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The Verge 2017 tech report card: Microsoft

The Verge 2017 tech report card: Microsoft

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If 2016 was the year of putting failures behind it, Microsoft’s 2017 was a year of focus. Over the past 12 months we’ve seen the software giant successfully execute on its plan to become a major cloud competitor. It’s a massive part of Microsoft’s business now, and it will only continue to grow into 2018. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also revealed that the company’s future is in artificial intelligence, Mixed Reality, and quantum computing. We’ve seen early work in all three areas this year, even if quantum computing and true artificial intelligence are still a ways off in the industry.

Microsoft might have hinted at its future and started winning in cloud, but it didn’t stop doing what it’s best at over the years: Windows. This year saw two big “Creators” updates to Windows 10, with a focus on Mixed Reality, creating in 3D Paint, and pen / touch improvements. Microsoft has continued to update Windows 10 regularly with new features, and as we approach its three-year anniversary it doesn’t look like a “Windows 11” successor is likely any time soon.

The Surface Laptop was a surprise, but welcome, addition to the lineup

Surface Laptop
Surface Laptop
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Alongside the Windows improvements, Microsoft had a rather big hardware year too. Earlier this year we finally saw Microsoft release a Surface Laptop. It was a surprise, but welcome, addition to the Surface lineup, and a device that’s now The Verge’s best laptop to buy right now. Microsoft also refreshed its Surface Pro and Surface Book devices with new models. A 15-inch Surface Book 2 is the biggest change alongside the Surface Laptop, but we didn’t see a refresh of the company’s Surface Studio PC this year.

Surface isn’t the only hardware that Microsoft makes, though. This year saw the release of the highly anticipated Xbox One X console. Codenamed Project Scorpio, the console has done a good job of beating Sony’s PS4 Pro to handle 4K games, but Microsoft still lacks solid exclusive titles that you can’t find elsewhere. One of those big titles is Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, which debuted as a console exclusive on Xbox One this year. It’s the most popular game of 2017, and it’s titles like this that Microsoft needs to keep Xbox competitive with Sony’s impressive PS4 sales.

A photo showing a Windows Mixed Reality headset
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

We also saw the introduction of Windows Mixed Reality hardware this year. The headsets are essentially VR ones for Windows 10 PCs, and they provide access to apps and games from the Windows Store or SteamVR titles. One of the big benefits of Mixed Reality headsets is the lack of sensors required throughout a room. Microsoft’s VR headsets track the room for you, so you just plug them into a laptop or PC and the devices are ready to go with little setup required. We’ve seen a number of headsets from Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Samsung, and it’s likely we’ll see even more next year as Microsoft continues to build out its platform.

2017 also saw the launch of ARM-powered Windows 10 laptops. Only HP and Asus have officially unveiled devices, but the laptops won’t be available until early 2018. The laptops are powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor, and Microsoft is promising “all-day” battery life from some of the laptops. It presents a fresh challenge to Intel’s dominance of the PC market, and Microsoft has created an emulator for Windows 10 to access desktop apps on an ARM processor. If these laptops have great battery life and good performance, it could be an interesting 2018 for Windows-powered laptops.

RIP Groove Music, Kinect

Microsoft also spent a period of 2017 clearing out some of its less successful efforts. The software maker killed off Groove Music, its streaming music platform, in favor of Spotify. Kinect is no longer being manufactured, and Microsoft also finally confirmed the death of Windows Phone. Instead, Microsoft is now focusing on iOS and Android apps, and even attempting to make those mobile devices work better with Windows 10. It’s a strategy that will benefit Windows users a lot, and we’re hoping to see more of it next year.

One thing that Microsoft hasn’t focused on heavily in 2017 is the company’s universal apps. With the death of Windows Phone, the effort feels like its fizzled out. Instead, Microsoft is trying to convince developers to get their traditional desktop apps listed in the Windows Store. This might make it easier for developers to eventually create a fully new version of their app that will run across Windows, Xbox, and Mixed Reality devices, but for now it’s good to see desktop apps arriving in the Store. iTunes was promised for this year, but Apple admitted it needs more time so that’s not expected to arrive until some point in 2018.

As the year drew to a close, speculation over Microsoft’s 2018 mobile efforts started to get interesting. Several patents have revealed that Microsoft has intricately experimented with the idea of a folding book-like device that looks a lot like the company’s Courier concept. It’s hard to say whether this device will ever make it to market, but rumors have suggested the company wants to position such a device as a notepad with stylus support. This could be Microsoft’s “Surface Phone” effort, but the company hasn’t been ready to talk about this mysterious device in 2017. As we look to next year, Microsoft’s ARM on Windows 10 effort could produce some devices that can truly compete with the traditional laptops we’re used to in 2017.

Final grade: B

B 2017 Grade

The Verge 2017 report card: Microsoft

Gold Stars

  • Windows Mixed Reality launch
  • Surface Laptop
  • Xbox One X

Needs Improvement

  • More ARM laptops needed
  • A fresh Surface Studio or Surface monitor
  • Windows 10 apps and universal apps