Windows 10 was Microsoft’s most important product launch of the year. It shored up the desktop platform, it introduced a new approach to delivering and updating the operating system, and it created the opportunity for Windows to be everywhere.
But as important as it was, Windows 10 was not Microsoft’s most interesting 2015 product. The most interesting products were the HoloLens augmented reality headset and the Surface Book hybrid laptop. OK, HoloLens isn’t out quite yet—$3,000 developer units will be available in the first quarter of 2016—but it was first demonstrated back in January, upstaging Windows 10’s consumer preview, which was shown off at the same time.
What was striking about both of these is that their reception was less about what they were and more about what they represented. HoloLens is obviously the grander ambition—a new kind of human-computer interaction depending on the melding of virtual 3D objects with the real world, driven by voice and gestures as well as the more conventional mouse and keyboard.
Nobody really knows quite what HoloLens will be used for, what kind of applications and experiences will be built using the technology. At this point it could be the 2007 iPhone, a bold step that transforms computing. Or it could be 1990s virtual reality all over again: initially intriguing but never good enough to make it mainstream.
But in spite of this, there is palpable excitement about HoloLens. There was excitement when it was first shown, and that has continued to this day. There is a belief that Microsoft has done something new and adventurous, and the world at large is willing to go on this adventure with the company to explore what can be done with these holograms and augmented reality.
Surface Book is the more immediately useful; it’s a laptop where the screen tears off and works as a standalone tablet. These have been done before. The Surface Book is a particularly attractive implementation of the type, with a novel attachment mechanism, and it has a unique twist up its sleeve: an optional discrete GPU in the keyboard base.
Combined with its beautiful screen, solid keyboard, and good touchpad, the machine is an extremely versatile computer and a compelling piece of technology. But it has also been plagued by issues around such things as sleeping, and while driver and firmware updates have improved some of these, the experience is still not flawless. I had some problems when reviewing the Surface Book. So did virtually every other reviewer.
And yet for the most part, the device received glowing reviews. Not because the reviewers ignored or glossed over the problems. Not even because the problems were unimportant. But rather, because the problems all seemed solvable. Microsoft managed to get the hardware right, and that hardware was so sleekly compelling that we were willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. The issues will be fixed. It’s the promise of the device that has people inspired.
In both cases, what is unusual for Microsoft is the positivity the gizmos have generated. Fair or not (and I’d argue probably not), Microsoft isn’t expected to blaze new trails and develop hot new products that have the potential to create new markets or shake up existing ones. We know Microsoft’s history—too early with tablets, too early with smartphones, too early with wearables—and this generates a degree of skepticism around what it does. But with HoloLens and Surface Book, much of that cynicism seems to have evaporated.
This is the kind of thing that one would normally expect of Apple. If it had been Steve Ballmer in 2007 that introduced a new phone, one with a touchscreen user interface and a nice browser, but that couldn’t run third-party applications, didn’t support 3G data connections, couldn’t use Exchange e-mail, didn’t have a hardware keyboard, required various proprietary HTML extensions to even make Web pages work really well, cost hundreds of dollars, was locked to one phone network, and lacked the usual range of subsidized pricing, I don’t believe that people would have been lining up around the block to buy one.
There would have been interest, of course; there’s always some interest in what Microsoft does (if it had been Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee introducing the device, I doubt anyone would have even noticed it at all). But I don’t think it would have been the success that the initial iPhone was, with people desperate to get their hands on them and begging the company to open it up to applications. The focus would have been on the negatives, all the things that it couldn’t do that its contemporaries could, and not the potential offered by its form factor and approach to human interaction.
This focus on the positives represents a shift in perception of the company. It’s not a product of any one thing; as cool as HoloLens is, there’s a broader backdrop: the greater openness to creating software for other platforms, the greater embrace of open source, the more communicative Windows 10 development process. These all add up.
The optimism has its limits, and Microsoft certainly has to prove that it was warranted. The release of HoloLens development units next year will be significant; if it goes well, it should reinforce the belief that Microsoft really can do bold, innovative new things and that the company is still one that can shape our future. It will take a long time for Microsoft to build an image and perception that’s as resiliently positive as Apple’s. Nonetheless, that people are willing to give the company the benefit of the doubt makes 2015 a special year. Microsoft is changing—and so are we.