Sometimes, things just take a little bit longer than expected. At Microsoft’s Build conference five years ago, the company made a widely reported prediction that the Windows 10 ecosystem would expand out to one billion devices over the course of a 2-3 year time period. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it by the original deadline, but just a few months ago they were finally able to announce that they had reached that ambitious milestone.
Appropriately, at this year’s virtual Build developer conference, the company made what could prove to be an even more impactful announcement that will allow developers to take full advantage of that huge installed base. In short, the company unveiled something they call Project Reunion that will essentially make it easier for a variety of different types of Windows applications—built via different programming models—to run more consistently and more effectively across more devices.
Before getting into the details, a bit of context is in order. Back in 2015 when then Executive VP Terry Myerson made the one billion prediction, Microsoft’s OS efforts were more grandiose than simply for PCs. The company was still actively pursuing the smartphone market with Windows Phone, had just unveiled the first HoloLens concept devices and Surface Hub, talked about the role that Xbox One had in its OS plans, and generally was thinking more about a multi-device world for its then new OS.
Looking back now, it’s clear that we indeed entered an era of multiple devices, but the only ones that ended up having a significant impact on the Windows 10 installed base number turned out to be PCs in all flavors and forms, from desktops and laptops, to 2-in-1s and convertibles like the original Surface. In fact, the nearly complete reliance on PCs is undoubtedly why it took longer to reach the one billion goal.
In retrospect, however, that’s actually a good thing, because there are now approximately one billion relatively similar devices for which developers can create applications, instead of a mixed group of devices that were more related to Windows 10 in name than true capability. Even with this large similar grouping, however, not all applications for Windows 10 were created or function in the same way. Because of some of Microsoft’s early bets on device diversity under the Windows 10 umbrella, they made decisions about promoting a more basic (and legacy-free) application development architecture that they hoped would ensure that applications ran across this wide range of devices. Specifically, Microsoft promoted the concept of Universal Windows Platform (UWP) APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and a number of developers took them up on these initiatives.
At this point, however, because of some of the limitations in UWP, there really isn’t much need (or demand) for these efforts, hence Project Reunion. At a basic level, the goal with Project Reunion is to provide the complete set of Windows 10 capabilities (the Win32 or Windows APIs) to applications originally created around the UWP concept—in essence to “reunite” the two application development platforms and their respective APIs into a single, more modern Windows platform. This, in turn, allows programmers to have a more consistent means of interaction between their apps and the Windows 10 operating system, regardless of the approach they first took to create the application. In addition, thanks to a number of extensions that Microsoft is making to that model, it allows developers to create more modern, web and service-friendly applications.
Specifically, for example, Project Reunion is going to enable something the company is calling WinUI 3 Preview 1, which is a new framework for building modern, fast, flexible user interfaces that can easily scale across different devices. By leveraging the open-source, multi-OS friendly Fluent Design-based tools, developers can actually achieve an even more widespread reach not only across different Windows 10-based devices, but those running other OS’s as well. Plus, thanks to hooks into previous development platforms, developers can use these UI tools to modernize the look of existing apps as well as build new ones.
Another specific element of Project Reunion is WebView 2, which is a set of tools that lets developers easily integrate native web content within an app and even integrate with browsers across different platforms. As with WinUI 3 and the new more modern Windows APIs, WebView 2 isn’t locked to any version of Windows, giving developers more flexibility in leveraging their application’s codebase across multiple platforms.
Microsoft also announced new extensions that allow Windows developers to tap into services built into Microsoft 365 such as Microsoft Search and Microsoft Graph. This allows developers to create a modern web service-like application that can leverage the capabilities and data that Microsoft’s tools provide and offer extensions and connections to the company’s widely used SaaS offerings.
The Project Reunion capabilities look to finally complete the picture around the one billion device installed base that the company promised, but in a much different way than most people originally thought. Interestingly, thanks to the growing importance and influence of the PC—a point that’s really been brought home in our current environment—there’s arguably a less diverse set of Windows 10-based devices to specifically code for than most predicted. However, the new tools and capabilities promised for Project Reunion potentially allow developers to create applications for that entire base, instead of a smaller subset that realistically was all that was possible from the original UWP efforts.
Additionally, because of Microsoft’s significantly more open approach to application developments and open source in general since that 2015 announcement, the range of devices that Windows-based developers can target is now significantly broader than even that impressive one billion figure. Obviously delivering on that promise is a lot harder than simply defining the vision, but it’s certainly interesting to see how Microsoft continues to keep the world of Windows fresh and relevant. Throw in the fact that a new version of Windows—10X—is on the horizon, and it’s clear that 2020, and beyond, is going to be an interesting time for a platform that many had written off, albeit incorrectly, as irrelevant.