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Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore on the future of Windows and connecting phones to PCs

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Microsoft is committed to cross-device features

Joe Belfiore at Build 2018
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

Microsoft first acknowledged at Build last year that its new mobile strategy is to make iOS and Android devices work better with Windows 10 PCs. While the Windows-related news at this year’s Build developer conference has been light, Microsoft has revealed it’s working on a new “Your Phone” app that further bridges the gap between PCs and phones. The app will bring text messages, notifications, and photos from a phone directly to a Windows 10 PC, and it’s designed to make it easier to transition between the two.

I sat down with Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore and Shilpa Ranganathan at Build this week to get a better understanding of the company’s cross-device efforts for Windows 10 and the future of Windows itself. Ranganathan is responsible for the Microsoft Launcher and cross-device efforts, and Belfiore has long worked on Windows and is in charge of the user experience for Windows 10.

Your Phone app for Windows 10

Microsoft’s new Your Phone app isn’t ready for Windows 10 users to even try fully yet, as the company is still building the app, but it’s clear this will be the central way to connect phones to PCs. While Microsoft has used Cortana for linking SMS and notifications to PCs in the past, this new app will be the primary way phones connect to Windows 10 PCs. Microsoft has shown off messages, notifications, and photo sharing at the moment, but not all of these features will necessarily work on both iOS and Android.

“We will actually have photos on iOS and notifications as well,” explains Shilpa Ranganathan. “Apple does make it a tad harder for messages, but we’re very willing to work with Apple.” A number of third-party apps use workarounds to support messages, but Microsoft’s vision is essentially to bring iMessage to Windows inside its Your Phone app. “I want to do this in a supported way with a respect for the ecosystem we’re building on and at the same time make it a delightful experience,” says Ranganathan. “Messages is one where we’re not currently where we need to be compared to Android, but we need to work with Apple.”

That work with Apple has not started, and Microsoft has not yet approached the company to see if it’s willing to work with Microsoft. It seems very unlikely that it will be able to convince Apple to partner on such a project, so Your Phone will likely ship with better features on Android. Still, Microsoft is also looking at other features for the app. “I know people have asked for calling and dialing as well, that’s something that has been on our radar as well,” reveals Ranganathan. Microsoft is also investigating clever features like providing directions based on text message information, or surfacing relevant contact information through the app. It’s still early for Your Phone, but Microsoft is clearly committed to making this a powerful part of Windows 10.

Microsoft’s Fluent Design

Outside of Your Phone, I pressed Joe Belfiore on the future of Windows and whether Microsoft’s recent Windows reorg has affected the direction of its popular operating system. “The way we’re making investments and thinking about our customers is pretty much the same,” says Belfiore. “I think maybe this year because we’ve gone through this org change where the company is focused on Azure and the cloud… we kind of focused the keynote on what does that mean, what is Microsoft 365 about?”

The result of the keynote change has looked, at times, like Microsoft is only focused on business customers now and is looking beyond Windows. Last year there were a number of features unveiled for Windows 10, and some of them were promised earlier than they arrived, and it feels like Microsoft is pausing at Build this year to more carefully talk about the future of Windows so it doesn’t make that mistake again. “I don’t think we’ve changed our psychology around it, but maybe it came across that way,” admits Belfiore. “I think we are talking about what’s coming, what we’re doing less of is saying the date this will arrive for the general population.”

Timeline for Windows 10

That trend could continue throughout 2018. Microsoft usually dumps a lot of new features into Windows Insider builds as soon as a previous update is complete, but we haven’t seen that yet this time around. Microsoft released a new test build of Windows 10 this week, with a dark mode File Explorer and cloud-powered clipboard, but the major new addition still appears to be the Your Phone app. “I think in general it’s more gradual,” explains Belfiore. “It’s certainly more gradual, but I think it’s also the case that sub teams will try to get their features in. We’re developing this thing in public, we’re being pretty transparent about the work that’s underway.”

We’re still not clear exactly what features will ship in the next major Windows 10 update. Belfiore was clear on stage that Microsoft doesn’t want to commit to dates for some of the bigger features anymore, and even the tabbed feature (Sets) and Your Phone might not make the next release. While Microsoft did reveal some of its Fluent Design UI changes during a Build session, the company isn’t ready to talk about some of the bigger C-Shell changes its making. “There’s a range of things that we’re doing that involve changing the way that the internal componentry works, but none of those things are ready to be talked about publicly,” says Belfiore.

So what can we expect from Windows over the next 12 months? It certainly feels like Microsoft is shifting toward making Windows the best PC environment possible for productivity. The company has stepped back from a lot of its dramatic Windows 8 efforts with Windows 10, and it feels like Microsoft could go further in its efforts to make Windows the true power user platform.

“The Windows PC plays a huge role in people getting meaningful work done, it’s where most of the creation of the world happens,” explains Belfiore. “I don’t think its role in that has been diminished at all, but its been joined by so many other things. People spend a huge amount of time on mobile, and we’re embracing or trying to make that relationship between the PC and those devices work well. I think that what we’re trying to do is make sure it remains best at what its best at, and that it does its job as best as it possibly can.”

We’re starting to see some of those improvements in the test versions of Windows 10. There’s a new cloud clipboard that will sync clipboard contents across devices, and even a new screenshot tool that finally makes it easier to clip and share content. These changes are minor, but they will be welcomed by Windows users. Microsoft has been gradually improving Windows 10 with these productivity-focused features for years, and this refinement will continue.

Microsoft will now push ahead further with its cross-device efforts to make Windows connect with phones in more meaningful ways. Your Phone is the natural extension of the Timeline effort, and Microsoft has more ideas. “I don’t think we’re bumping up against unreasonable boundaries yet,” says Belfiore. “There’s a ton we can do on Android, there’s plenty we can do on Apple that we haven’t done yet so let’s go get to the edge and as far as we can and I think we’ll be in a better place.”