In what might be its last shot at making its flagship software relevant in an increasingly mobile world, Microsoft Corp. is once again rebooting Windows.
In a press event at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters, Microsoft unleashed a bevy of announcements on Wednesday – many of them audacious, and all of them designed to generate a sense of excitement and optimism about the company's near- and long-term future.
While the software giant still dominates in desktop computing, it lags rivals Google Inc. and Apple Inc. in market share in the growing realm of mobile computing. As it did with Windows 8 in 2012, Microsoft is again attempting to position its newest operating system as a software for all seasons – designed to run on tablets, smartphones, desktop PCs and other devices.
The central announcement focused on Windows 10, the latest version of the company's flagship operating system. Due for release later this year, the service is perhaps the company's most important product.
"Windows 10 is built for a world where nearly everything … is digitally mediated. Windows 10 is built for a world where there are going to be more devices on the planet than people," said Satya Nadella, the company's chief executive.
In a series of demonstrations, Microsoft executives showed how Windows 10 has been outfitted with functionality designed to minimize the differences between devices by allowing users to interact with their software in more universal ways, such as voice commands. For example, the company has integrated Cortana – Microsoft's Siri-like voice-activated assistant – more closely into the core operating system, allowing Windows 10 users set appointments or compose e-mails by voice. The company has also introduced a number of features that synchronize and streamline the Windows experience across multiple devices.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of the new operating system is its price. After years of frustration in persuading many of its core users to upgrade, Microsoft is essentially giving Windows 10 away. For the first year of its availability, Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for anyone who currently uses Windows 8 or Windows 7.
The decision illustrates the key challenge facing the company: In the desktop world, where it rules, many users see no need to upgrade; in the mobile world, however, it has a lot of catching up to do. Microsoft needs to attract more customers to buy its Windows phones and tablets and for software developers to build applications for those mobile products.
"Microsoft is no stranger to debacles where Windows is concerned … but the effort, resources, and time required to extricate the company from each predicament increases with every occurrence," said Richard Edward, principal analyst for enterprise mobility and productivity at the research firm Ovum. "Indeed, on the last occasion Microsoft had to find itself a new CEO to steer the company away from the proverbial rocks.
"Yes, Microsoft can recover from the flop that was Windows 8, but it needs to plot a new course for its operating systems strategy to do so."
Microsoft's shares closed down about 1 per cent on the Nasdaq stock exchange on Wednesday.
In addition to its Windows announcement, Microsoft also surprised with a number of other product launches. The company revealed it is building a web browser, codenamed Project Spartan, as well as a suite of "universal" applications (including a new version of the Office suite) designed to run seamlessly on all kinds of hardware. Microsoft also showed off a 84-inch touchscreen monitor and collaboration tool called the Surface Hub, designed to run with Windows 10.
But perhaps the most unexpected announcement was Microsoft's sudden and aggressive foray into the world of holograms. The company unveiled a wearable computer called the HoloLens, as well as a hologram construction tool. Although the technology is in its very early stages, Microsoft's executives sought to place the company and its operating system at the focal point of a new industry centred on augmented and virtual reality.
Whether that audacious bet on virtual reality as the future of computing pays off won't be known for several years. In the meantime, the company's focus is squarely on re-casting Windows as an operating system that can satisfy traditional desktop users and the growing ranks of mobile-first consumers – something it has so far failed to do.
"We want to move from people needing Windows, to people choosing Windows, to people loving Windows," said Mr. Nadella. "That is our bold goal."