At its press conference held at Mobile World Congress this morning, Microsoft showed off more of the features coming in its upcoming Windows 10 operating system and how it works in a unified fashion across the mobile phone, tablet and conventional PC environments.

Speaking to the press here in Barcelona, Stephen Elop, Executive Vice President of Microsoft’s Devices & Services business unit reaffirmed that the company is no longer thinking about mobility in the context of devices, but rather in the context of the experiences it enables.

He said that the company is working closely with its users to understand these dynamics and to this end already has some 2.8 million people signed up as Windows ‘insiders’ – meaning they’ve gotten access to the technical preview of Windows 10 –  and collected over 900 000 pieces of feedback about what users want from the future Windows experience.

Universal Apps

Getting into the meat of the presentation, Elop handed things over to Neil Bradley from Microsoft’s mobile business, who showed features that users of the technical preview (specifically on mobile phones) can expect to see in the coming weeks.

Bradley’s demo was heavily focused on universal apps i.e. apps built from a single code base that are designed to work across smartphone, tablet and PC, but adapt to the constraints of the hardware platform (processing power, screen real estate etc.) and more importantly, what that device informs about the use case.

Switching channels, mid message

First up was a simple demo of an SMS message being typed to one of Bradley’s friends. He showed how, with the tap of a button users were able to change the channel of conversation from a conventional SMS text message to a Skype conversation, without switching applications.

‘Spartan’ web reading

Next up, he demonstrated ‘Project Spartan’ a web page reader built from a common framework that exists across smartphone, tablet and PC devices, designed to deliver a less cluttered and far cleaner reading experience that’s particularly useful for reading content on a mobile device.

Bradley said that many of the articles users read online today are too busy and distracting for the mobile context. Spartan is a ‘special reading’ list view of web pages that have been saved on the PC for later reading on a smartphone. He showed how the layout was extremely simple and how users could easily change visual aspects of the page, like the theme of the page (there’s a light and a dark theme to choose from), the size and style of fonts and more. He said it’s almost like an e-reader for the web browser.

Mapping integration

Bradley then shifted focus to mapping and showed off how the unified Windows 10 framework was capable of syncing and sharing data across multiple devices in real time. He first conducted a search for a restaurant in Barcelona to show off the speed with which the mapping features built into Windows 10 could locate a place of interest, list all of the relevant info on that place (pictures, address details, reviews etc.)  and plot a route to it – and easily switch between a route for driving or walking.

Switching across to a Lumia 930, Bradley then fired the mapping app up on the mobile phone to show how similar, yet slightly different (obviously adapted to the mobile phone context) the app looked on mobile. He then tapped the search bar and show how immediately and instantly, the place of interest was at the top of the list of suggested searches.

One tap on this and the same info – marked up for the mobile phone’s constraints – was instantly displayed on the mobile phone.

Whether or not this is more intuitive than manually ‘sending’ a set of directions from the desktop to the smartphone the way Apple tackles the problem will come down to personal preference. The important thing was for Microsoft to show that the realtime sync worked and that the possibility for more than a search term to be magically passed from one device to another is there.

Cortana – almost there

Bradley then demonstrated some of the new functionality coming to Cortana, Microsoft’s take on the digital assistant concept (like Apple’s Siri) users are so excited about.

His first stop was the ‘home’ view of Cortana on the PC, which he said according to time, date, location and bunch of other predetermined factors (like preferences on the user’s part) Cortana was feeding relevant information to the user. He then spoke “Cortana, please remind me about dinner at 8pm.” Except for the the time (which it interpreted as 6pm, it got things spot on.

Because Cortana will be available across all smartphones, tablets and PCs, he also showed how that reminder was instantly there on the smartphone and the tablet.

Bottom line

While a great deal of what Microsoft showed off in its presentation seemed frivolous and simple, you have to look behind the scenes to get a full view of where its focus lies with Windows 10. Firstly, it was important for Microsoft to show off more of its universal apps working in practise and giving credibility to its claims that developers will be able to rapidly build applications once and have them adapt on-the-fly to the context in which they are operating i.e. smartphone, tablet and PC.

Secondly, it was important for Microsoft to show off the realtime data sync functionality that this unified approach brings to the mix. Having one’s data and content immediately available regardless of what device you happen to pick up at any one time is a big deal. Thats’ great when connectivity is ubiquitous. How exactly this plays out in the emerging market where connectivity isn’t yet blanketed, remains to be seen.

Brett is the big cheese at Hypertext Media. He's been covering the technology industry for so long, he's seen old technology be 'respun' as the next big thing one too many times. He started Hypertext in 2002 and quite frankly hasn't looked back (although he often longs for the days when a steady salary, sick days and leave were a given). Publications in his stable include htxt.africa; DailyFive (http://www.dailyfive.tv); Connect; Tarsus Channel and GirlGuides (http://www.girlguides.co.za). He also hosts the ZA Tech Show (http://www.zatech.co.za), does a monthly tech column for Sawubona and writes the odd gadget piece for a magazine here and there. Currently uses: 11-inch Macbook Air, iPhone 5, Blackberry Z10, iPad Mini, Nexus 7, Kindle Paperwhite, Marley TTR Headphones, Xbox360, PS3, Nintendo 3DS.