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Microsoft BUILDing suspense, but letting confusion fester

By David M. Smith | August 17, 2011 | 0 Comments

The suspense around Microsoft’s future is building. Many of the answers will be forthcoming during the company’s upcoming Build conference. Nominally a renaming of its PDC and WinHEC developer conferences, this year’s event comes at a critical time for the company. It is facing unprecedented competition from Apple and Google – much of which threatens its core businesses (Windows and Office). Its longstanding strength in developer and ecosystems around its platforms is not what it used to be.

The company has become much more secretive in recent years. I guess it can be described as “Apple envy”… Anyway, its relative silence on its future developer directions has led to lots of misinformation, unlikely conclusions and confusion. And a genuine unease I have not seen entering a PDC for as long as I’ve been following (15+ years).

I am getting many questions about what to expect at Build. Here I plan to shed some thoughts and insights on what to expect.

Here are a few of the questions I’m getting and my best guess answers:

What do I expect to see as the main focus at Build?

Build is going to be all about Windows 8. While Microsoft has recently admitted to Windows 8 being a reality (as if anyone doubted it), it has not yet acknowledged its companion, the rumored project codenamed “Jupiter”. Jupiter is supposedly the next generation combined programming model and is likely to be the real focus from a developer perspective of Build. I expect Jupiter to support multiple models – an HTML5/Javascript model, a .net/Silverlight model, and some kind of backwards compatible model for Win32 apps.

Tablet/touch capabilities will likely be the design point and the focus of much of the conference. Bits for Win8/Jupiter development as well as developer machines capable of showcasing the tablet functionality are likely to be made available.

Is developing using .net safe?

I’m really surprised people are asking this, but they are. A sign of just how far Microsoft has let it go in building suspense by not talking about it. I think it has to be. If anything, the portfolio of .net languages is likely to expand to include Javascript and perhaps even PHP and Java. It’s hard to imagine the company abandoning the .net languages its had success with and its also hard to imagine an HTML5/Javascript strategy that doesn’t provide excellent support for those languages within whatever frameworks evolve.

What about Silverlight?

At last year’s PDC, former Microsoft exec Bob Muglia dropped a bomb re: Silverlight. Declaring that the strategy had changed, he described the future of Silverlight as a Windows runtime (including Windows Phone), not a cross platform offering. HTML5 would assume that role. Muglia’s announcement, which was done without any kind of market preparation, was received harshly, if not misunderstood. Many today still are confused about Silverlight. Also confusing people is that Silverlight is a subset of .net. It’s a very compact useful subset of WPF. This means that Silverlight and .net skills are very very transferable. And while strategies that focused on Silverlight as a competitor to Adobe Flash in the cross platform browser plug in space need to be revised, other uses of the technology on Microsoft platforms is very safe. I expect to see Silverlight and .net, from a programming language perspective, to be very well supported in Jupiter. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some kind of native code mode, possibly in addition to the CLR mode that preserves the programming model and the XAML markup language.

Isn’t the Win 8 strategy purely Html5/Javascript?

Thus far, the only public statements about Windows 8 development are around HTML5 and Javascript. With the strategy change last year towards cross platform being HTML5 and the statements of support around IE9 and IE10, clearly this is a main part of “Jupiter”. But is it the basis? Hard to believe it would be the only way to develop for Win8. The real question is how this is positioned. Will it be standard web type cross platform positioning that happens to run on Windows? Or will it be promoted and linked to Windows, ala IE6. It remains to be seen if Microsoft has truly learned its lesson regarding Web apps that run only on Windows and the predicaments that that lands developers, users and the company itself in.

What about IE? Another version? Won’t Mozilla be up to Firefox V27 by the time Win8 ships Smile?

With the competition turning out new releases of browsers at a truly absurd rate, there is some pressure on Microsoft to respond. I think they will release more often than before but not at anything like the Firefox 6 week cycle. IE10 bits and a first look at IE11 is a reasonable guess. I don’t expect them to get much more aggressive in delivering non-final HTML5 technologies, which could turn out to be a challenge to overcome.

Will Windows phone and apps play a role?

Clearly already demonstrated, Windows 8 resembles Windows Phone’s tiled look and feel. (I wonder why they don’t call them panes, as in Window Panes). It would be hard to imagine the company wanting to leave behind loyal Windows Phone developers. And there should be at least a high degree of compatibility as a result of Silverlight being the programming model for Windows Phone and if I am right about Jupiter supporting Silverlight programming, then there should be good compatibility. However, regarding full binary compatibility (ala Iphone and android apps running on corresponding tablets), I’m not sure what to expect. Apple and Google’s strategies are much more focused on leveraging phone successes into tablet markets, while Microsoft is more trying to leverage PC success into tablets. In fact Windows 8 is more a scaled down version of Windows than a scaled up version of Windows Phone. Complete compatibility for Win Phone apps in Jupiter may end up being a casualty. If that happens, Microsoft would squander loyalty and it could be a very costly decision.

As for web apps on Windows Phone, with the new release Mango due (probably also at Build), an HTML5 capable browser will be part of it. Theoretically this will help with running web apps, but the company’s IE HTML5 strategy is to be conservative, not implementing specs until they are more mature than the requirements of their competitors. Unless the IE browser on Win Phone supports plugins (I assume the Win 8 one will), getting the latest support for emerging HTML5 technologies could hobble Win Phone.

What about Azure and the cloud?

There will in all likelihood be some Azure and cloud announcements. At the very least, utilization of Azure back ends for Win8. I would not expect to see any earth shattering Azure announcements as the focus is likely to be on client/Windows areas.

Confusion around overall developer strategy has led to questions about the viability of Azure even. Not unlike the questions around .net (and my answer), I think current investments in azure (which is also a .net programming model) will be preserved.

Of course I don’t know if these answers are correct. But they are my best guess at this point in time. We’ll see in a few short weeks how well I did…

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