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Microsoft's message to Build developers: This isn't your dad's Windows

The software maker is on a mission to make hardware irrelevant, software the king and Windows the most powerful engine for every device. But the challenge starts now.

CEO Satya Nadella lays out his vision for Microsoft at the company's annual Build developer conference. CNET

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is a known fan of German philosophy -- in particular the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, from whom he borrowed when he said his company must have "courage in the face of reality" shortly after he became chief executive of the software maker 15 months ago.

Nearly a year and a half later, he's more confident. Instead of facing down reality, Microsoft must now have "courage in the face of opportunity," Nadella said Wednesday when speaking with analysts at the company's annual Build developer conference.

At Build, Microsoft's main mission is to convince developers and customers that its next Windows operating system, Windows 10, adds enough new features and technology to push the software into the modern era. To do that, Microsoft has transformed Windows into a service that can be layered over every device, with so-called universal apps that work across any screen and software that should, in theory, know exactly how you'll want to use it. Microsoft has also let its core products, like Office apps, move everywhere freely in an effort to build more roads back to the heart of its ecosystem.

"Windows 10 is not just another release of Windows, but a new generation of Windows," Nadella said onstage. "The tech business is about being able to know before it is conventional wisdom that that is where the market is going ... and knowing that you can get there first, get there with the best innovation."

Microsoft remains the world's largest software maker with Windows running on more than 90 percent of the world's computers, according to NetMarketShare. But the company missed the boat on smartphones and has, over the years, watched confidence in its platform dwindle as developers shifted focus elsewhere to Apple's iOS, Google's Android and the Web at large. PCs sales have also been on a steady decline, all while Microsoft's core productivity software has faced fierce competition from free cloud-based services.

With Windows 10, due to be released to the general public this summer, Microsoft is making a big gamble: that Windows can inject itself into every mobile device and every piece of software we use, through one operating system running apps developed for any device, all powered by Microsoft's cloud. The notion is a stark departure from what competitors Apple and Google, which have both drawn deep lines between mobile and desktop devices, have done with their respective platforms.

By 2018, Microsoft hopes to have more than 1 billion devices running Windows 10. That's ambitious, to say the least. Microsoft's previous operating system, Windows 8 runs on less than 15 percent of the world's computers and its smartphone counterpart powers only 2.8 percent of the world's smartphones. Those poor figures are the primary reason developers have lost interest with Windows, analysts say.

For Nadella, the future of Windows is a unified platform for which developers can write code that runs on a variety of gadgets, from Raspberry Pi microcomputers powering robots all the way up to game consoles and holographic headsets like Microsoft's HoloLens.

"The challenge Microsoft still has is they have to get a critical mass of apps," said Merv Adrian, a Gartner analyst. "They have a lot of catching up to do."

So far, Nadella has made a convincing argument to attract developers.

"In general, the pace [of change] has been extraordinary," said Adrian, who sees Microsoft as a far more open company today than in the past. "That message sits very well with the developers," he said, "who see themselves as having a much larger audience" than just the Windows platform.

Whether developers buy into that vision remains to be seen, but "enthusiasm in the room was palpable" during Nadella's keynote, Adrian noted.

Microsoft's HoloLens promises to change how we interact with computers, and it represents the company's vision for a Windows that can power any device. Microsoft

"Developers will be the deciding factor in the ultimate success of Nadella's 'mobile-first, cloud-first' vision," Geoff Blaber, vice president of Americas at CCS Insight, wrote in an analyst note following Nadella's keynote Wednesday. "Microsoft's strategy goes beyond Windows 10, but a successful launch and swift user adoption is crucial to create the foundation for Microsoft's business model transition."

At Build, Microsoft outlined how developers can beef up the Windows Phone platform, announcing tools to reuse Android and iOS code more easily. Now, instead of developing for each platform separately, app creators can convert software into the native languages of Apple and Google's platforms.

It's a bold move, but not without its complications; developers may never make apps specifically with Windows in mind if they can simply move the software over after-the-fact. "The decision to embrace Android and iOS applications is an imperfect solution to an undesirable problem," Blaber noted. "Nonetheless, it's a necessary move to attract developers otherwise lost to Apple and Google."

Microsoft has also developed a modern Web browser, now officially called Edge, to which it has plugged in its most ambitious new features, like the Cortana data assistant that's powered through its Bing search engine. With Office 365, the company's flagship software now sold as an annual subscription service, Microsoft is creating a system for developers to plug in other apps and services. That may help key products like Word, Excel and PowerPoint become invaluable to how businesses do work rather than more costly alternatives to free software from Google and others.

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With Windows 10 on the horizon, Microsoft's ambitions will be put to the test. The company is believed to have missed the ball on mobile and arrived late to the party with the cloud. Both represent two critical computing revolutions that are still defining how we work, play, entertain and create and have spelled the end for a number of once-powerful technology companies that failed to keep up.

But perhaps it's yet another Nietzsche quote from which Nadella can draw wisdom for the future: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Microsoft's overall desktop operating system market share. It is 91 percent, not 95 percent, according to NetMarketShare.