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Where Have All the Platforms Gone?

While many people think of Microsoft as software maker, its more accurate to describe the company as a platforms maker. Windows, Windows Server, Office, Internet Explorer, Xbox, Windows Media, Zune, SharePoint, and many other Microsoft products are actually platforms, systems that developers can build off of to create their own custom solutions. Microsoft's success as a platforms maker is unsurpassed, but it seems that in recent years developers have been ignoring some of Microsoft's most innovative platform improvements. Why is this?

The most egregious example of this, perhaps, is the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF, formerly "Avalon") and other related technologies that Microsoft first provided with Windows Vista. Back in 2003, Microsoft treated Professional Developer Conference (PDC, see my show report) attendees with a peek at the underpinnings of the Windows applications of the future. It was a heady time, and we were shown resolution independent scaling, automated and complex text flow, and other special effects that would be the hallmark of the post-Win32, post-MFC world. (Here's a blurry, but typical example).

It was not to be. Today's Windows applications look identical to those from almost a decade ago, the only material difference being that the window "chrome" has changed since to UI differences between Windows XP, Vista, and 7. Developers have only slowly embraced .NET, from what I can tell, let alone later .NET-based technologies like WPF.

Windows platform technologies have come and gone, but bundled apps like Calculator haven't changed, at least from a user experience perspective.

Part of the problem, of course, was the public reaction to Windows Vista. Though the OS is actually as broadly deployed in businesses as was XP during the same time frame in its life cycle, Vista has the smell of death about it, and virtually everyone I've ever talked to has described it in negative terms, regardless of their lack of actual real world experience with the OS.

That's not completely it, of course. Microsoft back-ported most Vista-era platform technologies to Windows XP, perhaps understanding they would be a tough sell otherwise. That doesn't seem to have mattered, however. I can't think of a single major WPF application. (And no, The New York Times Reader and several Twitter front-ends don't count.) Most damning, perhaps, even Microsoft has eschewed these leading edge technologies in its own applications. You'd think the Windows Live Essentials applications and the bundled apps in Windows 7 would be WPF example applications. They're not.

Instead, in Windows 7, we get minor additions to the Windows platform. The ribbon UI that first appeared in Office 2007 gets a formal unveiling in Windows 7, and, sure enough, Microsoft even supplies two sample ribbon apps, WordPad and Paint, to inspire developers. But these basic apps aren't exactly inspiring, not really, and especially not when you compare them to the WPF apps we first saw 6 years ago.

Now that the ribbon UI is formally part of Windows, perhaps more developers will start using this in their own apps and banish menus and toolbars to history.

Of course, the world is moving on as well, and that might partially explain the lack of interest in Windows-based platforms. As more and more cloud computing solutions arrive, the platform of course inevitably becomes the web. In that market, there is plenty of room for improvement, since the web is relatively immature compared to traditional PC platforms like Windows. But the barrier to entry is also lower: It's much easier to create and deploy a web application than a Windows application.

And that, ultimately, is the problem, from Microsoft's perspective. On the web, Microsoft is lagging behind efforts from competitors like Google, not to mention emerging web standards like HTML 5. The platform momentum, put simply, has moved away from Microsoft's traditional products and into markets Microsoft does not dominate. In some cases, the company is barely a player. (There are exceptions, of course. SharePoint has proven surprisingly popular as a new platform in recent years.)

Does this affect you? Indirectly, yes. Anyone who has made a big bet on Microsoft technologies has a vested interest in the company's continued success. Obviously, success can be measured in different ways. But if you accept that the adoption of its platforms is an important barometer of Microsoft's success, it seems that the company has at least temporarily stalled.

An edited version of this article appeared in the June 30, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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