I went to San Francisco recently for Microsoft BUILD, the company’s event for Windows developers. While it’s fashionable to write Microsoft off, I take a longer view. As I told Tim Anderson, a reporter covering the event:
“It’s a long game”
The transition from the desktop to phones and tablets is by no means complete, and there is still plenty of room for innovation in personal computing. Consider for example the industry’s ongoing transition to Flat Design, rather than the drop shadows and skeumorphic designs that have recently defined us. Microsoft led the change with its Metro user interface, and while Windows 8 may not be winning plaudits from the market, new Microsoft design guidelines and approaches represent a fundamental revolution in user experience, as I have written before. Apple is borrowing from Microsoft when it comes to design. Meanwhile Apple CEO Tim Cook needs a new all conquering hit nearly as badly as Steve Ballmer does, given investor and customer expectations about Apple’s product pipeline.
One article recently claimed Microsoft had become the “do over company”, as if this were news – Really? Windows 1.0 and 2.0… meh. Windows 3.0 – changed the market, while Windows 3.11 consolidated that change with overwhelming sales. Windows NT 3.1 was a marketing exercise, but NT 4.0 was an operating system. For as long as I have covered Microsoft, nearly 20 years now, everybody knew that you don’t buy version one of a Microsoft product (a pretty good rule of thumb for all software).
More recently Vista was a pig, but Windows 7 is a solid product.
Windows 8 was always going to need to be refactored, especially given the aforementioned Metro design and visual metaphors, based on horizontal scrolling and Flat Design. The great majority of users, after all, detest change in their user interfaces, as Facebook proves with every design change it makes. So it should not surprise us that users freaked out when Microsoft got rid of the Start button in 8.0.
To be fair, users had good reason to be disturbed. With Windows 8.0 the Metro meets traditional Windows desktop hybrid approach felt clumsy and schizophrenic, especially given how few existing laptops had touch-screen hardware. BUILD was all about persuading developers that Microsoft had got the memo from users, and had a set of plans to move forward with 8.1.
So with some relatively small changes Windows 8.1 is a major improvement on 8.0
- Most settings are now accessible via the new UI, rather than the old Windows desktop, (Microsoft’s management apps are now catching up with the new OS).
- Users can choose to boot to new or classic start screens.
- BING is now no longer confined to Web search, but also ties in local search. BING is a fundamental UX component in 8.1, and begins to resemble Google Now, but pretty. Where do you want to go today? Ask Bing. Microsoft claims Bing desktop searches create “custom apps”, and the user experience supports the claim. One demo at BUILD of IE11, SkyDrive and BING working in concert made both OneNote and Evernote look old-fashioned, frankly.
- SkyDrive is also now tightly integrated into the core OS, with solid granular controls for sync, both online and offline. Just as with the Bing demo, I felt Microsoft was quietly and almost casually creating experiences that could change markets. Given Dropbox has just announced a major API/platform play Microsoft may have just been getting it retaliation in early.
Microsoft is as ever prepared to buy market success by, for example, persuading third party app providers to write for the platform. Thus at BUILD we had Flipboard CEO Mike McCue, say:
‘We aspire to not only create the best Windows 8 Flipboard possible, but the best version of Flipboard possible.”
(Note the clever ambiguity). Facebook and NFL apps are also part of the mix, although if Microsoft wants Stephen to take notice they really need MLB at bat. But of course a top down ISV led strategy only goes so far. Microsoft had to excite the base at BUILD, and had plenty of red meat for that crowd.
Purely anecdotally one interesting trend did strike me: Windows developers proudly running Windows Phones. Microsoft went through a period in the wilderness where even its own developer community spurned its mobile offerings, but it appears to be turning that around. The Nokia Lumia is seemingly very popular among Windows developers, certainly in Europe. This hard fought return to cool should pay dividends for Microsoft. Visual Studio will now increasingly MobileFirst, SocialFirst, CloudFirst across tablets, PC and desktops, so relevance on the phone is crucial.
How is the world changing? A few years ago IBM touted a partnership with Aviva, a UK insurance company, to offer price breaks to careful customers. Every customer had to have a “black box” recorder installed. Today we call that a mobile phone, and indeed Aviva is working at making the black box just another app to download.
I was struck by Microsoft’s play to tie existing networks, social graphs and devices into the cloud using Active Directory and Azure services as a competitive moat. Microsoft has enabled one click syncing to take an on premise AD tree into Azure, which can then be used to provision services to users. Thus the HR tree is already set up, if for example, only the HR department gets access to a particular app. All the major Web vendors have made significant plays to own identities, but Microsoft is the only one that has a lock on prem directories. This a huge asset, and app developers can have a field day. Microsoft didn’t state like this, but it has effectively created an enterprise catalog for managing 3rd party SaaS applications, working alongside on-premise apps.
Finally its worth mentioning the new Ballmer mantra- where software delivery is all about “cadence” using agile methods. Microsoft is committing to delivering products and iterations more quickly. Doing so will be really hard and its not the clear the reorg last week will help. Too may cooks slow down the app dev process. If Microsoft really wants to step up in this regard it should do a better job of outside in marketing. Microsoft needs to help its own customers understand agile, as much as it does its own development groups. If customers get it, they will force Microsoft to keep its promises.
The Azure shell and management portal has some really interesting capabilities in terms of scripting for automation which span development and operations. But Microsoft didn’t mention DevOps at BUILD, perhaps because it thinks “that’s the wrong audience”. It did, however, show off Azure Mobile Services auto-generating code that runs on Apple XCode. Azure becomes a mobile back end as a service (hate the acronym but its getting some use in the market).
In summary then, Windows 8.1 may need one more version number before it really hits the mark. Developers appear happier than they have in a while. Azure is looking more solid, with its new IaaS capabilities and partnerships with the likes of Oracle and Citrix. An awful lot now rests on whether the new reorganisation at Microsoft helps or hinders cadence.
disclosure: Microsoft paid T&E to the event, and gave attendees a couple of Windows 8.1 devices to play with- an Acer Iconia and a Surface Pro.