and finish it on your Surface Studio, or begin reading a WIRED story on your desktop at work and finish it on your Pixel at home. Copy-and-pasting will finally work on whatever OS you’re using, and you’ll be able to see everything you’ve been working on, everywhere, all at a glance.
It sounds lovely, and speaks to a common frustration: Gadgets are entirely too siloed, and people spend way too much time and effort managing them. What makes this new Windows vision so compelling is it promises peace of mind, coherence, and simplicity. What makes it so genius is it finally offers Windows a way into the most important gadget you own, and the one Microsoft almost certainly isn’t a part of right now: your smartphone.
Redmond put a lot of complicated tech behind this cross-platform strategy—it involves XAML and .NET and whatever the Microsoft Graph is—but wrapped it all up in a tidy bow called Cortana. Microsoft’s virtual assistant is by all accounts very good, better in some ways than Siri or Google Assistant. But it can’t compete with assistants baked into a phone. No one wants to download a third-party app when the same features are a tap of the home button away. And once you’ve started using an assistant, you have little reason to switch.
So Microsoft gave Cortana a job Siri and Google Assistant can’t do. Or, rather, all the jobs they can’t do. Now, Cortana is how you access that spreadsheet you started earlier. It is how you transfer a photo from your phone to Photoshop on your laptop. It stays in the background, and pops up when you need it.
Very cool, but to make sure you keep using Cortana, Microsoft made it even more helpful. Forget to finish that WIRED article (rude)? Cortana will notify you—and save your place. Sit down at your laptop, and Cortana can suggest a bunch of recent documents you might want to open. This makes Cortana a virtual assistant who anticipates your needs, which means you’re more likely to use it. And the more you use it, the more likely you are to keep using it because virtual assistants improve over time.
Microsoft created some other clever ways into your smartphone, too. It bought keyboard company Swiftkey last, and is using that app to deliver a cross-device clipboard feature that lets you copy on Windows and paste on iPhone. The OneDrive app keeps all of your files in sync, and makes them available just about everywhere you might want them. And Redmond updated some developer tools (and updated others) to make it easier for everyone else to build apps on all platforms using Microsoft’s cross-platform on the back end.
But Cortana’s ability to infiltrate your phone will make or break Microsoft’s unification effort. “Microsoft Graph will provide the glue between the devices,” engineer Abolade Gbadegesin said during his presentation. “Cortana will be the UI that makes it all work.” Virtual assistants are slowly taking responsibility for running your life, handling things behind the curtain so all you do is ask for what you want. The tech underpinning Cortana might soon appear in your car, or in the fancy new Harman Kardon speaker. It’s central to Microsoft’s plans for virtual and augmented reality, and central to the future of Windows. Cortana is the computer; gadgets are merely its corporeal form.
Making this work poses an epic challenge. It requires a massive corps of developers integrating the new Windows features, and utilizing the back-end tech Microsoft provides—something that hasn’t gone so well before now. And Apple and Google surely have thoughts about Microsoft sneaking into some of the most tightly controlled parts of iOS and Android. But Microsoft enjoys some advantages: 500 million people already use Windows 10, and 140 million use Cortana. Most of them acutely understand the pain of using disparate and disconnected devices. If Microsoft can unify everything, it could make all those devices, all those services, feel a little more connected. It could make all your computers finally make sense.