In-Depth

Microsoft Build 2018 Leftovers: A Few Final Takeaways

There was no shortage of news at Microsoft's recent developer confab. Here are some more nuggets you might have missed, from improvements around mobile to the latest Fluent Design updates, and more.

Last week was the week to be a developer for Microsoft products. Like they do every year, thousands of developers got together in Seattle for the Microsoft Build conference to see what Microsoft has been busily working on. This year's event did not disappoint.

Although the majority of the content was targeted around Azure, artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT), some other exciting announcements also sprang up. Here's what caught my eye.

Fluent Design
Windows 10, Microsoft's flagship client operating system, got its fair share of improvements this year -- most notably, by way of Microsoft's further investments in what it calls "fluent design." Although not new, fluent design got some neat updates at Build. A new element was an inline command bar flyout that replaces the ribbon, which some people hated. We also saw some new UI effects known as z-depth and shadow, which allow for new ways to manage colors.

Fluent design in Windows 10 continues to give developers more options to beautify the UI in their apps.

Developers also got a new feature in Windows called UWP XAML Islands. This is going to allow developers to use a lot more Universal Windows Platform (UWP) tools inside of traditional software.

Microsoft Sets
Knowledge workers tend to have groups of applications that consist of a workspace. Maybe you're editing video with Adobe After Effects or Camtasia while also using Word for narration, or working on a critical report with a set of browser tabs open. Typically, you'd have to switch between each of these apps, but Microsoft announced a new feature called Sets that allows you to Alt-Tab across groups of apps rather than individually.

Sets is something I'm excited about because as a freelance writer and entrepreneur, I'm always switching between work modes. It would be great if I could have a set of applications defined for each context that I could quickly switch between.

'Your Phone'
Because of Microsoft's failure with its own smartphone product, it is investing lots of resources into making Windows work better with iOS and Android. The "Your Phone" program integrates your mobile phone with your PC at a much deeper level. With Your Phone, you're able to essentially access anything from your mobile phone on your PC like texts, photos and notifications. Think of it as Microsoft's version of Apple's Continuity feature.

Timeline for iOS and Android and Launcher
Another feature around the mobile space is Timeline. Built into Microsoft's latest update to Windows 10, this feature allows users to view their app history and go back to where they were at any point in time. Timeline also can sync across Windows 10 machines.

At Build last week, Microsoft said it is also bringing Timeline to iOS and Android. (Like the aforementioned Your Phone, this is clearly yet another part of CEO Satya Nadella's strategy of playing nice with other technologies.)

Timeline will work across devices by detecting what kind of mobile device a user is on, and if that device has a corresponding app in the user's Windows 10 PC, they can quickly bring it up there. On Android, this presentation will be from the Microsoft Launcher; on iOS, it will be a tab within the Microsoft Edge browser.

Since using Timeline across different devices is so new, most of the supported apps will be Microsoft-owned, but Microsoft is encouraging developers to integrate Timeline into their apps, as well.

Speaking of Microsoft Launcher, Launcher will now also support accessing line-of-business applications for enterprise customers via Intune.

Cortana Loves Alexa
Another announcement at Build this year was Cortana and Alexa working together. Megan Saunders from Microsoft and Tom Taylor from Amazon did a great demonstration of how the two virtual assistants are going get along. It was cool seeing an Amazon device speak to Cortana, and seeing Alexa interact with what was a primarily Cortana-only territory like Windows 10.

Project Kinect
Kinect has traditionally been a gaming product, but this year at Build, Microsoft pivoted a bit by announcing Project Kinect.

Project Kinect is a much smaller device than the original Kinect and will be used primarily to capture voice and video that it sends to Azure. Due to this new architecture, Microsoft will be integrating Kinect with HoloLens, officially calling it Project Kinect for Azure.

AI was one of the overarching themes this year, and Project Kinect will play a part in that. According to Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman, Project Kinect for Azure will essentially capture images and video, and send them up to Azure for AI to then make sense of them. AI will understand what Kinect is looking at, which can have many different applications.

Microsoft Layout
As part of that AI theme, Microsoft also announced a new project called Microsoft Layout. This tool integrates with HoloLens to visualize objects in augmented reality.

This is a cool VR project that has many different applications in areas where, traditionally, people used to just say, "Trust me. It'll look like this when we're done." Now, anyone who designs and creates physical products can develop models of what those products will look like and display them in VR. This presentation will be more immersive and allow users to get a much more in-depth feel for what the end product will look like.

IoT and Azure
Microsoft has been all-in on open source lately, and it's no surprise that it's combining open source with AI and Azure.

At Build, Microsoft announced that it is open-sourcing its Azure IoT Edge Runtime, which is Microsoft's solution for capturing IoT data and managing IoT devices via the Azure cloud. According to Microsoft, open sourcing the Azure IoT Edge Runtime will allow customers to "modify, debug, and have more transparency and control for edge applications."

Microsoft also announced Custom Vision. This feature brings more intelligence to those edge IoT devices without the need for talking to Azure. Typically, IoT devices are "dumb" and get their smarts from the Azure cloud. Custom Vision will bring Microsoft's Azure Cognitive Service closer to the edge and help with integrating that service with IoT and more.

[Click on image for larger view.] Executives from Microsoft and DJI gave a demo of new technology being used in drones. (Source: Microsoft)

Drones
Finally, my favorite demonstration at Build was the drones. Microsoft announced new partnerships with Qualcomm, Red Hat and DJI to create new technologies integrating drones with Windows 10 and Azure.

Executives demonstrated an application of this technology with a drone flying around on stage over a set of pipes. Using its camera and a connection to Azure, the drone was able to recognize anomalies in the pipes to help companies discover potential problems.

This tech goes hand-in-hand with Microsoft's new push for an "intelligent edge," meaning that edge devices will begin to be smarter without a consistent connection to Azure. I'm sure it's not too common to see a reliable Internet connection on a drone flying thousands of feet in the air!

As you can tell, Build 2018 had tons of announcements and was, again, a great place to be as a developer in the Microsoft space. Although no announcement, in my opinion, was truly groundbreaking, the conference showed me that Microsoft is continually making progress. By investing so many resources in Windows 10 and Azure, Microsoft is looking to compete with the likes of Amazon and attempting to make the PC relevant again. I look forward to seeing if its aims become reality.

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