5 things to expect from Microsoft's big developer conference

Azure, Windows, HoloLens and more will headline Build this week

20160329 microsoft signs build2016

Banners announcing Microsoft Build outside Moscone West in San Francisco on March 29, 2016.

Credit: Blair Hanley Frank

Microsoft executives will take the stage at Moscone West in San Francisco on Wednesday for the first of two keynote addresses to the company's big Build developer conference. Here are five key things to expect from the next two days of Microsoft announcements:

1. New features in Windows 10 for developers and end users alike

Last year, Microsoft used Build to show off its vision for developing applications to run on what was then an unreleased operating system. In the intervening year, the company released Windows 10 to the world, and people have started using it in droves.

Right now, one of the biggest questions looming over Windows 10 has to do with the success or failure of the Universal Windows Platform, which lets developers write one app and deploy it to Windows PCs, tablets and phones. Odds are, Microsoft will take time to show off the UWP's ability to expand developers' reach to the Xbox One and HoloLens.

Those demonstrations, along with new statistics about how many other devices are running Windows 10, may help Microsoft make a more compelling case to developers about why they should build for the UWP.

Users will get to see Microsoft's vision for the second year of Windows 10's existence, too. While it's not yet clear what's going to be up the company's sleeve, it will be interesting to see what Microsoft chooses to do with marquee features like Cortana, its virtual assistant.

This would also be a good spot for Microsoft to make its case for the future of Windows 10 Mobile, the version of its operating system that's aimed at smartphones. It doesn't have the broad interest of consumers, businesses or developers at the moment, so Microsoft has to make a case for why people should care.

2. A pitch to developers to build apps for the Office platform

Big companies run, at least to some degree, on Microsoft Office. This year, Microsoft is expected to talk a little about how Office can be used as a development platform for making other work applications smarter.

The crown jewel of its strategy is the Microsoft Graph, a tool that lets developers build applications that know how their users work within an organization, including what files are getting used a lot and who a particular user works with.

It will also be interesting to see if Microsoft brings any news about GigJam, a product that uses the Microsoft Graph to help people work together in an unstructured way.

3. A little news about HoloLens

Chances are we won't see Microsoft announce any new hardware that will jolt people like the original HoloLens announcement from last year. But this is Microsoft's big opportunity to wow developers who are about to get their hands on the first wave of HoloLens development kits and show how it can be used in a range of scenarios.

Depending on how gutsy the company is feeling, we might even see a live demonstration of Microsoft Research's "holoportation" telepresence project, but that would require some serious belief in the network connectivity in the keynote hall, since it requires communication between a HoloLens and a special camera rig.

4. Pushes for Azure adoption

Like past Build conferences, this one is expected to contain plenty of announcements about Microsoft's Azure cloud platform, along with its on-premises server business. This is 2016, and Windows Server 2016's release is right around the corner.

Meanwhile, Azure is facing Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform in a war for the public cloud. That means Microsoft is under a lot of pressure to release new features, and a developer conference is exactly the right place for it, especially after Google's cloud conference last week.

While Microsoft talks up its public cloud, I'd also hope to see a discussion of its Azure Stack private cloud software, which is aimed at letting companies run an instance of Azure inside a private data center. Developer tools can treat an Azure Stack instance the same way they'd treat the public version of Azure, meaning that app makers will be able to build one codebase that works with on-premises servers, the public cloud, or both.

5. New developer tools

Microsoft announced earlier this year it would acquire Xamarin, a maker of tools that let .NET developers build cross-platform mobile apps. That acquisition closed just a couple of weeks ago, and it seems logical that we'll start to see the first fruits of the united Microsoft-Xamarin front at Build.

This would also be the logical time for the company to announce new features for its Visual Studio development environment, since many of the developers in attendance at Build rely on it for their daily work.

Stay tuned for the rest of this week to see what Microsoft has in store.

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