At Build, Microsoft will attempt to galvanize developer interest in both its soaring and struggling platforms, and to reshape the public narrative around the divisive response to Win8. Doing so will involve a variety of efforts during the conference's three days, and though Microsoft has likely kept some surprises under wraps, industry observers have spent months predicting what Build will bring. Here are seven things Microsoft could showcase next week in San Francisco.
1. Windows 8.1
Microsoft has confirmed that this one is coming, complete with its restored Start button and much-requested boot-to-desktop function, but still missing Windows 7's Start Menu. Redmond has already demonstrated many of the update's tweaks, from the Modern UI's more customizable looks to extended controls that allow users to operate in one of the OS's interfaces without jumping to the other. The big question: Has Microsoft already revealed everything, or does it have a blockbuster feature waiting in the wings? Win8.1 has been the subject of frequent and accurate leaks, few of which have indicated a game-changing new function, but Windows 8 is still a bottom feeder in market share, so Redmond will be feeling pressure to impress.
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2. New Surface Models
The rumor mill has prognosticated for months that Microsoft will use Build to launch a new Surface tablet, or perhaps even a refreshed family of devices. The Surface Pro has sold decently, and a new version with Intel's Haswell chip would address the device's primary weakness: battery life. The processors could potentially allow for slimmer, lighter designs and better graphics capabilities as well. More likely, though, given the rising popularity of smaller tablets such as the iPad Mini, Microsoft will showcase a new 8-inch Surface RT. The original version has been an infamous flop, and Microsoft appears to be dumping inventory. If a new WinRT model appears, though, what will Microsoft do to make it more attractive? Lower prices are a likelihood, but will it bring more to the table?
3. A Surface Phone
There's been more buzz around Surface tablets than a Surface phone, but Windows Phone 8 has enjoyed a relatively successful debut year, and Microsoft might be eager to advance the line. Its evident interest in purchasing Nokia, since abandoned, certainly suggests Microsoft has considered building its own smartphones. But rumors suggest Windows Phone Blue, the mobile equivalent of Windows 8.1, won't arrive for several months, so if a Surface phone is in the offing, it might be a while until we get a close look.
4. Visual Studio And Other Developer Tools
The modern Microsoft operating systems -- including the Xbox's -- are built around the same kernel, which the company hopes will eventually result in a "write once, deploy everywhere" system, in which apps can be spread across the entire ecosystem with minimal recoding for each OS. Full unity will take a while, however, and in the meantime, the Microsoft developer community is still fragmented across the programming languages and resources that have defined various generations of Windows releases. At Build, Microsoft likely will release new tools, such as Visual Studio, that make it easier to build Modern UI apps, and that encourage more cohesion across the company's different developer communities.
5. New Apps
Microsoft has already confirmed that Windows 8.1 will include enhanced native apps -- which is a good thing, since the original versions weren't well-received. But in addition to showcasing new Modern UI offerings built internally, the company may also exhibit standout third-party apps. There are indications that Microsoft has worked with some companies to create richer and more compelling user experiences for both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, and if there's any venue at which the company needs great examples to inspire developers, it's Build.
6. Better Developer Enticements
Microsoft needs more developers to focus on Modern UI apps, which now number a relatively adequate 92,000 but still cannot remotely match the diversity and quality found in the Android and iOS catalogs. Redmond has launched a number of developer initiatives throughout 2013, including paying developers $100 per app, and, according to a recent Bloomberg report, offering some companies up to $100,000 to build Windows Phone titles. If Microsoft has more enticements planned, Build is the place to launch them. The revenue-sharing opportunities of its new in-app advertising platform, which somewhat resembles iOS's iAd, constitute one possibility.
7. New Businesses And Other Surprises
According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, Microsoft considered launching an e-commerce competitor to Amazon and eBay but has since tabled the plans. Other rumors have suggested the company might launch a smart watch, though that product is likely many months away, or somehow leverage its investment in Barnes & Noble, perhaps as part of a Surface-branded e-reader. It's a longshot that any of these concepts will make an appearance at Build -- but the event will be held in San Francisco, the city in which Steve Jobs famously uttered "one more thing" at numerous keynotes before unveiling unexpected new products. If Microsoft has some card hidden up its sleeve, next week might be the time to play it.