Microsoft Put the Entire Computer Industry On Notice Today

I don’t know exactly how to put this, but I guess the best way I can say it is that Microsoft may have just taken over the world one more time. Please understand, there’s a reason I’m not posting this review of today’s “Windows 10 Devices” event in the Dark Android Blog and saving it for the ZOG Blog (where I get to talk about whatever I want). I’m posting this in the ZOG Blog because I’m not here to talk to you as a privacy advocate or as a hacktivist (as I normally do), I’m here to talk to you as what I am first and foremost in life: a gamer. I’ve said it many times, I’m a gamer first, then a historian, then a tech journalist. In that order. And the gamer in me is going to talk to you here. But enough about me, let’s talk about this “event to end all events” (Microsoft didn’t claim that, I’m claiming that)…

The “Windows 10 Devices” event was held today–October 6th, 2015–at 10am EDT, in New York City. That fact alone sets this event apart. The other (and some would say only) tech giants hold all of their events in California, generally. But I think this East Coast tour de force was all part of the plan: not-so-new-now Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, wanted to subconsciously say that this event was going to be something different. I don’t know that such is true for sure, but if I were CEO, I would’ve done this totally on purpose (also, there’s a major Microsoft Store opening in NYC at the end of October 2015, so that certainly had something to do with it, too).

See the whole event right here (privacy-mode enabled)…

And the event name was apt, “Windows 10 Devices”. This was all about hardware (even though the announcement of various Universal Apps was interesting). And it started off much like any keynote event does, with some numbers and some demos, and a guy talking like he was reading from a teleprompter (this point will become important later on). “Windows 10 is coming to Xbox One, yada yada” was the first 20 minutes or so.

But then came HoloLens.

HoloLens

HoloLens is one of those rare products that you look at and you just know it has the potential to be huge. While I’m not a Microsoft fanboy, I can really see where this can take off. It’s basically a “keep it in your home” Google Glass, just far less creepy, and far more practical. It can operate completely on its own, for one, and will supposedly be device agnostic (which the flat-out failure known as Google Glass could never claim). So this Augmented Reality device (or, “AR”) was on display here, and wow did it display.

They started off by showing a game/project called “Project X-ray”, and the stage was setup with a faux living room setup. The person they had demo HoloLens’ “Project X-ray”…let’s just say I was impressed by. He actually looked like your conventionally-perceived gamer. He had a little bit of a gut. He wore a hoodie. This wasn’t some kind of model, and likely not an actor. And the model of the HoloLens he was wearing looked pretty slick. No wires, it had kind of a visor implementation across the front, and he was also holding something in his hand (some kind of controller). The controller he held in his hand (joystick-style) then turned into an entire “gun arm” (in Augmented Reality, of course) much like you’d see Mega Man or Samus Aran wearing. It was stunning, and the crowd in NYC let out a pretty audible gasp. This was impressive. Suddenly (in AR), little robots started shooting through the walls, and the HoloLens wearer was able to blast them away, and the lasers (in AR) visibly shot across the room. It was incredible to behold. This was a gaming dream come true. Then a giant mechanical spider broke through the faux living room wall and stepped over the couch (all in AR, again), and the demo ended. Amazing. Fucking amazing (I’ll probably say that a lot in this post).

It was then announced that “developer editions” of HoloLens would be available Q1 2016 for $3000. A steep price, to be sure, but this is just the “developer editions” for now. The final product will likely be significantly cheaper. But if this demo was any sign of the reality of Augmented Reality and HoloLens…we’re in for a real treat.

Microsoft Band

Next came out Microsoft’s Lindsey Matese to talk about Microsoft’s 2nd generation wearable device: Microsoft Band (they didn’t bother to slap a “2” on it, as I understood it). This was–previous to the event–a heavily leaked about product. No surprises here product-wise, and I’m not the biggest fan of wearables, anyway. But a couple of points to bring up that I think are impressive for Microsoft as far as the Band goes:

  1. Many of these keynote events are missing something: Female presenters. Lindsey Matese’s presence–as a Microsoft employee, and as someone that clearly isn’t a supermodel or actor (unlike at Samsung and Apple events)–was refreshing. She did the full announcement for a major product, and she didn’t show off a shopping app, either (here’s looking at you, Apple)! For Microsoft to have a real woman presenting, and then also to have a “non-Hollywood handsome” showing off and demoing the HoloLens, spoke very highly of Microsoft breaking out of conventionalisms, which Apple and Google absolutely fail at. I thought this was great.
  2. I’ve mentioned many times on my tech show–Sovryn Tech–that I applaud Microsoft for making the Band not look like a watch. This eliminates a lot of expectations for what the device is and does, even if it does eventually replace watches. The design alone is a smart move for Microsoft.

