What does Microsoft have planned for Wednesday’s Windows 10 event?

Microsoft will unveil the first major Windows update under new CEO Satya Nadella on Wednesday. Obviously, it’s a big day for the Redmond-based giant as well as for any Windows user who wants to know what to expect from her PC in the future.

Microsoft’s stock is at a near 15-year high. Nadella has refocused the company on services and made many of Microsoft’s key properties — including Office — truly cross-platform. The PC industry has also had a few good quarters recently, with sales slowing less than expected.

But although Windows is most closely associated with the PC, Microsoft’s biggest challenge is in the mobile space. Last year, Microsoft bought Nokia for over $7 billion hoping to ride closer integration of hardware and software to a bigger share of the mobile market, but Windows Phone still lags far behind both Android and iOS in terms of the number of devices in consumer hands. Microsoft will look to Windows 10 to turn that around.

Here’s everything we think we know Microsoft has up its sleeve. I’ll be live-blogging the event along with Kevin Tofel on Gigaom at 9AM PT on Wednesday.

A Windows 10 preview for consumers

Leaked-Windows-10-Build-9901-Screenshots-467421-3

[company]Microsoft[/company] is expected to launch the Windows 10 Consumer Preview at its event. The Consumer Preview is a beta version that’s not quite ready for mass consumption, but when it’s distributed it should be good enough for interested parties to taste the new Windows 10.

Thanks to a few leaked Technical Previews, which are intended for Microsoft “experts,” we have an idea what to expect from the latest Microsoft desktop operating system.

First, there’s going to be a big emphasis on Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant, which has continued to improve since its launch in 2014. It started out on Windows Phone, but it’s almost certain that Microsoft wants to bring the Google Now and Apple Siri hybrid to the desktop.

Microsoft may also be planning to introduce a new Xbox app, which would function as a gateway to the entire Xbox ecosystem.=That means that gamers could see and configure their achievements, friend lists, and activity feeds from their desktop computer. The big question is how the Xbox app will handle games: Will you be able to download games on the Xbox app that you can play on your laptop?

Another possible big feature is called Continuum, which allows users to pick up what they were doing as they switch between PC, tablet, and phone, specifically geared for 2-in-1 devices. It sounds similar to Apple’s Handoff feature or Nextbit’s projects on Android phones (which use the cloud). But we’ll have to wait to see what kind of backend Microsoft is using to provide the feature.

Of course, long-time Windows users are loyal to the Start menu. And, according to leaked screenshots, “Start” is making a comeback of sorts.

A version of Windows for smartphones, tablets, and mobile devices in general

Most attention at the Windows event will probably be on Microsoft’s mobile platform, which is expected to be a new version of Windows without a desktop interface that combines Windows RT and Windows Phone and works on both Intel and ARM processors.

Unlike Windows 10 for the desktop, Microsoft hasn’t released a preview for its upcoming mobile operating system yet. Rumor has it that Spartan will include both a light and dark theme, and will integrate more fully with Xbox and Windows on the desktop.

Which version of Windows will small tablets run? To this point, Windows Phone hasn’t been installed on a Wi-Fi only tablet. Will Microsoft encourage device makers to use the new mobile operating system on inexpensive tablets, or will some of them continue to run full Windows like a few tablets that came out last year?

Microsoft has been experimenting with changing the way it licenses Windows, especially to other businesses. In December, Microsoft COO Kevin Turner said that Microsoft needed to “monetize” Windows differently. Windows 10 could mark a key shift in Microsoft’s decades-old business model.

Some hardware makers who wanted to try out Windows Phone or Windows RT on devices under 8-inches haven’t had to pay the licensing fees recently. With subscriptions to services like Office 365 hopefully growing under Nadella’s watch, it’s not hard to imagine heavily-subsidized hardware largely paid for through subscriptions, especially for enterprise customers.

