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article imageOp-Ed: Microsoft's new hardware represents the company's evolution

By James Walker     Oct 10, 2015 in Technology
This week, Microsoft hosted a much-anticipated press event in New York during which it unveiled Windows 10 smartphones, an upgraded Surface Pro and even an all-new laptop in a presentation that I think completed its transition to an exciting new company.
Over the past year, Microsoft has been transforming itself from a business with its head stuck in the past to a forward-thinking, refreshed and enlivened culture of people looking to enhance productivity and create new computing experiences. Under the leadership of Satya Nadella, Microsoft has begun to thrive, gaining confidence and the motivation to push ever bolder concepts into the market. Never was this more apparent than during Microsoft's #Windows10devices event on Tuesday, October 6.
Surface Book at Microsoft s October 2015 #Windows10 devices event.
Surface Book at Microsoft's October 2015 #Windows10 devices event.
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
Microsoft's team took to the stage with drive and clear enthusiasm for the products they have created, bringing smiles to the audience and fans worldwide watching from home. The event was introduced by Terry Myerson, Executive Vice President of the Windows and Devices Group, but it was Panos Panay who did most of the talking. Only recently appointed as overall head of the Microsoft devices division for the success of his creation, Surface, Panay evidently enjoyed demonstrating the latest iteration of that concept, the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, products his team have worked with passion on for months.
Windows Hello on Windows 10 Mobile Lumia 950  06/10/2015
Windows Hello on Windows 10 Mobile Lumia 950, 06/10/2015
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
Panay gave the stage over to Bryan Roper for the presentation of the crucial Continuum technology that will allow a Windows 10 phone to convert to a full desktop computer when connected to a display. Roper's enthusiasm reverberated with the crowd as he grinned with passion for everything he said. This wasn't forced laughter but actual humour, derived from the significance of the technology that Microsoft has sculpted. Plugging a mouse, keyboard and a display into a small device to seamlessly create a big one has been the stuff of sci-fi for years but on Tuesday Microsoft made it happen in a way that directly related to the people who will use it.
Traditional Microsoft presentations have tended to be on the dull and drab side with content based around statistics, businesses and developers. On Tuesday, Microsoft seemed to throw the past out of the window. The specifications were glossed over and the experiences emphasised instead. These aren't products designed only to add to numbers on financial reports: these are products for people to love and to have all-new experiences with. These are products that will let you Do Great Things.
Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile - when connected to a display  the phone powers a Windows 10 desktop ...
Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile - when connected to a display, the phone powers a Windows 10 desktop experience via a dock
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
By contrast, last month's Apple event seems dull in comparison. Whereas Steve Jobs walked around the stage with clinical precision, stopping to hush the audience and announce new features of the iPhone 6S, Roper and Panay paced about wearing broad smiles, enlivening the audience with deliberate encouragement and showing videos of their own children using the technology they had made.
The enthusiasm demonstrated a key point of Microsoft's new devices: these are built for people. Regardless of audience or market, eventually the Lumia 950, Surface Pro 4, Microsoft Band and even HoloLens will end up in the hands of real people. It is the humans that make the machines come to life.
Surface Book at Microsoft s October 2015 #Windows10 devices event.
Surface Book at Microsoft's October 2015 #Windows10 devices event.
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
The internal layout of the Surface Book is a masterpiece in its own right, comprising hundreds of individual, tiny components arranged to an accuracy never before achieved in the assembly of a laptop. It is the most crafted device ever built in its form-factor but that unerring precision and meticulous attention to detail means nothing without a user. Microsoft can provide the tools but you have to decide what great things should be done with them.
Why was Panay so excited? Because this engineering marvel can be further enhanced by the people who use it, when the hybrid liquid-cooling system whirrs into life and Surface Pen is placed against the display.
Microsoft even indirectly demonstrated what all this leads to. Panay said much of the design of the Surface Pro 4 was completed using the Surface Pro 3. Last year's device found itself in use fulfilling the ultimate purpose of life: creating its own successor.
Screenshots of closing video from Microsoft s October 2015 live event
Screenshots of closing video from Microsoft's October 2015 live event
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
In another break from tradition, Microsoft opted not to bore the audience with its usual reams of technical details, instead going for an admittedly rather Apple-esque stance of just showing things in action. I wasn't the only one who noticed that Microsoft demoed the Surface Pro 4's 5Gbps USB Type-C port by copying 3GB of files from a USB stick to the desktop in just a few seconds. It was a remarkable demo for the simple reason that it existed.
Microsoft could — and in 2013 probably would — have just explained how this works with some details of the USB bandwidth used and an informing tour of how the port is connected to the motherboard, even though nobody considers this when plugging in a USB stick. Microsoft apparently realised this and said nothing of the how. It showed the what.
What the end user will be able to achieve and what the end user cares about. The result? A gasp from the audience as 3GB of gameplay videos were pulled from a USB stick in mere seconds. Microsoft now wants users to care about the experience, not the device. Since it last unveiled new products, Microsoft seems to have learnt all there is to know about engaging an audience.
