Microsoft Build: Wooing Windows 8 developers

At the company's much-anticipated developer's conference, Microsoft works on expanding its universe of third-party apps.

At Microsoft's Build conference, held this week in Redmond, Wash., the software giant's main objective was to entice developers and programmers to go forth and create apps for the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 ecosystem.

The company has apparently succeeded in wooing at least the Microsoft faithful, although there are questions about how many existing and new customers will ultimately jump to the dramatic revision of the company's flagship operating system.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off a variety of devices running Windows 8, from a tiny 10-in. touchable tablet to a huge 82-in. Perceptive Pixel touch-enabled display. Along with those devices came the showcase of the Windows 8 software itself as Ballmer demonstrated how Microsoft's services make transporting settings, data and personalizations across a user's tablet, desktop PC and phone appear to be transparent.

Along with this transformation comes the necessity of encouraging and kindling an ecosystem of apps and value-added services from those outside of Microsoft. As the company wrote in its recent 10K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, "The strategic importance of a vibrant ecosystem increases as we launch the Windows 8 operating system, Surface devices, and associated cloud-based services."

Surface is Microsoft's new family of tablet computers.

Crystallizing the opportunity

During his keynote presentation on the first day of the conference, Ballmer outlined the number of potential users and devices that developers can target. According to Ballmer, there are 670 million Windows 7 users potentially upgrading to Windows 8, and 400 million new unique devices these customers have that can take advantage of at least some of the new features and the environment in Windows 8.

Ballmer also showcased the large marketing investment Microsoft is making to raise the awareness of Windows in the marketplace. "You won't be able to turn on a TV or open a magazine without seeing a Microsoft Windows ad," Ballmer said Tuesday.

How early Windows 8 sales figures compare

Microsoft reported that in the period from Friday, October 26, the first day that Windows 8 was available for purchase by consumers, to the morning of Tuesday, October 29, the company sold to end users at least 4 million licenses of Windows 8. It sounds like a big number, and it is, but around the time Apple's revised operating system OS X Mountain Lion was released, that company sold 3 million licenses in the same amount of time.

Given Apple's much smaller installed base, the percentage of Apple users immediately updating to the new operating system as compared with Windows users upgrading as soon as the product was available is much higher -- a data point that causes some to question whether Windows 8 will meet the same success that Microsoft has grown accustomed to. Others say it is the law of large numbers at work; with an installed base as large as Windows enjoys, it will necessarily take longer for the percentages to match.

Some developers see the release and general availability of Windows 8 as a catalyst for examining different tablet solutions. "We've now got to a point where businesses can start looking at the opportunities of Windows tablets properly," said Matt Baxter-Reynolds, an independent software development consultant and author of Programming Windows 8 Apps with C# (O'Reilly, 2012).

"Enterprises need to start evaluating Windows 8 in mobile scenarios today to understand what, if anything, they can take advantage of there. Enterprises are being pushed to deliver tablet solutions, and now there is an alternative to simply choosing the iPad," Baxter-Reynolds said.

Microsoft made its first tablet PC specification available in 2001 -- and this specification was adopted by other manufacturers beginning in 2002 -- it was always considered a standard PC, with no special interface or applications other than simple ink and electronic pen support. Windows 8 provides, for the first time in Microsoft's history, a specialized environment specifically meant for consumption on touch-sensitive tablet form factors.

Shane Milton, founder of the IndyALT.NET group in Indianapolis, Indiana, noted the new attention Microsoft is giving to these devices. "Microsoft seems like they really mean business backing this new hybrid tablet form factor, and they're really onto something," Milton said.

Other developers said they believe the new hardware devices entering the market will stoke demand on their own. "Sexy hardware choices, like the Surface, will lure consumers [to Windows 8]," said Samidip Basu, manager of Microsoft mobility solutions for Sogeti USA, in Columbus, Ohio. Besides devices, the new Microsoft interface that runs Windows 8 Store apps -- what the company previously termed Metro apps -- is seen by some developers as breakthrough.

"Edge to edge, every pixel of Windows 8 apps is for us to shine," Basu comments. "Many developers are digging the immersive user experience offered through content over chrome," referring to Windows 8's design predisposition to display app and user content rather than rely on menu bars, toolbars and other application interface-related elements.

Some dangers to consider

There is, however, caution warranted. "It's important that developers look carefully at how their development strategy is converging (or not) on delivering for Windows tablets, or iPad," said Baxter-Reynolds. "We're no longer in a world where betting everything on Microsoft is a good idea. Individual developers and their sponsoring organizations need to take a holistic view of which technologies, techniques and processes they are using to deliver."

Another obstacle is the infancy of the Windows Store, Microsoft's answer to iTunes and the iOS App Store on the Apple platform. Just days after Windows 8's launch, the Windows Store had 11,226 apps, according to Wes Miller, a research vice president at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash., and operator of WinAppUpdate.com, a website dedicated to tracking statistics about the number of type of apps for Windows 8.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google report about 700,000 apps each in their mobile stores, with Apple specifying recently that about 275,000 apps are designed specifically to work with its iPad tablet.

Developers interested in writing Windows 8 applications might also need to work on them on their own time, at least at first. "Enterprises may be sluggish to take up Windows 8 development," says Basu. "So expect to do this outside of your day job, unless things work out with your client."

Still, Basu said he remains optimistic about what Microsoft is offering with Windows 8. "The one ecosystem with the Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Xbox -- it only seems natural," he says.

Windows Phone 8 and its impact

Also less clear is the impact Windows Phone 8, Microsoft's latest effort to catch up with its rivals in the smartphone marketplace, will have on the company's fortunes.

As of August, the research firm Canalys reported that Windows Phone made up 3.2% of the worldwide smartphone market in the second quarter of 2012 -- and this was a healthy increase, percentage-wise, over previous reports.

Even Ballmer himself admitted to less than stellar momentum on this front. "Windows Phone is a small-volume player," Ballmer said in Tuesday's keynote. But the company is clearly hoping that the entry of new Windows Phone 8-based handsets from HTC, Samsung and Nokia, as well as the common code base that both the smartphone and the main PC operating system share, will fuel demand.

"If you want the best experience with your new Windows computer, you will own a Windows Phone. If you want the experience that is the most personal, you'll buy a Windows Phone," said Ballmer.

Decision time for developers

Some developers are keenly aware of the new opportunities Windows 8's release is bringing. David Shadle, a user experience designer and developer and former Microsoft employee, has been working on an app idea for a while, but put the effort on hold because of time constraints.

"With the launch of Windows 8, I have become very inspired at the opportunity to reignite this effort," Shadle said. "The design principles that Microsoft have put into place align well with the experience that I have been experimenting with. I am excited at the opportunity to build the application once and have it appear across multiple screens, which I always considered but was intimidated at the task."

Milton said he is currently writing a Windows 8 app and that what he learned at the conference was a key influence in his decision. The sheer numbers, he says, are reason enough. "[You] can't argue with the fact that if Windows 8 fails as badly as Vista, that's still 70 million customers," Milton said. But "it won't" fail, he said, being as confident as others here about the eventual success of the Windows 8 operating system in the marketplace.

Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures LLC, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte, N.C. He's also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him at jhassell@gmail.com.

Read more about windows in Computerworld's Windows Topic Center.

Tags Mobile/WirelessapplicationsNetworkingMicrosoftwirelessWindowssoftwareoperating systemsmobile

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