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On Windows 8

Right from the beginning, you have to accept that this analysis is based on the presentation of Windows 8 shown at the //build/windows conference. I’ve watched the presentation, I’m downloading the developer preview but I’m over an hour away from even discovering whether I have anything I can install that on.

My biggest concern

The thing I was most worried that Windows 8 would bring was yet another chance for Microsoft to flub their developer experience. If you think about it, Microsoft’s future now depends more than it has on any time since the 1980s on their third-party developers. Whereas they used to be able to rely on OEM licensing deals (and strongarming) to ensure that people wanted to use their stuff, that’s starting to wane.

Sure, the main desktop Windows-NT-plus-Active-Directory-plus-Office-plus-Exchange core is still going strong. But look at the web stack: servers are IIS or Apache or one of various other servers that support Rails, PHP and so on. They’re hosted on my Wintel boxen or my Lintel boxen or one of various third-party choices (including Microsoft’s own Azure). The client is a browser (based on anything) or a native mobile app on Windows Phone 7 or one of a handful of other native app platforms, including iOS and Android.

Where Microsoft have the potential to win over all of their competitors is providing a consistent developer experience across the whole of their stack. This isn’t about locking developers in, this is about making it easiest for them to do Microsoft end-to-end.

Consider Apple for a moment. They have a very consistent experience for writing desktop apps and mobile apps, with Cocoa and Cocoa Touch. Do you want to write server software? You can do it on Apple kit, but not with Apple tools. You’ll probably use Rails or another open source UNIX-based stack, at which point you may as well deploy it to someone else’s kit, maybe someone who offers rackmount hardware. You can use iCloud on Apple’s terms for distributed storage, but again if you want generic cloud computing or a different approach to cloud storage, you’re on your own.

On the other hand, Microsoft offers a complete stack. Azure, Windows Server, WPF (desktop client) and SilverLight (browser and phone) all have the same or very similar APIs in the same languages, so it’s easy to migrate between and share code across multiple layers in a complete computing environment.

But, would they do that? The one place where Microsoft itself seems to have failed to recognise its own strength is in the Windows division. They “pulled a Solaris”, and have consistently ignored .NET ever since its inception, in just the same way that the Solaris Operating Environment team in Sun ignored Java. That leads developers to think there must be something wrong with the tech if real developers inside the company who made it don’t want to use it.

So when Microsoft (or rather, Steve Ballmer) announced that the Windows 8 SDK would be JavaScript and HTML5, it made me think that the Windows 8 team might have jumped the shark. That stuff isn’t compatible with C# and XAML, or with the .NET APIs. I thought they’d got themselves into the position where their phone is SilverLight, their desktop/tablet is HTML5 (except legacy stuff which is Win32), their server is .NET… ugh.

So what happened?

Well, in a nutshell, they didn’t do that. The need for a new runtime makes sense because the .NET runtime was only ever a bolt-on on top of Windows, leading to interesting compatibility issues (to run App version x you need .NET version y and Windows version z; but OtherApp version a wants .NET version b). But the fact that the new HTML5 stuff is actually layered on top of the same runtime, and provides access to the same APIs as are available in C#, VB and C++ makes me believe that Microsoft may actually understand that their success depends on developers adopting their entire stack.

I’ll make this point clear now: HTML5 is not the future of app development. Its strength is based on a couple of things: every device needs a high-performance HTML engine anyway in order to provide web browsing; and HTML5 should work across multiple devices. Well, as a third-party developer, the first of those points is not my problem, it’s Microsoft’s problem, or Apple’s, or RIM’s. I don’t care that they get to re-use the same HTML renderer in multiple contexts.

The second of those points will quickly disintegrate when every platform vendor is trying to differentiate itself and provide an HTML5 development environment. Did you see that Expression Blend for HTML demo? That’s a very cool tool, but the demo of using “standard HTML5” relied on a keyword called “ms-grid”. Wait, MS? Is that cross-platform HTML? Also observe that the JS needs to call into the WinRT API, so this really isn’t a cross-platform solution.

No, for me the big story is that you can use C# everywhere: currently with .NET in most places and WinRT on the desktop. Any client application can use XAML for its user interface. That’s big for ecosystem-wide development. There’s one thing I need to learn in order to do mobile, tablet, desktop, server and cloud programming. It’s slightly weird that the namespaces on .NET and WinRT are different, and it would be a good strategic move to support the new namespaces in newer versions of SilverLight (i.e. in Windows Phone 8).

What else happened?

I’m not going to talk much about Metro, it’s a well-designed UI that works well. I’m not sure yet how it works if you’re interacting through a mouse or trackpad. I spoke about it before when discussing Windows Phone 7; where I also expressed my belief that sharing the developer experience across desktop and phone was a good move.

What I will point out is that the Windows team no longer think that they can do what they want and people will buy it. They’re noticing that the competition exists, and that they need to do better than the competition. In this case, “the competition” is Apple, but isn’t Google.

Why do I think that? Sinofsky felt comfortable making a joke about “Chrome-free browser experience”, but the iPad was the elephant in the room. Tablets/slates/whatever were summarised as “other platforms”, although you feel that if Microsoft had a point to score over Android they would have mentioned it specifically.

Conclusions

This means that – perhaps with the exception of Office – Microsoft’s complacency is officially behind it. Sure, Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 were indications that Microsoft noticed people talking about them falling behind. But now they’ve started to show a strategy that indicates they intend to innovate their way back to the front.

While it’s currently developer preview demoware, Windows 8 looks fast. It also looks different. They’ve chosen to respond to Apple’s touchscreen mobile devices by doing touchscreen everywhere, and to eschew skeuomorphism in favour of a very abstract user interface. Importantly, the Windows APIs are now the same as they’re getting 3rd-party developers to use, and are the same as (or very similar to) the APIs on the rest of their platforms.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Laurent Bugnion | September 14, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Very fair and balanced analysis. I am currently at the Build conference and the general opinion here is that Windows 8 is very positive about what we saw and what we hear about the future. Of course there are also many questions (mainly “how does this work, how do I do that”) but in general people are happy that what they learned and know (C#, XAML, Blend etc) is going to be valuable bed in the coming years.

    Regarding the device we all received, it is important to remember that it is a rather powerful machine with an i5 processor, and so it is not a direct concurrent to the iPad but rather “something else”. Most importantly I am curious about the battery life (I guess I’ll find out today how long I can work with that device). So a direct comparison wouldn’t be fair, instead we need to check what ARM devices will do. That’s an exciting prospect.

    For me as a developer on the Microsoft stack, the attention put into the design details is very exciting (if you can, check Jensen Harris’ session about the Windows 8 UX, it was really a great session) and I am very pleased that instead of copying Apple, Microsoft is coming with something very different. This should make the competition more interesting and should lead to innovative solutions for us customers from both Microsoft and Apple.

    Cheers,
    Laurent