At $249, and available in October 2015, this device blows away the Apple Watch in price, design, and fit (it perfectly wraps around the wrist). The Cortana integration is a winner too, from a consumer standpoint. Not the most exciting product, and it doesn’t have traditional apps, but I think it’s still a good upgrade from the last model, and it is definitely best-in-class.

And then a guy named Panos Panay was asked out onto the stage, and an already exciting event went from a 6 on the “keynote scale”, to an easy 11.

The Lumia 950 and 950XL

This is where shit got real. I’m not saying that the new Windows 10 Mobile Lumia phones–the 950 and 950XL–are that impressive (even though they are for what they are), I’m saying that Panos Panay–the creator of the Surface computer and VP at Microsoft–was very real. This guy might be the greatest keynote presenter since Steve Jobs. Hell, he’s probably better. The instant he started talking about the new Lumia’s, it felt like there was no script. He was just rattling it off. He barely got into the specs. Panos even acknowledged how all the info about the Lumias had already long been leaked! WHAT?! A tech giant exec admitting that product leaks happen and did happen?! Ohhhh, man! It was hilarious and so good. Apple and Google had to be shitting themselves, this Panay guy just pulled back the curtain on the whole industry! It was beautiful.

The specs are high-end on these phones, and the cameras are stunning (and I like that they have a dedicated camera button on them, which likely means they’ll release waterproof models, eventually), and they overall look good. They’re flagships, and while they only have 32GB of storage, they have microSD cards lots (suck it, Apple and Google) that can handle 2TB microSD cards (when those are released)!

Then of course, the presentation about Continuum technology was done, which is something I’m a huge fan of, whether it comes from Microsoft, or Ubuntu, or whoever. The idea of taking your smartphone and connecting to a very portable dock, which in turn connects to USB devices and monitors, turning your phone into a full-on PC, is awesome. I love this idea, and seeing it a reality with Windows 10 Mobile Continuum was wild. And supposedly these Lumia flagship phones are “liquid-cooled” to be able to do all of this PC work, as well as packing octocore and hexacore processors (and USB-C makes a lot of this ability a reality, too). I was disappointed that it didn’t appear that Windows 10 Mobile Continuum-enabled phones can display multiple apps at once on a monitor. This was a little disappointing, but as I understood it, you can use the phone itself as “second screen” and separate device, so multitasking is still capable without having to flip though various apps (Windows 10 “Task View” is available, as well, though, which is nice). In the future, I’m sure this will be remedied.

The only other thing I wished they showed with the Lumias and Continuum was gaming. They showed plenty of impressive productivity, but no gaming (thought it was briefly mentioned). If Continuum allows for gaming, and the Lumias can instantly connect to Xbox One wireless controllers (like Sony’s Xperia phones can connect seamlessly to PS4 controllers), this would be an even more serious winner (even though Windows Phone doesn’t have a massive game selection…yet). Either way, I’m really excited about Continuum, and hope it becomes a concept that every smartphone company and OS jumps on.

So if someone suddenly wanted to get onboard with Windows 10 Mobile, for Continuum alone, I wouldn’t blame you. The Lumia 950 will sell for $549, and the Lumia 950XL phablet will sell for $649, which are competitive prices in the space. They did also announce a Lumia 550 for $139 that is an entry-level device for Windows 10 Mobile, and interesting at that price.

Again, with everything I’m saying, you really should watch the whole event yourself, because Panay was killing it onstage talking about all of this stuff. I can’t do it justice.

Surface Pro 4

Next came what most people were expecting, and what many assumed was the highlight (keep reading) of the “Windows 10 Devices” event. The Surface Pro line has been a wild success for Microsoft. People love these things, even thought they do serve a more niche market. Proof of their popularity and dominance though comes from the fact that–as I’ve mentioned many times on this site–that Apple’s iPad Pro and Google’s Pixel C tablets were unabashed rip-offs of Microsoft’s Surface computers, and were quiet admissions that Microsoft had really innovated and struck gold with the Surface Pro computers.

The Surface Pro 4 is the logical continuation of this line, and it was ushered in with an impressive trailer that played AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” (the metalhead inside me was really enjoying this). One of the issues for many with the keyboard cover on the Surface was quickly shown to be solved as they keys on it are now fully “island keys” with lots of space between the keys (they were cramped a bit before). Also, the touchpad was increased in size by 40%. The screen is bigger now, too (12.3″), without increasing the size of the device. There’s now the potential for a 1TB hard drive (!) in that little machine, which is impressive. It’s also powered by Intel’s latest Windows 10-loving 6th Generation i5’s or i7’s: Skylake. The numbers I’ve seen for Skylake processors are worth the upgrade, in my opinion. There’s also a new Surface Pro hub/dock that isn’t really a dock, but is USB 3.0 device that adds 4 USB ports, and other connectors. One of the things that impressed me with the Surface Pro add-ons presented (the new keyboard cover, and the hub device) were that they were backwards-compatible with the Surface Pro 3. That is so huge, and has been a hallmark (and sometimes problem) for Microsoft: they’re willingness to support older products. Smart move.

