Build gives Windows developers reasons to be cheerful

By Peter Gothard
08 Apr 2014 View Comments
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It’s been only four weeks since Computing asked whether Microsoft was finally willing to change its ways and break down its walls of bureaucracy, but so much has happened in the intervening time that it feels like a lifetime ago.

First, late last month Microsoft released Office for iOS. And now the Build developer conference has been and gone, seeing Microsoft announce a slew of new deals through which, to quote CEO Satya Nadella, the company hopes to “innovate with a challenger mindset”.

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“We’re not an incumbent – you’ll see us make progress at a massive pace,” added Nadella, as the company announced free Windows 8 licences for any and all devices with screens measuring nine inches or below, a category that includes small tablets, smartphones and a whole host of machine-to-machine communication systems.

Build also showcased a new Windows Phone update – called Windows Phone 8.1 – as well as a more keyboard and mouse orientated update to the Windows 8.1 platform itself that boasts the return of the Start Button and Modern apps resident in the desktop taskbar.

But the real star of the event, and the announcement that best illustrates how Microsoft is changing, was Universal Apps.

Announced by executive VP of the operating systems group, Terry Myerson, Universal Apps was touted as Microsoft’s first direct stab at making the entire Windows ecosystem reachable across the board for, theoretically, any app build. With Universal Apps, Microsoft is bringing the Windows Runtime to Windows Phone via the 8.1 update, and tinkering with Visual Studio to allow app development to share an optional amount of code across formats. The result, theoretically, should see devices ranging from smartphones with four-inch screens to 80-inch touch screen televisions sharing the same apps. Not only that, but developers should be able to monetise their apps on any devices in the Windows ecosystem, from PCs to tablets, and from phones to the Xbox One.

Myerson wasn’t done there: he then revealed that apps can now be side-loaded into Windows instead of being downloaded from the Windows store, and that Microsoft is open sourcing C# and a number of its other languages – including TypeScript and Visual Basic, not to mention new compiler Roslyn – under the umbrella of the .NET Foundation. Microsoft will continue caretaking its products, but will in future let the community go crazy with them on their own.

Myerson ended his address with a preview of a future Windows OS featuring a Start Menu with Modern apps attached to it – everything running as one big happy family.

“We are going all in with this desktop experience, to make sure your applications can be accessed and loved by people that love the Windows desktop,” said Myerson.

“We’re going to enable your Universal Windows applications to run in a window. We’re going to enable your users to find, discover and run your Windows applications with the new Start menu. We have Live Tiles coming together with the familiar experience customers are looking for to start and run their applications and we’ll be making this available to all Windows 8.1 users as an update. I think there will be a lot of happy people out there.”

Unlike with many other tech conferences, much of the whooping and clapping from the stalls at Build can be attributed to real developers expressing real joy. The joy in the room when C# lead architect Anders Hejsleberg pushed the button and Rosyln went immediately open source, and when Windows was announced free for small computers, and when it was revealed that Universal Apps extends to the Xbox One, was intense. Microsoft is now beyond just talking about “cloud first, mobile first” – it’s now actually doing it.

It’s tempting to look at the events of past week as being a Satya Nadella “thing”. As he wandered the stage talking eloquently and enthusiastically about coding as only a coder can, memories of “Give it up for me!” and “Developers, developers, developers!” couldn’t have seemed further in the past. And yet, it’s hard to seriously believe that Steve Ballmer didn’t have at least some part in putting these plans into motion. Perhaps time will be kinder to Microsoft’s ex-CEO as we learn more about all these new plans.

But the bottom line is: Build has moved Microsoft closer to its roots as a software company. But now it’s a software company that’s finally accepted that yearly updates to on-premise software won’t do. It’s a software company ready to play in the open source space. And it’s a software company that’s learning how to capitalise on the one thing it has over its rivals: a powerful, multi-platform ecosystem.

Welcome back, Microsoft.

@PeterGothard

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