2016 is set to be a huge year for Microsoft. Its first HoloLens kits will hit the market, Build 2016 will provide more evidence of the company's shift to the cloud and mobile, and a new Microsoft phone may surface. Following on from the first full calendar year with CEO Satya Nadella at the helm, Redmond is moving on from a year where it revamped almost all of its major business lines.
Windows, Surface, Lumia and Office all made the headlines with huge launches. Column after column has been written about Microsoft's newfound confidence, redefining both hardware and software categories. "Microsoft definitely seems to have found its mojo, with a solid OS release, innovative hardware, and growing cloud business," said Avi Greengart, research director of consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis.
Below are six big events that could dominate headlines in the coming year.
Q1 2016 — HoloLens Developer Kit
We predict this will be the biggest event of Microsoft's entire year. For the price of $3,000, developers will be able to get their hands on an actual, fully functional, HoloLens mixed-reality headset. The device has already made some waves in the industry, with a partnership between Microsoft and NASA resulting in a HoloLens going on a space mission. Astronauts can follow instructions on how to carry out repairs, with the headset overlaying the details over the actual components.
"The use cases for HoloLens are so compelling – particularly in the enterprise – that HoloLens may be the rare product that is actually under-hyped," said Greengart.
"Assuming no production problems with the hardware, it will be a huge, runaway hit; there are so many enterprise applications for the device, and the technology is so stunning, that 2016 will be the year of enterprise HoloLens piloting – and even deployment," said J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.
March 30 — Build Conference
The San Francisco meetup is expected to be a big one. Expect the event to cover "the future of Microsoft and technology," said Microsoft's vice president of developer experience and evangelism Steven Guggenheimer. It's not without precedent.
//Build is back in San Francisco, Mar 30 – Apr 1! Developers, join us to see the future of Microsoft and technology https://t.co/UqwNOjvzxe
— Steven Guggenheimer (@StevenGuggs) December 4, 2015
At the 2015 conference Microsoft announced Windows Holographic, Continuum, Edge, Android and iOS support for Windows, a goal to get 1 billion devices running Windows 10, and an interesting website that could guess how old you are. The bar's set pretty high.
Summer (unconfirmed) - Windows 10 "Redstone"
Sources disagree on whether Redstone is one big Windows 10 update or a "wave" of updates, but what is clear is that it's on the way. Microsoft has made known it intends to update Windows online rather than launch a whole new version, and developer builds have surfaced with the Redstone codename. WinBeta reported in October that Redstone will arrive summer next year.
What it will include is the big question. Reports suggest a "Continuity-like" feature that would let consumers move back and forth between devices instantly, much like Apple's system. This jibes with an October report from Brad Sams, which said Redstone will transform Windows 10 into a "technology hub," further integrating various consumer electronics. Redstone may prove crucial to the launch of one phone set to surface around the same time.
H2 2016 (unconfirmed) - Surface Phone
A long-rumored Surface Phone could be the kick the mobile division needs to make serious headway. Microsoft has languished in the mobile space, claiming less than 3 percent of the market according to IDC, while Microsoft's Surface tablet revenue increased 117 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter 2015.
In an October profile by The Verge, Microsoft vice president Panos Panay was asked about the device. He didn't confirm it, but he did say he wanted a "consistent thread between the products," in terms of design and craftsmanship. Rumors kicked up again when a Surface phone was spotted in HTML5 device benchmarks in November. Windows Central, citing sources, claimed in December that the phone would launch in the second half of 2016.
But it may not be as simple as launching a Surface phone to revive the division. The phones also need apps, which Microsoft can get by encouraging developers to make universal apps for Windows 10. These apps can run on both desktop and mobile, but even that isn't a sure-fire way to build up the catalog. "Until Microsoft has a huge number of Windows 10 machines out there (like a billion), its fortunes will suffer in phone," said Gownder, in an email.
Greengart agreed that an all-singing, all-dancing Surface phone won't be the division's savior. "If Microsoft can’t get developers to write universal Windows 10 apps, it won’t matter how good the next round of Windows Phones are, whether they are Surface-branded or not," he said.
July 29 - Windows 10 no longer free
Happy first birthday, Windows 10! After this date, users who haven't upgraded for free from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 will be out of luck. That's unless Microsoft changes its mind and extends the Windows 10 free-upgrade offer beyond the first year of availability. Those users will have to pay $119.99 for the home edition or $199.99 for the professional edition.
Expect think pieces galore as analysts weigh in on whether Windows 10 has been a success so far. Gartner predicted in November that Windows 10 will become the biggest version of all time -- a bold claim, and one that may see some revision if adoption doesn't quite pan out as expected.
"The barometer for true success -- getting 1 billion users onto Windows 10 -- will continue to be the measure, so expectations are high," said Gownder. "We predict continued success and growth -- but not to the point of reaching that ultimate goal in the next year."
Unconfirmed - Surface Pro 5 and Surface Book 2
With the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book having just hit the shelves, it's not surprising that any news about a follow-up is thin on the ground. However, the company has launched a new Surface Pro every year since its inception, and there's little reason to believe that it won't continue the trend.
Microsoft stole the headlines in October when its bumper Surface launch event stunned spectators. Commentators will be watching to see if Microsoft can top itself. There's always the chance the company could skip upgrades for a year, like how Apple didn't update the iPad Air this year, but that would be an unexpected turn in a product line the company seems to be focusing on more intently.
The Surface Book wowed attendees, but reviewers found plenty of ways Microsoft could improve. The hinge, which leaves a gap between the display and the keyboard, was described by The Verge writer Tom Warren as "the main weakness of the Surface Book." Joanna Stern, writing for the Wall Street Journal, slammed the Book for numerous software and hardware problems. Gizmodo writer Mario Aguilar called out the device's lacklustre trackpad. The Surface Book may have stolen the October show, but Microsoft has a long list of reasons why it needs to make a Surface Book 2.