Attendees at Microsoft's annual Build summit last night were treated to a three-hour keynote speech in which the company announced some dramatic diversions from the norm - including free copies of Windows for phones and tablets, the return of the Start Menu, and Windows apps on the Xbox One.
Microsoft's Build keynote this year included plenty of surprises, from universal apps that can run on Windows devices as well as the Xbox One to the impending return of the Start Menu.
It's usual for Microsoft to queue up announcements for the Build event, which is the biggest in its calendar; it's not usual, however, for it to have quite so many announcements to make as during its keynote session at last night's opening. Some of the changes, in particular the release of free copies of Windows for mobile devices, will likely have a heavy impact on the future of the company - and it's not hard to see new chief executive Satya Nadella, a man who has already bemoaned the company's delayed entry into the mobile market, as the driving force behind much of what occurred last night.
Windows 8.1 Update 1
Microsoft announced the impending launch of Windows 8.1 Update 1, the first major overhaul for what was previously known as Windows Blue. Much of the changes are user experience oriented, rather than under-the-hood overhauls, and many will be welcomed by users: the Desktop and Modern UIs are to be more closely linked, with Modern UI apps being accessible in windowed form from the Desktop interface - allowing a mixing of old and new which was previously verboten.
The new update will also include faster access to the Windows Store - more on which later - by pre-pinning it to the taskbar, and the ability to power off or restart your PC, perform searches and access settings are now available on the main Start Screen instead of hidden off to the side. The update, Microsoft has confirmed, will launch on the 8th of April - the same date, coincidentally, that Windows XP enters official end of life (EOL) status.
The biggest change, however, will have to wait for a future update: the reintroduction of the Start Menu, the absence of which is many users' biggest bugbear surrounding Windows 8 and newer. Based heavily on the Windows 7 Start Menu, the new version will integrated selected functionality - like Live Tiles - from the Start Screen in an attempt to create a hybrid that will appeal to all. No formal date has been offered for its availability, however.
A large portion of the keynote was dedicated to Microsoft's increasingly heavy push to mobile users, where is software is in a distinct minority. As well as new Windows Phone 8.1 devices from Nokia and Samsung, the company confirmed that the new release - a free upgrade to all Nokia Windows Phone 8 handsets - will include an Action Centre which appears to riff on the similar functionality available in Google's rival Android platform.
The company also announced Cortana, its answer to the popularity of voice-activated assistants Google Now and Siri. Based on the artificial intelligence from the Halo series - which, as a major plot point, went crazy, so that's an interesting marketing angle to take - Cortana will be a standard feature of Windows Phone 8.1.
Finally, Microsoft made what could possibly be the only announcement that could give it real impetus in the fight against Google: Windows will now be licensable at zero cost on all smartphones and tablet devices with a screen size of less than nine inches. Although Google's basic Android OS is also free - and, in fact, largely open-source - the company has charged for access to the Google Play app store and other Google-specific functionality, while Microsoft's impressive portfolio of patents has been used to 'encourage' Android licensees - including big names like Samsung - to pay Microsoft a fee for every handset shipped.
To put it bluntly: Microsoft's free Windows for mobiles is cheaper than Google's free Android - no mean feat.
The final surprise of the event was confirmation of a long-held rumour that Microsoft's Xbox One console will be able to run Windows applications. Using a new cross-platform runtime environment, Microsoft explained, developers will be able to build apps that can run on Windows, Windows RT, Windows Phone and Xbox One - and buyers can pay once to run the app on any of the aforementioned devices.
The move doesn't exactly open up the Xbox ecosystem - apps available on the Xbox One will be even more heavily curated than those available on Windows Phone, with developers needing to seek Microsoft's approval - but with promises that DirectX 12 will lead to similar cross-platform functionality for games, it's hard to see it as bad news.
If the above summary isn't enough for your appetite, the full keynote session featuring speakers David Treadwell, Joe Belfiore, Stephen Elop, Terry Myerson and new leader Satya Nadella is available for your three-hour viewing pleasure