The beginning of the end for Internet Explorer

Photo by Kevin Tofel/Gigaom

Photo by Kevin Tofel/Gigaom

In recent weeks, there’s been an increasing amount of chatter that Microsoft has been developing a new “lightweight” browser to be installed on Windows devices.

[company]Microsoft[/company] is unlikely to launch a WebKit-based browser, though — reports have Microsoft sticking with its Chakra JavaScript engine and proprietary Trident rendering engine, which are the underpinnings of Internet Explorer.

But the browser, reportedly codenamed “Spartan,” will be a major change from Microsoft’s previous browser efforts. It reportedly will have versions not only PCs, tablets and phones. It could be updated through the Windows Store and will deeply support “digital inking” — like what the stylus on the Surface Pro uses — as well as integrate Cortana. Given Microsoft’s new cross-platform approach, it wouldn’t even be a surprise to see the new Spartan browser ported to non-Windows operating systems.

What will it be called? It’s likely to adopt a new name — perhaps not Spartan — for a few reasons. First, it would allow Microsoft to shake the perception that Internet Explorer is a standards non-compliant pain in the neck, even though the browser has improved significantly from its IE6 days.

But the simplest reason for the new browser having a new name is that a version of Internet Explorer will likely continue to exist, pre-installed on Windows devices, if only for “legacy reasons.” After all, there are many enterprise clients that would like to keep their browsers consistent.

The convergence of the app stores

A new report says that Microsoft has been working on a platform which allows developers to easily configure a Windows app to run well on phones, tablets, and PCs all with different screen sizes. According to The Information, 90 percent of code may be able to be re-used when adapting a desktop Windows app to mobile.

Furthermore, these apps that run across both PCs and phones could be available from a single, unified app store. If Microsoft were to make this move, it would a strong play to attract app developers away from iOS and Android and back onto Windows.

Using its position on desktop PCs to bridge the “app gap” was one of the key reasons Microsoft allowed Windows 8 PCs to run Windows RT apps, although that didn’t work out quite as planned. Consolidating all the app stores into one could be a sea change for Microsoft’s mobile hopes and the moment that hot new app teams realize they have to develop for Windows, too.

Although Microsoft says that most of the must-have apps are available for Windows Phone, its clear that there are certainly some big-name apps and services that don’t have official versions on the Windows Store, and it’s a problem. Notable absences include: Lyft, Uber, HBO Go, Snapchat, RunKeeper, Tinder, GitHub, most Google services including Maps and Gmail, and most new and buzzy games.

Could Cortana eat Bing?

cortana

Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant, is likely to be a big focus at the consumer preview. Some reports have indicated that Cortana will be able to be used through a browser tab in the new Microsoft browser. Apple’s Siri can’t do that, but Google’s various voice powers can be used in Chrome.

One possible leaked screenshot shows Cortana integrated into the address bar of a Spartan tab.

But one of the most interesting possibilities headed into the Windows 10 unveiling is that the Cortana brand could end up substituting for Bing as the default search software in many places in the new Windows. It’s a similar situation to Internet Explorer — although Bing is a mature product, it’s still perceived as an also-ran to Google Search. Cortana uses cool voice capabilities and can do more than simply search the web through Bing. It can also dig through your calendar, for instance. Microsoft might have an easier time re-training Google users to do a Cortana search as opposed to a Bing search.

Cortana will also be baked into the Windows 10, not just the browser. Leaked screenshots and video from Winbeta show a pre-release version of Cortana retaining her old voice on a desktop computer with much of the same features found on Windows Phone — adding reminder, calling people with Skype, and launching apps.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hA0Sk28TsP

The integration of Xbox and Windows Store

Microsoft’s third biggest property after Office and Windows is Xbox, which is notable as Microsoft’s only major product aimed almost exclusively at consumers (as opposed to Office and Windows, which are largely sold directly to other businesses.)

Microsoft has been developing a music and a video store under its Xbox brand. Merging Xbox Music and Xbox Video into the Windows Store could give Microsoft a full lineup of multimedia content more like Apple’s iTunes Store or Google Play.

