Microsoft held a press event today that may be its most important event in years, especially for gaming — and that includes the Xbox One introduction. The event was billed as an introduction to Windows 10, but it turned out to be much more than that, and with special importance to gamers, the game industry, and marketers.
So what is Windows 10 and why is it important First of all, it’s the successor to Windows 8.1 . . . which begs the question of what happened to Windows 9, but it’s probably best not to ask. Perhaps that version is living in a cupboard under some stairs somewhere in the vast Microsoft campus . . . or maybe some marketer just wanted to keep up, version-number-wise, with Apple operating systems.
Windows 10 apparently took pretty seriously many of the complaints that greeted Windows 8, and sought to fix them — making the operating system as useful and friendly as possible on both touch screens and keyboard-and-mouse environments, and making it easy to move back and forth between the two if you have a hybrid system. (It’s also very voice-friendly, with Cortana appearing in all Windows 100 devices to help you out.) The operating system will be appearing not just on desktops, but all across the Windows ecosystem: desktops, notebooks, tablets, and smartphones. Microsoft is also making it as easy as possible to develop a single app that can work across all those platforms, and easily share data and sync up across those platforms, too.
Perhaps even more important than these somewhat technical details is the marketing side of things. Microsoft has had the lion’s share of the desktop market for decades, but the rapid shift to mobile left the company behind. Sure, most of the world still does business on Windows desktops, but the mobile landscape is all Android and iOS with barely a smidgin of Windows Phone, and Microsoft hasn’t been able to change that after several years (and billions of dollars) worth of trying.
Now, though, Microsoft is getting serious about establishing a place on mobile. Finally, Microsoft is leveraging is desktop installed base to try and grab some mobile market share by having one operating system work across all different hardware. Spurring that adoption will be the pricing of Windows 10: Free. Any Windows 8 user can upgrade for free, as can any Windows Phone user — and especially important, any Windows 7 user. That’s right, no more $100 plus upgrade cost and fragmented user base. Microsoft is damn serious about moving all those Windows 7 diehards into its latest OS, and thus attracting more developers.
You can definitely see tablets and smartphones being adopted as extensions of your work computer, especially when Office is included with the OS on mobile platforms, and all data and work is synced via the cloud. Microsoft showed Windows 10 working smoothly on large tablets, small tablets, desktops, and phones. It’s an attractive vision, especially if we can see attractively priced hardware to go along with it. Microsoft promised new “flagship” Windows phones coming soon, too. This is important for gamers and game developers, as we can expected rapid adoption of Windows 10 across hundreds of millions of devices with its power, functionality, and pricing.
The gaming aspect of Windows was not neglected in this presentation — in fact, it was a significant part of the event, with Xbox head Phil Spencer walking the assembled journalists through some impressive new features. “Games are incredibly personal… gaming has always been inherently personal,” Spencer said. Spencer noted the 50 million Xbox Live users and how this will be leveraged into Windows 10. “We’ve identified several ways to make PC gaming even more incredible than it is today,” Spencer said. “Gaming on Windows 10 will be more social and interactive. All this comes together with the Xbox app on Windows 10.”
Every Windows 10 installation, on all devices, will have an Xbox app. You can use that to connect with your Xbox Live account, your friends list, messages, and activity feed. There’s also voice chat and text chat across platforms with all of your friends on Xbox Live. Spencer also noted how Windows 10 integrates with Steam, and we could see Steam on the taskbar of the demo computer. “Steam runs incredibly well on Windows 10,” Spencer said. More than that, though, you get Game DVR functionality, the ability to record and share gameplay across social platforms. “We think this will create incredible viralness,” Spencer said.
Spencer also noted the improvements of DirectX12, offering more fine control of CPUs and GPUs, and better performance by up to 50 percent for CPU-bound games. Power consumption is also cut in half from DirectX11, an important win for mobile devices. “None of this is possible if we’re not getting the adoption from the studios out there,” Spencer noted, announcing that Unity is adopting DirectX12, and of course Epic is already on board with Unreal Engine.
The big news came during a demo of Fable Legends, which had already been announced for the Xbox One. Now it’s also going to be on Windows 10 PC’s as well as Xbox One. Get this: you’ll be able to play multiplayer real-time action across console and PC. But Spencer took it a step further. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could play those games from anywhere in the house ” he asked. And there it is: Windows 10 will enable streaming of any Xbox One game to any Windows 10 device. Spencer played Forza Horizon 2 on a Surface tablet, streaming from his Xbox One at home. Of course, he was using a controller, and he did not address any of the inevitable questions about control issues. However, the streaming was smooth, and Spencer also noted that he can turn off the Xbox One console at home remotely when he’s done.
Oh, and Windows 10 is also coming to Xbox One, Spencer said. “Wait to hear from us as those features make their way to Xbox One,” he said, with obviously more details to announce at a later time.
If that wasn’t enough to get gamers excited, Microsoft save some new hardware reveals for the end of the event. The Surface Hub is an 84″ 4K screen packed with cameras, sensors and computing power, intended for businesses It looks pretty cool for whiteboarding, collaboration, and general business functions, though no doubt you could play some wicked games on it since it is a regular Windows machine. The price and ship date Not announced yet, but if you have to ask you probably can’t afford it.
The big hardware reveal is Microsoft’s entry into what they deem the next stage of computing, unveiling the Microsoft HoloLens, their take on augmented reality. It’s a fascinating take on VR/AR with a sleek, light headset that Microsoft bills as afully untethered holographic computer, available in “the Windows 10 time frame” (which sounds like 2015). There are see-through holographic hi-definition lenses so you can see holograms added to the real world, yet you’re never cut off from what’s around you like the Oculus Rift experience. No markers, no external cameras, no wires, no connection to a PC needed.
The gaming implications are obvious, and were shown off during the spiffy videos illustrating the things you can do with HoloLens. Holographic Minecraft will have children everywhere begging for this device when it comes out… but we’re not sure when, or more crucially, how much this will be.
With these reveals for Windows 10 and the HoloLens, Microsoft is taking a big step forward in multiple markets. Broadening its user base substantially for both desktops and touch-screen environments, this can lead to a bigger, more unified market for game developers — and ignite new interest in making games for Windows smartphones and tablets. The connection with Xbox One should help move more consoles, and help generate more Xbox Live signups, too. Particularly when people realize they can liberate their Xbox One games onto mobile devices and play them anywhere, using the new game streaming technology. Whither the Steam Machine, under assault from Razer and Nvidia and now Microsoft We’ll have to see what Valve shows at GDC, but this streaming game battle is getting a lot more interesting very quickly.
Then there’s the HoloLens… now we have the Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus, Magic Leap’s unknown entry (which from rumors and patent applications may be similar in many ways to Microsoft’s HoloLens) and the Microsoft HoloLens (and who knows, maybe a Google Glass 2.0) all vying to get right in your face and get you into the next level of gaming. Microsoft’s vision and implementation is interesting here, and potentially a winner. But we have yet to hear of a ship date or a retail price from any of these devices, and that’s hugely important. A $200 headset that comes out before everyone else could do very well… and a $500 clunky headset that ships a year later than the competition will probably sink swiftly.
This year promises to be a very interesting battle in the gaming space. Stay tuned!