With 2014 winding to a close, I'm wondering what surprises await us in the New Year. So here's a quick rundown of some of the tech happenings and trends I see in for 2015, with a particular emphasis on our favorite little tech colossus from Redmond.
First, let me offer up an all-important disclaimer. I'm a better procrastinator than prognosticator. And despite writing about technology generally and Microsoft specifically for over 20 years now, I've been routinely surprised by unforeseen developments. No one could have seen a resurgent Apple, for example, recasting personal computing around mobile, touch-based devices, or the relentless march to the cloud by Amazon, Google and others. So it's quite possible that the biggest tech event of 2015 is something none of us see coming.
Windows 10 for the win
Microsoft is the house that Windows built. But the mistake of Windows 8 has given competitors of all stripes the time and opening they need to chip away at this once-powerful foundation. Today, Windows is under assault in phones, tablets, and even from PC-like devices such as Chromebooks. But Microsoft has made all the right moves to position Windows 10 for a comeback. It has reduced the licensing cost of Windows to "zero dollars" on phones and small tablets, and to next to nothing on other devices. And Windows 10 inexplicably does the impossible by providing a great upgrade experience for both Windows 7 and Windows 8.x users, regardless of device type. Microsoft's best customers, businesses, will applaud this product. And they'll stop pretending to be considering Windows 8 so they can move forward to Windows 10 going forward instead.
The return of Windows Mobile?
Microsoft is making a fairly major change to its Windows product lineup with Windows 10: It is combining two products no one seems to want—Windows Phone and Windows RT—into a single product line that I think the company should call Windows Mobile. (Mark my words, they won't: They'll say it's "just Windows.") This new way of doing things—which, not coincidentally is used by both iOS (iPhone, iPad) and Android—expands the market for the important part of the new Windows ecosystem, which is universal apps that will one day run on headless devices, phones, tablets, convertibles/hybrid PCs, traditional PCs, and even Xbox One. And while Windows Mobile is unlikely to be big enough to creep out of third place in the mobile platform wars—especially in 2015—it won't be a distant third like Windows Phone and RT are today.
The Internet of Things is the real deal
With 3D printers and tiny new Internet-connected boards inspiring a new generation of "makers," the Internet of Things—an unfortunate term at best—is poised for great success. Sure, we've long had tiny programmable devices running embedded OSes. But the difference this time is the pervasive connectivity, a rapidly swelling body of useful sensors, and, for Microsoft, the developer promise of a single platform to which they can write. Microsoft started 2014 deliberately vague of IoT, though it has since promised a Windows 10 version that targets this world and has expanded on its plans. But 2015 will be the year that IoT breaks out, big time. And if Microsoft can find that developer foothold they so rightfully deserve, they could own this space.
The future for wearables is cloudy
This is technically tied to the Internet of Things, but 2014's forays into smart watches, connected fitness bands, and even Google Glasses will continue well in 2015, with most popular devices being sold out by the time we limped into the New Year. But wearables will eventually succumb to two trends: Improvements in smart phones that render wearables pointless to all but the most professional of athletes, and device fatigue. Right now, wearables are both useful and trendy. That won't be the case for long.
Office gets touchy
Microsoft released new touch-based Office mobile apps for iPhone and iPad in 2014, and for Android-based tablets in preview form. But 2015 is where the circle completes: The firm will ship a true Office Touch suite for touch-based Windows devices and will finally rev both Windows desktop and Mac Office versions too.
More cloud, less on-premises
We've seen Microsoft move aggressively to the cloud, with its on-premises solutions taking a back seat and moving forward more slowly. This situation will accelerate in 2015, and the functional gap between Microsoft's cloud and on-premises solutions will only grow. This is no longer a matter of when on-prem products like Windows Server, Exchange, SharePoint, SQL Server and others gain functionality that appeared first in the cloud; more and more often they never will. Proponents of in-house, on-premises technologies will argue that this change isn't customer-driven, but that's not strictly true. The emerging businesses of today are ignoring on-premises solutions almost entirely and subscribing to—or "renting"—the capabilities they need, and only when they need them. Increasingly, even established businesses are using the cloud for new workloads. It's not a trend. It's the new normal.
MDM replaces traditional PC and device management solutions
Microsoft added Mobile Device Management (MDM) capabilities to Windows 8, but no one noticed because everyone hates Windows 8. They'll notice in Windows 10, however, and when small businesses realize they can easily protect their corporate data without needing the complexity and cost of yesterday's Windows PC-centric solutions, and do so across all the devices their users are actually using, it will be game over for another top-heavy relic from the past.
Hybrid devices: Some will succeed, some will not
The fate of hybrid devices—those that try to satisfy two or more needs—varies from device to device. For example, phablets are a growth market because these very large smart phones can also be used as a small tablet. But full-sized tablets, which typically have 10-inchish screens, don't make for good laptops for most adults, rendering the market for such 2-in-1s questionable. Likewise, larger-screened 2-in-1s make for lousy tablets because they're too big and heavy. But don't count out the hybrid PC all together. Some people really enjoy using one device that does it all, and just adding multi-touch capabilities to a traditional form factor laptop can be transformative. This will be especially delightful to those who insist they'll never use such a feature. Like All Wheel Drive (AWD) on a car, you have no idea how happy this will make you.
VR will still be goofy
Oculus Rift was in the news in 2014 because Facebook bought the company for an obscene $2.3 billion, not because anyone actually wants to wear its goofy, large and heavy VR headset. Virtual reality may or may not be the future, but I'll point to the slow ramp up on 3D HDTVs as an example of why this kind of thing needs a lot more time in the oven before it can satisfy the mainstream. You may be dreaming of a "Disclosure"-like future in which we virtually browse around file systems and databases like we're playing a slow-moving "Call of Duty" game. But that's all you'll be doing: Dreaming.