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Build 2020: What to expect from Microsoft’s online-only developer conference

Microsoft’s annual Build developer conference is just around the corner, set for May 19 and May 20. This year, things have changed. The effects of the coronavirus outbreak have turned the event into an all-digital experience, with livestream sessions happening throughout both days.

Microsoft typically uses Build to discuss developer-specific products and services, but this year we’re expecting things to diverge from how they have gone in the past. There is a lot less focus on software, as well as less about Windows or Office and the Microsoft products you use every day — and even more emphasis on A.I.

Here’s what we expect from Build 2020.

Online-only, free for developers

Build has always been an in-person event where developers and journalists alike could connect with Microsoft employees and learn about the company’s latest offerings. Developers typically pay a hefty registration fee to attend and get a seat at various sessions dedicated to Microsoft’s latest software and products.

That’s all changed this year. For the first time, Microsoft has shifted Build to an online event that’s completely free to watch for developers. Journalists and the media, meanwhile, will be able to watch sessions and discuss the event through Teams, Microsoft’s virtual communication service.

Microsoft is now calling Build a “48-hour digital experience.” It highlights the fact that any developer can register to watch for free. The event will still kick off with a keynote from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on May 19. The time is not listed yet, but he will talk about how “developers are playing a central role in reimagining the world we live in,” according to the Build 2020 website.

This all-digital format falls perfectly in line with Microsoft’s plans for the future. The company canceled all of its internal and external events through July 2021 in favor of digital experiences. Microsoft experimented with this before and held an online-only event for the media when it revealed its newly renamed Microsoft 365 consumer subscriptions, which have access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and the other Office apps.

More developer, less consumer

In recent times, Build has been hyperfocused on developer concerns such as Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing platform; this has never really been the stage to reveal big updates for consumer products like Surface and Windows. We expect this to be especially true this year, with another change to the format of how you might grasp it all.

At Build 2019, Microsoft didn’t directly discuss Windows 10 at all. The company instead focused on smaller shifts like Edge’s transition to Chromium. The company also switched up the presentation style of its keynotes, focusing less on showing live coding and more on the actual announcements.

That’s true again this year. The Build 2020 website shows various key segments titled “Every Developer is Welcome,” “Azure for Every Developer,” “Build Tools for the New Way to Work and Learn,” and “The Future of Technology.” For us average folk, that should mean an emphasis on Azure, cloud computing, A.I., and machine learning.

Expect to hear about Android as well, since Microsoft is planning to release a dual-screen Android phone, the Surface Duo.

The format of the event will obviously change. It’s rumored that Microsoft will shift to social media as a way to fire up discussions and answer questions about keynotes. Microsoft is also apparently asking its executives to film prerecorded segments in their homes, which might be uploaded for developers to view. The event will likely be a mix of pre-recorded and live content.

List of sessions now live, with Windows getting a backseat

With the focus of Build shifting to the core audience of software developers, Microsoft’s consumer products are taking a backseat at the conference. That means we once again won’t hear much about future versions of Windows or new products in the Surface line directly. Instead, the focus will be on developing apps for these products.

A deeper dive into a list of all the sessions available at Build confirms about 60 sessions in total dedicated to developer efforts in Windows 10. That includes the Windows Terminal and Subsystem for Linux, and PowerToys. Again, these are developer aspects of Windows 10, and not everyday things like the Start Menu or Action Center, which many people care about.

As for the consumer side, the Windows Insider program is still mentioned. We do know that Microsoft will give Windows a breakout session during Build. The Windows Insider team, which handles preview versions of Windows, confirmed it will be hosting its own virtual webcast sessions at Build, so the things you might care about in Windows will, for sure, not be absent entirely. There’s even an interesting session titled “Unifying and evolving the Windows app platform,” which seems to be dedicated to developing unified apps for Windows 10.

2020 was supposed to be a big year for Microsoft, with the upcoming releases of the Surface Duo dual-screen smartphone and the Surface Neo dual-screen PC. The company is also working on Windows 10X, a new flavor of Windows 10 for dual-screen PCs.

The dual-screen devices have been delayed, however, to help Microsoft work on bringing the touch-optimized software to single-screen devices. That said, there aren’t currently any sessions related to Windows 10X planned for Build.

With a change in leadership and Surface chief Panos Panay now in charge of a new Windows+Devices group, we expect regular Windows 10 to get some visual updates in the fall. But Windows is hardly the focus of Build, so don’t anticipate this to be discussed, even with the pending launch of the May 2020 Update.

Of course, the fall is when Microsoft usually talks about its own hardware and Windows, so you can expect more at that time. Until then, don’t hold your hopes out for Build to become a Surface and Windows extravaganza this year.

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