The Microsoft Build developer conference is in full swing this week and while much of the agenda is really only of interest to people who create Windows applications, there are some items to excite those that merely use them.

The event opened on Wednesday evening, UK time, with a keynote presentation that gave an overview of some key Microsoft technologies.

Unfortunately, there’s no news so far on what everyone is waiting for — the price and launch date of Windows 10. We already know that the new operating system will be a free upgrade to existing users of Windows 7 and 8 for a year after launch, but Microsoft has yet to announce what happens after that.

Check out the video above to find out more.

 

Apps galore — with a bit of effort

Biggest of these is Windows 10’s ability to run apps that were originally designed for Android and iOS. The devil is in the detail here, since this isn’t app compatibility as such, but rather a way for developers to rework their smartphone and tablet apps with the minimum of effort to run on Windows 10.

This is bigger news than it first appears, too, since Windows 10 apps don’t just run on PCs — they run on a range of devices. A new breed of ‘universal’ apps will run on anything that runs Windows 10, whether that’s a desktop or laptop PC, a smartphone, tablet or even the Xbox 360 games console.

Windows 10 on a lenovo tablet

This kind of conversion seldom works well, since the best apps are designed to exploit the features of the device they run on — whether its hardware or user interface — but it should at least swell the number of apps in the Windows store for Windows 10 phones. But Microsoft’s ambitions are bigger than that.

[Related story: Windows 10 on phones – what’s it all about?]

 

Your smartphone is now your desktop PC

Universal apps must be able to reconfigure themselves to work with different screen sizes and hardware on the fly — a feature that Microsoft calls ‘Continuum’. So when you’re using a laptop, for example, Windows 10 works in ‘desktop’ mode that makes it amenable to mouse and keyboard control. Detach the display and take it away as a tablet, however, and Windows 10 automatically switches into finger-friendly touchscreen mode.

That’s certainly a massive improvement over the way Windows 8 worked, but things get even more interesting for next generation of Windows 10 smartphones. Since they will run essentially the same version of Windows 10 as PCs, connect one to a desktop display and Continuum will switch it into ‘desktop’ mode.

Windows 10 Continuum

Connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse (or use the smartphone screen as a PC touchpad) and the phone becomes all but indistinguishable from a PC — and it runs all the same apps, remember.

That means the Windows 10 smartphone in your pocket can become a Windows 10 PC at will, although it remains to be seen how well this works in practice. As powerful as modern smartphones are, using one to drive a large display and multi-task apps will probably require a good deal more processing power — but it’s something that will certainly (and finally) distinguish Windows 10 smartphones from the competition.

 

Hello Microsoft Edge

The other big news regards Project Spartan — or Microsoft Edge, as it’s now known. Edge won’t replace Internet Explorer, but it will be the default browser in Windows 10.

Microsoft didn’t give much else away about Edge, but it will be able to use extensions that were designed for Chrome and Firefox in much the same way that Windows 10 can run Android and iOS apps (i.e. with a little reworking).

That should make the new browser much more appealing, but again, it depends upon developers taking the time to convert their extensions — although it’s hard to imagine they won’t, with a huge Windows audience waiting to use them.

[Related story: How to install and try Microsoft's new Project Spartan web browser]

 

HoloLens wows the crowd

The star of the show, by far, was the HoloLens demo. Microsoft has given proof of concept demonstrations of this virtual reality headset before, but it now has working hardware — and it’s astonishing.

Microsoft HoloLens

To recap, HoloLens is a wearable device that blends three-dimensional computer-generated images with the physical environment via clever display technology.

Not only are the images anchored in physical space, but they can also interact with it to a degree — such as a virtual globe sitting on a physical table, or app windows ‘hanging’ on the wall.

Microsoft HoloLens demo

Microsoft demonstrated a range of HoloLens apps — which are all Windows 10 universal apps, by the way — from the vantage point of a HoloLens-equipped video camera plugged into the same virtual world as the HoloLens wearers.

HoloLens is completely self-contained and works by building a map of the immediate physical environment, then projecting interactive ‘holograms’ into it. The demos are best seen than described, but they promise to deliver on the dream of virtual reality we’ve all been waiting for for decades.

Microsoft HoloLens demo

Microsoft is working with a wide range of companies to develop HoloLens applications, from Disney to NASA, but there’s still no news on availability or price. Given the fabulous complexity of the hardware, however (it doesn’t need a PC to work), it’s reasonable to assume that it won’t be cheap.

The Microsoft Build conference runs for three days, so expect more detail to appear over the course of the week — and stay tuned for more updates.