At Build, Microsoft tried a different way to mobile developers' hearts

Here's how the company plans to succeed in a mobile-first world without a strong mobile OS

At its Build developer conference this week, Microsoft showed how it plans to stay relevant in the mobile computing market without a popular mobile OS.

Microsoft's plan isn't so much to rely on developers building applications for Windows 10 Mobile, but rather to create tools to help them build apps on any OS and hope this trickles down to help Microsoft as a whole.

One key move in this regard is releasing Xamarin's tools to developers for free. Xamarin, which Microsoft acquired a few weeks ago, lets developers create apps for iOS and Android using C#, a programming language that Microsoft originated.

Analyst Patrick Moorhead said in an interview that he thought Microsoft's Xamarin announcement would be huge news for enterprises, which would benefit immensely from the ability to write in one language and deploy across three different platforms.

What's not clear is whether Xamarin's tools will take off among consumer app developers, many of whom are already building native apps for iOS and Android written in the home languages of those platforms.

It's a departure from Microsoft's past mobile strategy, which was anchored in getting developers to build applications for smartphones running Windows. Instead, Microsoft is trying to position itself as a company that provides tools across platforms, Moorhead said.

IDC analyst Al Hilwa sees Microsoft trying to make its tools for developers work the way Office does for knowledge workers.

"That is, they want to be the number one tool chain for cross-platform development, mobile, cloud, everything," he said via email. "This is a tall order, but they are in fact executing on it and building a multi-platform ecosystem. Given their history with developers, you have to give them good odds on this."

The new Bot Framework, which helps developers make Web services that can converse with humans and take action on their behalf, works across mobile platforms and integrates with popular chat apps like Telegram, GroupMe, Skype and Slack -- only one of which comes from Microsoft.

That may seem like an odd move, but Microsoft's plan is to build tools for developers that will encourage them to consume its cloud services. The Bot Toolkit, part of the framework that includes tools for building bots, includes easy connections to Azure services, including the Language Understanding Intelligent Service, or LUIS, which is designed to help programs understand typed queries.

It's part of Microsoft's strategy with Azure overall, which allows developers to build cloud back-end systems for their applications even if those apps don't run on Windows.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is also working to make its developer platform more interesting overall by letting developers build universal Windows apps that run on the HoloLens, Surface Hub and Xbox One as well as more traditional hardware.

That may turn out to have a trickle-down effect that leads developers to bring their apps to Windows 10 PCs and tablets, and even to beleaguered Windows 10 Mobile devices.

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