Microsoft's developer and IT professionals conference, Ignite, was on this week, marking close to two decades in New Zealand for the technology conference. Ignite started life as Tech Ed in the United States in 1993, and came to New Zealand three years' after.

Although I never have time to attend as many deep geek sessions as I'd like, Tech ... sorry, Ignite as it's called now, it's a fantastic event, especially in a small market like NZ and an annual fixture for me and many other techies.

This year it wasn't just the name that was different, but it was also clear that Microsoft is very much a different company to the Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer led organisation of the past.

It's a change driven by necessity, due to the world of IT being a completely different place to just a few years ago — and it's still changing, putting Microsoft in a very different, and uncomfortable position for the future.

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Microsoft New Zealand had brought over one of the senior people from the mothership in Seattle, whose job it is to see the company through the changing landscape, Joe Belfiore.

Belfiore has a long title — corporate vice president of the operating systems group — and he also heads up the Windows Phone effort to catch up with Apple and Google at Microsoft.

This is the first time Belfiore is in New Zealand, and he intends to make the most of the visit with a tour of the south island and a taste of Auckland winter rain, which doesn't faze him, being stationed in the wet US northwest.

I asked Belfiore how relevant Microsoft is today to anyone, from business users to Joelene Average at home, given how prevalent mobile devices are, and everything IT-related being done in the cloud over a network connection; could we be looking at a future without Microsoft?

"No!" Belfiore replied emphatically.

"You're looking at the question from a technological point of view, and that's not what people do in general," he said.

"All the new things technology have brought in haven't killed off the old stuff, not yet. There are still print papers, and cinemas. While there are fewer of cinemas for instance, people still go to them," he said.

Belfiore sees it as a generational issue, which may change in say fifty years' time.
This also means that Windows 10 is unlikely to ever go open source, even though Microsoft is increasingly releasing code for other pieces of software it makes.

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"It's a business and development model that is so different to our customers and to us," Belfiore said.

Either way, there's no doubt that Microsoft has had to change tack recently, after old guard boss Ballmer was ousted, and along with him, the One Microsoft strategy.

Having missed the boat on mobility (even though it was smartphone and tablet pioneers) through the failed Windows Phone platform and billion-dollar Nokia fiasco, and outraged users with Windows 8 that had a radically different and polarising user interface, Microsoft has been forced to listen, and listen very carefully to its customers.

Windows 10 is the prime example of that transformation, and Belfiore said it was developed very differently from Windows 8, with the team in charge taking triallist feedback from the start, and incorporating their suggestions through a much more transparent process than in the past.

In comparison, Belfiore said Windows 8 suffered from an overly secretive, non-transparent development process, and that contributed it being deemed a failure.

The biggest problem with Windows 8 however was the focus on producing a touchscreen-enabled interface, which came at the cost of making it work well with traditional keyboards and mice, something most Microsoft users still did for productivity, Belfiore said.

Windows 10 is seeking to address just those issues, engaging users and fixing the complaints from traditional desktop and laptop computer users that Windows 8 generated.

Much hangs on Windows 10, including Microsoft's hopes on wedging in between giants Apple and Google in the mobility area.

Judging by the large number of upgrades to Windows 10 — 75 million according to Microsoft's claims — the new user engagement strategy, inspired by the open source community, Belfiore admitted, is going well.

In particular, Belfiore pointed to the Universal Apps effort in Windows 10 as unique feature of the platform. This allows developers to write a program for desktop computers, but it will also run on smartphones and tablets with none or minimal changes.

The advantage of that is users getting the same experience on all platforms, including mobile, and developers being able to cut down on the effort required to build new apps and have access to much larger audiences of course.

Belfiore promised new flagship mobile devices this year that make use of key Microsoft technologies such as the Cortana personal assistant, facial recognition for user logins instead of passwords as features that would entice users away from Apple and Google, but he also conceded they're not ready yet.

That's a situation which will have to change sooner rather than later with new products and services getting rolled out, if Microsoft wants to catch up with Apple and Google, both of which are growing stronger as time goes by.