It could be argued that this has come from necessity. While Microsoft has floundered in the shallows and only just waded into the mobile-first world we've come to live in, its competitors have been polishing and refining product designs that sell in their millions. Has this affected Microsoft? It would be foolish to claim it hasn't but it is the way in which it has that matters. Microsoft has grown up at a startling rate under Nadella's leadership, even forcing its rivals to finally acknowledge its existence again.
Surface Pro 4 image from Microsoft s October 2015 Live Event
Surface Pro 4 image from Microsoft's October 2015 Live Event
Microsoft
Take the Surface: Microsoft's "tablet that can replace your laptop". The company has been claiming it can do just that for four years now. Was the first generation a success? Not exactly. Microsoft ultimately lost $900 million when it disposed of millions of unsold first-generation Surface units. Did it learn from the failure for the second edition? Yes, of course, but was it enough? Not exactly.
The Surface 2 upped the hardware game but kept the original Surface's most major flaw: Windows RT, the confusing Windows version that looked like Windows 8 but couldn't run desktop programs. Was Windows RT the cause of the issue plaguing Windows devices in 2013? Many analysts and Microsoft watchers, myself included, think it certainly played a major role.
Microsoft s Surface Pro 4.
Microsoft's Surface Pro 4.
Microsoft
Ultimately, the Surface 2 did better than the original but still didn't get people rushing to replace their laptops. What does Microsoft do now? The options are clear, the one that many felt logical simple: amid stagnating sales and waves of negative feedback for Windows 8, axe the Surface division and call it a day? Alternatively, have a final stab at that catchy tagline? Perhaps the Steve Ballmer Microsoft would have gone down the former path. Satya Nadella, appointed CEO three months before the Surface Pro 3's release, chose to go ahead with the second and Microsoft has been reaping the benefits ever since.
Under the leadership of Panos Panay, the Surface team went right back to the drawing board, asking themselves what it was they really wanted to make. With productivity once again the definitive ethos at Microsoft, the team had an excuse to concentrate their efforts on the premium-tier Surface Pro. The results, revealed in May last year, finally drew fans - lots of fans.
Surface Pro 4 at Microsoft s October 2015 live event
Surface Pro 4 at Microsoft's October 2015 live event
Microsoft
As it turns out, people were interested in a 12-inch, all-metal tablet with a beautiful display, detachable keyboard, pressure-sensing stylus and the ability to run every Windows program ever written. Surface Pro 3 became the perfect device for journalists, professionals, businesses and schools. By refusing to yield to failure, Microsoft ensured that the hit it knew it could eventually create would be really worth it. How can the success be gauged? By looking at the reactions from Microsoft's rivals.
Last month, Apple took the wraps off the long-rumoured iPad Pro - a stylus-touting, pressure-sensing large tablet, even complete with split-screen multi-tasking. Has it taken inspiration from the Surface? It would be rather impudent to claim otherwise. However, the most noticeable competition lies closer to home.
Press shots of the HP Spectre X2  a convertible to rival Microsoft s Surface Pro 4
Press shots of the HP Spectre X2, a convertible to rival Microsoft's Surface Pro 4
HP
Just one day after the official launch of the Surface Pro 4, HP unveiled the Spectre X2: a convertible tablet/laptop hybrid that very deliberately follows the Surface design of kickstand, detachable keyboard, 12-inch display and stylus. Other PC manufacturers including Dell and Lenovo are expected to unveil their own takes on the genre soon. Microsoft has successfully invented a whole new product-class of tablets to replace laptops. It took a while but with perseverance came progress. Progress is paramount and it has ultimately led to Microsoft dominating the productivity-focused large tablet market.
Now its attention turns to mobiles. Windows Phone hasn't been the greatest success but it has achieved enough to prove there is a place for Microsoft in the mobile world. The operating system represents less than 3% of all smartphones in use but that number isn't declining, unlike rivals like BlackBerry. Windows Phone may be an unpopular minority but it's a minority that has proven it is not going to go away.
File photo: Lumia 950 demo at #Windows10 devices event 6/10/15.
File photo: Lumia 950 demo at #Windows10 devices event 6/10/15.
Microsoft
With the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL, Microsoft will be hoping that some iOS and Android users will finally consider making the switch. Windows 10 Mobile is a more mature platform than Windows Phone 8 with a refined interface and beautiful core apps. What's more, third-party developer support is finally getting moving with big names now promising to develop official apps for Universal Windows. Perhaps most notably of the companies Microsoft featured at its event, Facebook has pledged to release fully-featured Windows 10-editions of its apps including Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Instagram.
On the hardware side of things, the new phones boast true flagship performance and cameras that Microsoft claim will take some of the best photos you've ever seen on a smartphone. Based on the evidence from previous Lumias, that claim should hold up pretty well under use.
