Is Microsoft shifting its focus again, or losing it?

“We, as a company, are optimistic about what technology can do for us.” Those were among the first words said by Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, as he took the stage at the company’s Build 2016 keynote. If that statement seems overly broad, it’s not the fault of Nadella’s speechwriter. The company’s keynote was a reminder that Microsoft has its hands on many tech projects, and sees bright days ahead.

But much of that future may not involve things you might find on an average store shelf.

Sure, Microsoft talked about Windows and Xbox. Those key brands were an important part of the proceedings. But the biggest announcements – the ones that laid out Microsoft’s plan for the next year – were in the area of “intelligence.” Microsoft wants to build the world’s first large-scale, multiple-platform AI service. And that mission has far-reaching implications.

AI is about more than Cortana for Microsoft

Early in the keynote, it seemed as if the focus might be on Cortana, the digital assistant that Microsoft has made a credible competitor to Siri. And indeed, it did take center stage at first.

Developers will have more options for incorporating Artificial Intelligence functions into software.

What’s more interesting than Cortana, though, is the platform Microsoft is building around it. Some thought that the failure of Microsoft’s Tay.ai bot might scare the company away from tackling the subject at the keynote. On the contrary, it was addressed directly, and Microsoft went ahead and rolled out a whole range of bot services – trolls be damned.

Microsoft is calling this “Conversations as a Platform.” I know that sounds a bit silly, but I’m not sure a user-friendly term exists for what the company is working on. To put it as simply as possible, Microsoft is building a variety of application program interfaces (APIs) for artificial intelligence and bots, which developers can use as a foundation for their own applications and services. This includes not just the newly announced Bot Platform, but also 22 additional “Cognitive Services” APIs.

That means developers will have more options for incorporating Artificial Intelligence functions into software. Microsoft showed this with a Dominos order-taking demo that overstayed its welcome, but if you peel back the geeky presentation, what you’ll find is exciting. Any company that takes orders can now build a bot that responds automatically to user inquiries.

Cortana-Intelligence-Suite

Okay, sure, companies could do that before – but not easily. That gives Microsoft a leg up, according to Patrick Moorhead, President and Principle Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy. “IBM had a head start with Watson,” he told Digital Trends, “but it wasn’t really developed as a service. Google is only starting with its non-Android efforts, so they’re limited in scope.”

Microsoft’s tools let developers build on existing APIs, rather than starting from scratch. And they come with a back-end that, at least on stage, looked so simple that anyone could be trained to interact with it. Ease of use is an important part of the equation. Brilliant AI is of no use if developers can’t figure out how to make it work.

BUILD 2016: Skype now has the smarts to book your trip, order pizza, and more with Cortana

Of course, all of this is really outside the realm of what everyday users interact with, and it puts Microsoft in competition with names like Amazon and IBM, rather than Apple. But not everything at the keynote was so technical.

Yes, more Windows 10 is coming

Microsoft’s release of Windows 10 began the operating system’s transition from the model of big, meaty releases to a new schedule of smaller, incremental updates. Build 2016 has provided the first taste of what that means, and it’s delicious, though it definitely feels like a snack, not a meal.

Microsoft’s announcements are underwhelming compared to the features in a usual OS X release.

The big new feature coming in the Windows 10 Anniversary update, as it’s now officially titled, is Windows Ink. As you might expect from Microsoft, this is a platform instead of a specific feature or app. It’s an attempt to improve the experience of using a stylus pen in Windows, and make those improvements usable by developers.

That’s not to say there aren’t highlights. Sketchpad, which is kind of like Notepad for your stylus, is an excellent addition to the operating system. It provides a broad, blank space where you can work at a whim, and then import what you’ve done to other apps. There are even tools, like the new ruler, that can help you be more precise.

I’m happy to hear about Windows Ink, as using the OS with a stylus still isn’t as intuitive or easy as it should be. But aside from a few other minor additions, like Windows Hello support in the Edge Web browser, Ink took the spotlight.

build_9_print

It’s strange that Ink was the star. Very few Windows users have a stylus, which means that many folks will be disappointed if Windows Ink is meant to be Anniversary Update’s big new user-facing feature. Like it or not, OS X is the benchmark for yearly updates in a desktop operating system, and Microsoft’s announcements are underwhelming compared to the features in a usual OS X release.

Xbox creeps closer to the PC

As it turned out, the Windows 10 Anniversary update is arguably more important to Xbox than to Windows. Microsoft not only announced that the update is coming to Xbox, but also announced it will finally unify the Windows and Xbox app ecosystems, and it will give every Xbox owner the ability to turn their machine into an Xbox developer kit. The unification will be so complete, in fact, that the Xbox One will gain compatibility with G-Sync and FreeSync, a pair of frame synchronization technologies most assumed would never make their way beyond the PC.

Unification with the PC is the entire reason why I was excited about the Xbox One’s potential prior to its release. It was easy to imagine the console as a stealth PC, providing the flexibility of Windows in a box that attached to your TV. Microsoft didn’t make the most of that potential at release, but it’s now creeping, slowly, in the right direction.

BUILD 2016: If you ordered a HoloLens dev kit, it starts shipping today

But creeping really is the right word for it. Microsoft’s pace shows all the urgency of a toddler waking from a nap – and its execution has, so far, been just as graceful. Cortana was promised to us as “coming this fall” last summer – and it still hasn’t, though Microsoft promises it will. I think an “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach is warranted.

The pivot toward developers continues

Two decades ago, Microsoft professed love for its developers because they built software for Windows, and software made Windows strong. Now, Microsoft loves them not only for that, but also because the developers are the customers.

build_15_web

That’s an important point. Many people will no doubt come away from Build wondering why it matters. The answer, for many, is that it doesn’t. There’s no new product here, and only marginal, promised updates to Windows 10 and Xbox, which, if history is a guide, will end up delayed.

BUILD 2016: Windows 10 Anniversary Edition is coming this summer

But that doesn’t mean what Microsoft is building is unimportant. Build 2016 shows that its relevance has shifted away from home users. Now, it caters to diehard developers. Whether that strategy will work is anyone’s guess, but make no mistake – it’s not accidental.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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