Microsoft's Build conference is nearly entirely aimed at developers. But that's not to say that this year's Build came and went without any announcements that directly benefit end users like you and me. For example, an update to Windows 10 will offer greatly enhanced pen capabilities, Cortana is getting a lot smarter and bots are going to be at your beck and call. Here are five key announcements from the Build keynote that you need to know about.
1. Better Inking
Microsoft's digital drawing and writing tools are getting expanded powers in the Windows 10 Anniversary Update slated for this summer. Jot down a time in a sticky note, and that time becomes tappable so that you can set up a reminder with the Cortana assistant. Draw a line between two points on a map, and you'll not only get a calculation of the distance, but directions between the two points as well. And, in a feature that put a song in my cold editor's heart, you can use a stylus to cross out entire paragraphs in a Word document, and all that text will get deleted.
Microsoft's Ink demo came out a week after Apple took the wraps off a 9.7-inch version of the iPad Pro, touting that tablet's sketching capabilities when you spring for the $99 Apple Pencil accessory. I'm not suggesting today's Ink announcement is a direct response to that — Microsoft has clearly been working on these new Ink features for a while — but it's fascinating to see both Microsoft and Apple emphasize all the tools at our disposal when we use these devices to draw.
2. Microsoft Wants to Get More Apps Running on its Devices
You could be forgiven for tuning out when Microsoft went deep on all the developer tools for creating apps in Windows. (The person seated in front of me in the press section started reading news headlines about the 2016 election.) But know that Microsoft is doing all that it can to get more apps on its platform.
For starters, Microsoft is adding support for Bash, the Linux command line, aimed at bringing more developers into the fold. If you've got a Win32 or .NET app lying around, Microsoft built a Desktop App Converter tool that can turn those offerings into modern desktop apps that can appear on the Windows App Store. For game makers, Microsoft's adding tools that can convert a retail Xbox One console into a development kit.
"There really has been no better time to be a Windows developer," Microsoft executive vice president Terry Myerson said during today's keynote. Microsoft's betting that it'll be an even better time for Windows users should these developer tools bear fruit.
MORE: Windows 10: Full Review
3. Skype and Cortana Are Becoming Best Friends
Generally, I use Skype only when people insist upon connecting with me there. But I'm willing to rethink that policy now that Microsoft's adding integration with its Cortana personal assistant. As demoed during the Build keynote, the forthcoming Skype update will let you book travel from within the app, serve up hyperlinks with information relevant to your conversation, and mark off appointments in your calendar.
I particularly liked Skype's visual videomail feature, not because I necessarily crave video messages from friends and co-workers but because a transcript of the message appears right below it. That's potentially a real time-saver.
4. Meet the Bots
Given Microsoft's recent track record with bots, you might have have thought the company would be little gun-shy about giving artificial intelligence any stage time at Build. But bots — which can carry on conversations with you with an eye toward carrying out tasks and fielding requests — are a major part of what Microsoft's working on, and you'll be interacting with them sooner rather than later.
Making hotel reservations through Skype, for example, will put you in contact with bots. In an on-stage demo, a bot from the Westin hotel chain took care of booking a room. For now, Microsoft is focusing on bringing bots to messaging in Skype, but eventually it wants to add them to audio and video calls as well.
5. Apps Are Getting More Human
It's still a developer tool at this point, but Microsoft's Cognitive Services figure to dramatically expand what the apps you use are capable of doing. Microsoft has released 22 APIs capable of detecting faces and speech while tapping into knowledge databases and web searches. App makers will be able to build these tools into their apps, with the goal of providing more contextual uses.
Microsoft showed a hint at last year's Build with a demo of its How Old Are You tool — a website that guessed your age (often incorrectly) just by looking at a picture. Microsoft's made significant progress in the past year, though, if the last demo of this year's Build keynote is anything to go by. It featured Saqib Shaikh, a blind Microsoft software engineer, who developed an AI-assisted app running on a headset that can describe everything from people's expressions to any objects in view.
The demo got the most enthusiastic reaction of the day, not just because it's a moving story, but also because it shows just how apps can be created that improve our daily lives.
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