James Governor's Monkchips

Microsoft Build 2015 and the Dancing Elephant

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At Build 2015 Microsoft finally sloughed off many of the shackles of its own making and renewed its relevance to the industry from a developer, and thus customer, perspective. Microsoft is moving forward by systematically dismantling an apparatus of corporate control built on tight coupling between Windows and Office.

CEO Satya Nadella is increasingly looking like Microsoft’s Louis Gerstner – that is, an executive who can look at things from the customer perspective, with a truly outside-in view, and drive the cultural change needed to revitalise a company from the ground up. Nadella has a relaxed, confident demeanor that makes you want to lean in and engage, and now by extension, so does Microsoft. In terms of its corporate evolution Microsoft currently looks like IBM in the late 1990s, supporting whatever environments customers choose, but with Azure playing the role of Global Services, and the key customer being the modern software developer rather than the CIO. In other news Microsoft’s timing is pretty much perfect. Decoupling just in time for the age of micro-services? Priceless.

When Microsoft released its iPad apps for Office pretty much everyone gushed about them. But the apps would have been released two years earlier than they were had the project not been nixed by ex Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. This is not necessarily to damn Ballmer, whose “only failing was delivering sustaining growth (from $20 to over $70 billion in sales.)” but rather to point out the shackles of success were forged in an earlier era. Selling both apps and the infrastructure they run is after all the the holy grail of industry dominance.

But times have changed, and the change is accelerating. To reestablish relevance Microsoft needs to be winning new developers to the cause, and that just wasn’t happening under Ballmer. Where Ballmer was a farmer, Nadella is a forager. It’s not as if Microsoft didn’t know the world has changed, but sometimes new management is needed to drive the change a company already knows is necessary to respond.

So what did Microsoft actually do at Build?

visual studio code





  • Launch an IDE, Visual Studio Code, that runs on Windows, Mac OS-X and Linux from the get go. Code is an IDE that expresses what Microsoft has always been good at – IntelliSense, developer productivity for the 99%, solid debugging tools, but multiplatform. It supports Node.js, JavaScript, C#, C++, PHP, Java, HTML, R, CSS, SQL, Markdown, TypeScript, LESS, SASS, JSON, XML, and Python. It can only be a matter of time before we see Go and Rust supported, too.
  • Support Xcode in Visual Studio. This one was kind of crazy – opening an Xcode file in Visual Studio to edit Objective-C using the Project Islandwood SDK. Why would you want to do that? Developers can now compile Objective-C to support Windows, allowing for porting of apps and games from the most vibrant ecosystem to Windows Store, which definitely needs a boost, but which is going to get a huge amount of cash support from Microsoft. The toolset was used by King, the publishers of Candy Crush, to port their app to Windows 10 Mobile. And now Microsoft is going to ship Candy Crush preinstalled with Windows 10. From developers to users, see.
  • Support Android on Windows  – quite a different approach, but Windows 10 Mobile will be shipping with an Android subsystem, allowing for easier porting of Android apps to Windows using the Project Astoria SDK. These apps can be developed in Eclipse, as per the Google tool chain.
  • Support Java in Visual Studio – demonstrated by 17 year old Aidan Brady, for writing Minecraft mods. Perhaps more telling in the keynote than the demo, was the fact Briana Roberts, on stage with Aidan, was at pains to explain that being able to write Minecraft mods with Visual Studio didn’t mean Microsoft didn’t like Eclipse.
  • MOAR DOCKER – Microsoft ceded the stage to Docker CEO Ben Golub, so it became his show for  a few minutes. Ben explained that when it started working with Microsoft they expected to simply be writing support for Docker on Hyper-V, so Docker was surprised when Microsoft went a lot farther. In Ben’s words:
    • Here are the 5 surprises we have had in making this a reality
      1. Docker on Windows Server Not Just Linux
      2. Content and collaboration for developers
      3. Open orchestration for multi-container applications
      4. All about freedom of choice to mix and match to build the best distributed applications
      5. In just 6 months, real and it’s being demo’d today

      In the Demo, Mark Russinovich showed the following

      • A .NET application being deployed to Windows Server using Docker
      • The same .NET application being pushed to a Linux Server running on Azure via Visual Studio
      • Remote attachment and debugging of the .NET application running inside of a Docker container from within Visual Studio

      The demo is a great reflection of the freedom of choice to developers (italics mine).

  • Deliver support for Apache Cordova in Visual Studio for creating hybrid web/native apps (as announced at Build 2014)
  • Go nuts for Node.js. Slick Visual Studio integration with NPM, etc.
  • Preview .NET framework running on Linux and Mac. When this work is baked, it will make the Docker support v interesting in terms of app portability.
  • Make a browser that doesn’t suck. Welcome Edge.

Related- The Node stuff is starting to get interesting.

Perhaps most interestingly of all in terms of going where the developers are, oddly enough it didn’t make much splash in the keynotes, was extensive support announced for Github on Azure, Hyper-V and Visual Studio.

So Microsoft slew some sacred cows, but lowering barriers to entry isn’t enough in itself to attract net new developers. For that you need some beautiful and shiny to attract them. Microsoft certainly delivered that with its HoloLens demos. So yeah- you can now make an object in Minecraft and deploy it in your living room…

So Microsoft is back in the game. It is a dancing elephant. We’ll find out over the next year or so whether Microsoft can really begin to attract new developers into the fold however, but many impediments are now gone. Thankfully I won’t have reporters call me any more about being surprised because Microsoft is doing x where x is anything remotely open source.


  1. I can’t help but think you’re overselling what was delivered at Build. For example, Visual Studio Code is much closer to a code editor than an IDE. Debug support is full cross platform only for Node.js applications.

    Most of the rest is trying to get developers who have been successful on other platforms to move their products to Windows. That won’t happen until the uptake for Microsoft products improves dramatically. Open sourcing of tools is simply acknowledging the tools are of little value anymore if constrained to Microsoft platforms.

    I was disappointed to find little at Build in the way of details about Universal Apps. There is still no efficient way to target Microsoft’s desktop, tablet, and phone platforms simultaneously. The best they’ve done so far is adding support for shared libraries of common code to projects that target multiple platforms. Developers have been sharing code libraries for decades.

    They’ve done well with their own applications being ported to multiple platforms which makes me think Nadella’s real target are enterprise customers and not developers. That is after all his background at Microsoft.

    1. Fair arguments Phil. I was aware I came aware with a v positive view on many of the moves made.

      Agreed Code is in an early state. and yes “editor” might be a more appropriate term. Will folks be dumping Sublime, VIM or Emacs en masse? Of course not, let alone VS2015 or Eclipse – but the cross platform commitment is significant, imho.

      In terms of migration from other platforms- of course target volume is important, but so is support for the tools modern developers want to work.

      First step is to make things easier for developers. Microsoft seems to be working hard on that.

  2. […] I see a blog post by James Governor who reckons Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella is like IBM’s saviour Lou […]

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