If You BUILD It: Highlights from Microsoft’s BUILD Conference

In September, Microsoft held its long-anticipated BUILD conference. On the block was the entire future of the Microsoft developer ecosystem. Well, that’s a bit overdramatic—but developers who subscribe to the “Redmond Way” certainly had their ears perked to hear what direction Microsoft was going with Windows 8.


As usual for a Microsoft conference, a lot of ground was covered, in a lot of topic areas. Microsoft spent a lot of time emphasizing what a rogue band of risk takers they’re being with Windows 8 and its Metro-style apps. In fact, the word “bold” was thrown around with wild abandon by just about every speaker—even more so than the typical frontrunner, “super.” Frankly, I would have preferred to draw my own conclusions about how bold or not bold their actions were based on what they were showing, rather than being constantly reminded by their proclamations.


One of the “bold” steps that Microsoft is undertaking is the concept of a “web of apps.” Essentially, apps can be linked together by predefined contracts that are supported by Windows 8 and accessed via a new set of icons (called Charms) that can be swiped onto the right-hand side of the screen in Windows 8. For example, instead of sharing data between apps using the clipboard, apps can support the Sharing Contract. In addition, you can wire an app into Windows 8’s pervasive search capabilities using the Search Contract.


Creating a web of apps is a cool idea—but I think it’s only a 50/50 bet whether the world will embrace the contracts necessary to make it happen. One of the reasons the Windows clipboard was so successful is that it was pretty much just a bucket of bits that an app could access. There wasn’t much of a contract to speak of, which made it fairly ubiquitous. In the end, the success of the web of apps will depend heavily on how successful Metro-style apps (apps that natively support the new Windows 8 interaction paradigms) themselves become.


Speaking of which, the success of Metro-style apps will largely depend on the success of the Windows Store (Microsoft’s version of Apple’s App Store or Google’s Android Marketplace). Microsoft announced some interesting things regarding the Windows Store. First, you can upload your new Windows applications directly from Microsoft Visual Studio 11. In addition, Microsoft enabled an optional capability for developers to allow their customers to “try before they buy,” which will no doubt push the quality bar up in paid apps. The Windows Store will be curated like Apple’s App Store, but it will be more transparent about the approval process and provide tools for developers to prescreen their apps for compliance before submission. It will also allow listings for applications that aren’t formally wired into the Windows Store’s purchasing process or licensing model. Clearly, Microsoft wants the Windows Store to get really big, really fast—and allowing listings from established software vendors will help make this happen. I actually think that was a bold move on Microsoft’s part.


Microsoft spent a lot of time at BUILD assuring developers that they can use whatever language they prefer to build Metro-style apps. Microsoft showed project templates in Visual Studio 11 that appeared to reflect support for all the languages we’ve come to know and love. However, I noticed that Microsoft chose to use HTML and JavaScript for the production applications that they built themselves. For example, Windows Store and the Windows Live applications that were shown were all built with HTML and JavaScript. Although it shouldn’t matter from a technology perspective, it kind of does from an appearances perspective—and it surprised me that Microsoft was so overt with their language choice for Metro-style apps. I’m not ready to draw any long-term conclusions yet, but there are certainly some tea leaves to be read there.


I was impressed by the ease with which it appears that you can migrate an existing Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and/or Silverlight app to Metro-style (although such migration isn’t a requirement to run on Windows 8). This migration mostly entails changing some namespaces and making a few changes to support the new Windows 8 touch interfaces. Only time will tell whether any significant gotchas crop up. My guess is that there will be a few, but it’s nice that Microsoft continues to see the importance of moving existing apps forward in a compatible manner. Other companies (not to name names, but you know who I mean) aren’t so friendly about helping developers move apps forward.


Microsoft did several demos that showed how your settings and security can be seamlessly managed through your Windows Live ID. This definitely called to mind the failed Hailstorm initiative from about a decade ago. Apparently, Microsoft feels that the world is more trusting these days—and for the most part, they’re probably right. Ten years ago, people wouldn’t dream of sharing some of the information that flows freely on Facebook today. The world has definitely changed and become more open. I do have a couple of issues with Microsoft’s approach, though. First, it concerns me that if I sign on to a service on one PC, I’ll be auto-signed on from every other device that I own (through Password Vault). To me, that seems like a bit of a security concern if I lose control of one of my computing devices (perhaps a smartphone?) that might not have security enabled to unlock it. My guess is that this will be an optional feature (which is fine, as long as it’s not the default), but that’s not how it was portrayed in the demos. Second, I have three separate Windows Live IDs that I use for different purposes. It seems like having my Windows 8 identity so closely tied to just one of them might make some things difficult to work with. But I’ll reserve judgment until the product matures and I see how things are shaking out.


These items only scratch the surface of what Microsoft announced and demoed at BUILD. My next few columns will go into more detail on other items of interest, including some great new features of Visual Studio 11, Windows Azure, Microsoft Expression Blend, and more. None of what Microsoft showed at BUILD will be released for quite some time, so it’s still too early to tell whether the company’s efforts will pay off. However, it’s great to see that Microsoft finally has a legitimate story to tell and a path we can all walk together. The company has ambitious plans, and I look forward to seeing how those plans unfold.

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