The really smart move here, though, and the most impressive thing about the Surface Pro 4…was the new Surface Pen. This thing has an eraser! And it works like an eraser actually does on the screen! Also, they beautifully hit Apple below the belt by mentioning that the Surface Pen doesn’t need to be recharged! Panay was rocking it all the way through this event. The pen also has interchangeable tips (for width and various uses), and when they announced that I could just see every form of art–from calligraphy, to painting, to you name it–suddenly finding a digital home. Paper practically died once the Surface Pro 4 was announced. There was even an impressive presentation of music notation creation being done with the Surface Pen that has to be seen to be believed. The Pen can also call up Microsoft’s voice assistant software–Cortana–with just a click. Nice touch. In another moment of Panay being “real”, he showed how the Surface Pen magnetically connected to the side of the Surface Pro 4, addressing the common Twitter joke about how to keep the Surface Pro 3’s pen attached to the device (which was only capable with a rarely available little rope, loop thing). For Panay to “break the 4th wall” in addressing the everyday user about this was brilliance, and it came off very natural (I really don’t think he was using a teleprompter most of the time, I’m still blown away by that).

The Surface Pro 4’s specs are all very impressive and upgraded. It’s a nice, very quiet, very portable machine, and Microsoft delivered another winner with it, in my opinion.

But I’ve never personally been excited about them since they never really could be a serious gaming laptop (and as I said, first and foremost, I’m a gamer). And my other issue with Surface computers is that they don’t really stand on their own. You can’t really lay back and use them, unless you only want to use them without the keyboard. Despite claims that they are “lapable”, if you want to use the keyboard, I don’t think that’s a reality, but, something was about to resolve both the gaming issue, and the lapability…

Surface Book

Steve Jobs was (perhaps until Panay hits the stage now) the best keynote speaker/presenter in history. WWDC was always epic when he took the stage. And he also made famous the “secret reveal” at the end of events. These were done once Jobs would say the now-magic phrase, “Oh, and one more thing…”. They were always exciting moments, whether you were an Apple fanboy or not.

Well, Panos Panay pulled one off today that people are going to be feeling for a long time, whether they realize it or not. One product that did not get leaked (but a secret product was hinted at), was the Surface Book: “The Ultimate Laptop”, as Panay called it.

And he might be right.

Coming in Skylake i5 and i7 flavors, along with a 3:2 aspect ratio screen that has more pixels than any other laptop screen on the planet (Apple’s included), 2 USB 3.0, blacklit keyboard, SD card reader, 1080p front-facing camera, 1080p rear-facing camera (that’s a laptop near-first), a touchscreen that works with the Microsoft Pen, 16GB of RAM–and one of the major unique aspects of this–a dedicated NVIDIA GPU card with GDDR5 RAM…woo, hello gaming…all of that put into a very unique looking package that gets…wait for it…12 hours of battery life! I have never seen a serious gaming laptop (and boy did they show it gaming with Gears of War!) that had battery life over 6 hours. That alone is nuts, but all of the other features just make it all the more serious. The Surface Book is a fair beast, and a very unique one at that. Just check out that hinge…

screen shot 2015-10-06 at 11.22.04 amOne thing that the maestro that is Panay did was show off a little trailer for the Surface Book as he did his “one more thing” moment. After showing off the device a bit, and getting a look at its interesting hinge (Panay said he wanted a lapable Surface, so he made one with this wild multi-section hinge), Panay then asked everyone to check out the Surface Book’s intro trailer again, but to look a little closer this time. Now, I’ll admit I thought it was weak to have people watch a trailer again…but then Panay did the hat trick…this was an extended trailer, and half way through, the video shook, and suddenly when the Surface Book was opened the screen of the Surface Book lifted off of the keyboard! This thing is a 2-in-1! Literally the crowd awed and cheered. Talk about showmanship! Then the screen was put on in reverse on the base/keyboard, and it became a Lenovo Yoga-style hybrid laptop…and it even worked without the base/keyboard (though it was mentioned that the dedicated NVIDIA card was in the base/keyboard, so you will lose performance if you just use it as a tablet).

The standing ovation began. The Surface Book is a Hell of a machine, no doubt.