The Start menu on Windows 10
The Start menu on Windows 10
Microsoft
The core technology powering all of Microsoft's new devices remains Windows 10 though. If anything is going to save Microsoft and re-establish it as a crucial component of Silicon Valley, it will be Windows 10. The operating system has drawn several controversies since launch for its questionable privacy policies but general feedback from both consumers and businesses has been largely positive.
Windows 10 will power desktops, laptops, tablets and phones. Behind the scenes, it represents the core of the new Xbox One Experience and extends its influence into HoloLens and Microsoft Band. Its server arm will soon be hosting the data that controls the world while embedded and Internet of Things editions will invisibly keep devices like ATMs, information boards and smart objects alive.
However, the most notable component to the consumer is likely to be the Universal Apps platform, whether they realise it or not. Developers writing for Windows 10 publish their app once to the unified Windows store. From there, users can download it to desktop computers with giant displays, tablets with smaller ones or phones with tiny ones and still see the same content. The interface intelligently resizes to suit but the underlying code remains identical.
Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile - when connected to a display  the phone powers a Windows 10 desktop ...
Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile - when connected to a display, the phone powers a Windows 10 desktop experience via a dock
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
This concept is critical to what could be the saving grace of Windows 10 Mobile: Continuum. The same technology that lets tablets like the Surface Pro 4 automatically switch between tablet and desktop mode when a keyboard is connected also lets Lumia owners turn their phone into a full computer by just connecting a monitor, mouse and keyboard.
With that done, the phone automatically powers an interface on the external display that resembles the desktop edition of Windows 10. Apps can be opened from the Start menu, which mirrors the tile layout on the phone, and appear on the taskbar when running. The Universal Apps platform means they use the entire display and render in their desktop interfaces, providing a full working environment at a moment's notice - powered by a device that fits in your pocket.
Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile - when connected to a display  the phone powers a Windows 10 desktop ...
Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile - when connected to a display, the phone powers a Windows 10 desktop experience via a dock
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
The technology could be enough to convince people who currently carry several different devices with them each day to give a single Windows 10 phone a chance. In developing countries, it makes it possible for those who can only afford a phone to have a full computer as well. Apple can say what it likes about capturing a second of video before and after shooting a photo being "totally unique technology" but in reality it is Microsoft building the totally unique things.
Apple isn't even close to being able to replicate Continuum; iOS and Mac OS X apps are completely separate entities and the company has confirmed it has no plans to merge the two platforms. Microsoft is the only company striving to make every device run off one unified core and we're increasingly beginning to see the labour blossom into fruits we've never seen before.
Nadella ended the event by saying "every unique company has a soul, a source of inspiration and creativity." In the case of Microsoft, it looks like that soul could be Nadella himself. Over the past 18 months, Microsoft has transformed itself from the boring software company who killed its own designs with Windows 8 to an all-encompassing technology giant building truly unique hardware, era-defining software and next-generation computing experiences that would have been all but impossible just a few years ago.
Screenshots of closing video from Microsoft s October 2015 live event
Screenshots of closing video from Microsoft's October 2015 live event
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
No other company has such a diverse product portfolio as Microsoft does right now. It builds smartphones that morph into full-blown desktop computers at a moment's notice. Tablets that can now truly replace your laptop while providing more functionality and more power. A wearable device that is strikingly unique, the only such device to try to bridge the gap between fitness trackers and smartwatches. That isn't the end of the story though.
Microsoft still has Windows and Office. The big money-spinners are alive and well and have both just enjoyed all new releases. Microsoft gave an updated figure for Windows 10 usage on Tuesday, claiming 110 million installs in the past 10 weeks. Elsewhere, Microsoft is serious about the potential of HoloLens, going down the augmented reality route that few other companies have yet turned their attention to.
The company owns Mojang, makers of Minecraft, the best-selling PC game ever, and has found a new motivation for developing Xbox gaming on console and PC. It remains the only company to have all its core software products available on every major platform.
Satya Nadella at Microsoft s October 2015 live event
Satya Nadella at Microsoft's October 2015 live event
Microsoft October 2015 Live Event
Is Microsoft the best-positioned company in Silicon Valley right now? I would argue what I believe is an indisputable yes. No other firm has such a diverse collection of hardware accompanied by world-leading software accessible by anybody, regardless of brand allegiance.
Nadella said that Microsoft is making "great progress" in its quest to move people from "needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows", something that is apparently fuelling "even more enthusiasm and opportunity for the entire Windows ecosystem." The #Windows10devices event demonstrated that this is true even of the people responsible for creating that ecosystem.
With a new emphasis on making productivity exciting, Microsoft itself has become a much more exciting, self-confident company and one worthy of the love it wants. Can Microsoft truly "inspire everybody to achieve more?" Only time will tell as Redmond completes its turn into an all-new direction, a direction that, in Bryan Roper's words this week, "lets me be productive like a boss wherever I am."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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