At Build 2016, Everything Old Was New Again
This year Microsoft showed off improvements across its large line of products and services.
At this year's annual Build conference in San Francisco, Microsoft's top executives showed off an impressive array of new products and services.
They offered a slick, polished performance that the audience of developers seemed to enjoy tremendously. And yet, as the demos went on and the videos rolled, I kept feeling this strange sense of déjà vu. While undeniably exciting, practically everything they showed has been in the company's playbook for years.
Build 2016 was a nearly pure expression of Microsoft's DNA: The company is rarely first to a market, its opening efforts often fall short, but it keeps plugging away. A decade ago, then-CEO Steve Ballmer praised Microsoft's "tenacity and persistence and long-term approach" as a core strength: "The bone doesn't fall out of our mouth easily," Ballmer admitted. Ballmer may be gone, but that dogged determination remains. Consider these examples from Build 2016:
Bash on Windows
Hell froze over with the announcement that Microsoft and Canonical had cooperated to release the Windows subsystem for Linux -- running a no-kidding-this-is-the-real-thing Ubuntu user-mode image inside Windows 10. The Bash shell and Linux command-line tools running on Windows? Done.
As longtime Windows watchers quickly recalled, Windows has had similar Unix services for decades, going back to Windows NT 4.0 in 1994. Those bits and pieces have evolved and improved over the years, but they've been there mostly to satisfy checklists on government purchase orders. Now they appear to be present in a form that developers might actually want to use.
Next up was an impressive demo of the new Windows Ink platform, with Microsoft showing off a Wacom-powered pen that requires only two lines of code to work with any Universal Windows Platform (UWP) app. Another innovation that drew applause was a virtual ruler that lets anyone draw straight lines at precise angles, like a master draftsman.
Of course, I could've lugged any old tablet PC, even a vintage 2002 model, to the keynote hall and jotted down my impressions using a pen. The tablet PC category never took off, but Microsoft never gave up on it. After 14 years of evolution in CPUs and display technology, the pen-and-ink experience is finally not just palatable, but pleasant. Maybe this will, at last, be the year pen computing reaches the mainstream.
I was delighted to see more support for Windows Hello, the biometric technology built into Windows 10. The most interesting addition is support for signing in to Web services in Microsoft Edge using biometric technology and simple PINs. Here, too, the dream of password-free authentication has been around for many years, dating back to the turn of the 21st century.
PCs with biometric technology (fingerprint readers, mostly) have worked with Windows for more than a decade, but they were generally a rare and expensive upgrade. Now that similar technology has become standard with high-end smartphones, it's possible that it will start showing up in mainstream PCs, too. I'm skeptical that expensive infrared cameras for facial recognition will achieve critical mass anytime soon, but maybe I'm too pessimistic.
Talk to the Cloud
And then there was Microsoft's unmistakable commitment to speech recognition, with the announcement that it's building the infrastructure for developers to create bots that can communicate with Skype and Cortana on behalf of brands, including hotels and airlines.
Speech recognition has been a core feature in Windows since the launch of Windows Vista. But it turns out, a decade later, that we never really wanted to talk to our PCs. Instead, in Microsoft's vision, we want corporate bots jumping into online conversations to offer to help us book hotel rooms. Surely, I'm not the only one who considers this development awesome and insipid and creepy at the same time.
The bottom line from Build 2016: There really is nothing new under the sun. I'd like to think that these products and services will flourish right away, but don't be surprised if it takes a few more years.
Ed Bott is a Microsoft MVP and an award-winning tech journalist who has covered Microsoft for 25 years. He's written numerous books on Windows and Office, including the best-selling "Inside Out" series from Microsoft Press. Bott delivers outspoken advice on a wide range of technology topics at his ZDNet blog, "The Ed Bott Report."