I admit, generally I’m not one for touchscreens on my laptops, nor do I really care about 2-in-1 laptops…but the Surface Book is impressive regardless, especially when starting off at $1499.

I remember when I was 15 years old (1996 or so), and all I could think is, “Why won’t Microsoft make their own computers? They’d probably make the best ones!” At the time, I was already hooked on Microsoft’s great accessory hardware (Sidewinder gaming controllers, their mice, the “natural” keyboard, etc.)–and Microsoft’s hardware business has been a solid side project since the 1980’s–and even then I figured they could tailor a PC to really use Windows (95, at the time) to its best ability, and throw in a great 3D graphics card. Well, the 15 year old me is clapping like a dolphin right now. Those guys finally did it. Not only that, but at E3 this past year, Microsoft came on stage and laid out an apology to PC gamers, admitting they didn’t pay enough attention to them. Well, it’s pretty clear that Microsoft is now paying full attention to PC gamers like myself, because this is awesome hardware (Is it the most powerful gaming hardware? No, of course not, but that’s besides the point…12 hours of battery life!).

The Surface Book, more so than any other device revealed at the “Windows 10 Devices” event, put every other tech company on notice. This machine smokes Apple’s laptops spec-for-spec. Google has nothing like it. And frankly, Dell, Lenovo, and the rest may well be out of business (though someone still needs to sell Enterprise and low-end PC’s and laptops…and of course desktops aren’t going anywhere, particularly for 4K gaming, etc.). Microsoft is becoming the new Apple–building great hardware that emphasizes their software. Today changed everything when it comes to the consumer computer space. The Surface Book changed everything. Microsoft’s first laptop is THE ultimate laptop.

Concerns

So, with all the sweetness and light here (hopefully you didn’t get diabetes), I do have a couple of concerns. First off, I’ll say that if you don’t want to use Windows or Microsoft services in any way shape or form–say, perhaps you want to put Linux on that Surface Book–don’t bother with anything announced today. This stuff is designed with Microsoft software uniquely in mind. Also concerning, “Windows Hello” for cameras on Surface devices, and the fingerprint readers on the Surface devices, these are huge privacy concerns, and I’m infamous for my privacy advocacy. “Windows Hello” uses your face and a special camera to unlock your device (and even switch accounts). I don’t like that one bit. And fingerprint readers are a privacy nightmare that the mobile space is learning about very quickly (to say nothing of the centralized database of fingerprints that “law enforcement” agencies would have loved 20 years ago). Fortunately, both the cameras and fingerprint readers are easily defeated by stickers, masking tape, or more. Though, personally, I wish the fingerprint readers were optional.

Conclusion

While a lot of great hardware and forward-thinking was delivered at the “Windows 10 Devices” event, in some ways none of that matters. What really matters is the vision that we saw from Microsoft today. But vision is nothing if you can’t express it, and Panos Panay…woo boy did he express that vision. He was incredible. There is something to be said for the importance of showmanship and presentation–after all, in many ways it helped make Apple the juggernaut it is today–and Microsoft delivered the greatest keynote I’ve seen in years. While Apple and Google at their recent events were looking like way-too-polished has-beens, Microsoft came off like a company with class, authenticity, and direction. The “Windows 10 Devices” event is–if nothing else–a masterclass to stand for all time as to how to do a keynote. Panay’s walk into the crowd, the lack of concern over it taking extra time, the public admission of leaks, having real people test the products…this is how you deliver the goods, folks.

And at the end of the event, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (whom I named “Sovryn Tech Person of the Year 2014”) capstoned the event, and had one particularly important quote for Microsoft as a company:

“With Microsoft…as devices come and go, you persist.”

That really puts into perspective what Microsoft is doing as a company…as Satya Nadella’s company. There is no doubt in my mind that we are dealing with a completely different company than existed only three or so years ago. And in many ways, I like what I see. Sure, I wish they would go fully open source. There are all kinds of things I wish they would do as a company. But perhaps some day it’ll get there. And there are so many other things to say about this event today (how the Surface Book could eliminate your phone, other insights throughout it, etc.), because this event was–as I said–fucking amazing. Maybe I’ll get to some of it on Sovryn Tech soon.

I hope you read this blog post understanding that I’m coming from the perspective of a gamer, and perhaps even from the perspective of someone whose workflow relies heavily on Microsoft services and products. Please don’t hesitate to go to the Dark Android Project to read the latest privacy and security news, because all of that is breaking down by the day, and I’m happy to cover it. But, that said, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that Microsoft pushed the entire tech world quite a few leaps forward today.

Now…let’s see what it’ll take for this gamer to get one of those Surface Books….

Carpe lucem!

 

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