The Xbox SmartGlass app could also be in line for a surprise update. Launched alongside Windows 8 in 2012, it’s been essentially a high-powered remote app for the Xbox console — albeit one that can stream live television content to mobile devices. But Microsoft has always considered SmartGlass as a software service to tap into Xbox content, so the app might have a new role as a bridge between Windows 10, the Xbox One, and devices not running Windows.

So when can I try out the new Windows?

Microsoft said in 2014 that users can expect a Windows 10 “launch wave” in mid-2015. I think it’s more likely to have its big launch in the early fall or late summer. But users will have a chance to try out the new Windows bits perhaps as soon as Wednesday.

A new app called Phone Insider published by Microsoft on the Windows Phone Store might be the way that Microsoft distributes its Windows 10 mobile preview. So far the app can only be installed by Microsoft employees.

With Windows 8, Microsoft released its desktop consumer preview to anyone interested in trying it out. Expect Redmond to do the same thing with the Windows 10 Consumer Preview.

Beyond IE: Microsoft reportedly building new “Spartan” browser

Back in September, ZDNet Microsoft-watcher Mary-Jo Foley reported that the next version of Internet Explorer was being developed under the codename “Spartan”. On Monday, though, she quoted anonymous sources as saying Spartan would be a whole new browser, rather than IE 12. Building on other reports, Foley said the new lightweight browser will support extensions and hopefully be more streamlined than IE has become over its two decades of existence. Nonetheless, for the sake of backwards compatibility, the upcoming Windows 10 will ship with both Spartan (or whatever its final name is) and IE 11, she said.

Microsoft axes its EU browser choice mechanism after five years

Five years ago, Microsoft began offering a choice of browsers to European customers who were booting up a copy of Windows for the first time. It did this in order to settle an antitrust case with the European Commission and avoid a hefty fine.

That commitment – which [company]Microsoft[/company] wasn’t entirely consistent in sticking to — ended on Wednesday. The firm has accordingly axed its browser choice mechanisms, telling users: “Microsoft encourages customers who want more information about web browsers or want to download another browser to do so by visiting the websites of web browser vendors directly.”

Windows is obviously still a big deal, but not as market-dominating as it was back in 2009. Back then, if you wanted a personal computer, you were most likely to buy a Windows PC. As of next year, according to analyst estimates, you’re as likely to buy a tablet instead – though don’t write off the PC just yet, particularly in Europe and the U.S.

The main reason that the European Commission wrung the browser choice concession out of Microsoft was that the company was trying to extend its market dominance past the operating system to the next big platform: the web. It was doing so by making Internet Explorer the default browser in Windows, something that the Commission saw as an anticompetitive abuse of its dominant position.

By removing that default status, other browsers got their chance to shine – it was no longer necessary for users to already know about that other browser and consciously visit its download site on Internet Explorer, for them to be a click away from downloading it. Five years later, Chrome is now the most popular browser in the world.

Internet Explorer browser choice

And the statistics for Europe versus North America, for example, are telling. Looking at desktops specifically, in North America, Chrome has a 41.52 percent share of the browser market and Internet Explorer is in second place with 32.75 percent. In Europe, Chrome has a 47.2 percent share and IE has just 17.53 percent, putting it in third place behind Firefox (on 25.68 percent.) While regulatory intervention isn’t the only reason for this situation — Chrome still beats IE in North America, where there was no intervention — it’s likely to have been a big one. Defaults matter.

The rise of Chrome across the desktop and mobile, with [company]Google[/company] as its default search engine, has become a key factor in Google’s 90+ percent dominance in the EU search market. Now it’s that company’s turn under the Commission’s antitrust spotlight, thanks to its abuse of that position to stamp out vertical search rivals and the like. If the Commission manages to cut Google down to size with whatever the settlement of that case entails, who knows which future monopolist will get the chance it craves?

This article was updated at 9.20am PT with some statistics about browser share, and slightly rearranged around that addition.