Apr 032014

I “virtually” attended both Microsoft Build keynotes this week and found myself neither wowed and impressed or completely bored and disappointed.  It seems that Microsoft is still playing the catch up game that they were playing at last year’s Build conference while simultaneously joining the larger community, which is a good thing.

On the catch up side of things, Microsoft unveiled “Cortana”, a new virtual personal assistant a la “Siri”.  I must say, though, Cortana has a great deal of potential and may even surpass Siri in usefulness.  Microsoft discussed that they interviewed actual personal assistants in the design of Cortana and that is borne out in the way that the software learns about users.  Cortana learns your habits and will even dig through your data (if you give the software permission) to provided relavent information, like times of upcoming flights.  Microsoft seems to be putting quite a few eggs in this basket as all search on phones seems tied back to the Cortana assistant.  Will this be available on the desktop sometime?  I hope so.

Microsoft also unveiled features of Windows Phone 8.1 and the new update for desktop, Windows 8.1 update.  I have liked Windows 8 since its initial launch and this latest refinement is welcome and very nice.  You could call this release, “The Nod to Desktop Mouse Users”.  They have added right-click context menus back and will detect if you don’t have a touch screen and have the UI respond more effectively.  Also, they showed an image of the traditional start menu coming back.  I’m not sure if that is in this release or not, but I (and about 100 million other Windows desktop users) are definitely hoping so.

One thing that I found very interesting was that it looks like Microsoft is trying to take their place at the table of internet giants, those giants who have already realized that the Internet is a cooperative venture.  I think Microsoft has finally broken out of their walled garden where they once managed the operating system, application software, development tools, and (in some cases) hardware.

Walled Garden - from Wikipedia

Walled Garden – from Wikipedia

There were several examples of Microsoft’s coming out of their shell.  They released WinJS (their Javascript library) as open source, as well as their Roslyn Visual Studio software.  More importantly, there were quite a few iPhones, iPads, and Android devices out on the stage.  This was very prominent in their keynote on Azure.  Microsoft is betting a lot of $$$ on their Azure cloud and they aren’t shy about their desire to be platform agnostic.  I’m not sure this was a sign of their “growing up” more than a realization that they have to follow the money.  Regardless of the motivation, I was glad to see the company breaking down their walls and further joining with the broader community.  That can only spell more opportunity for all of us who make software development our passion.

Jul 182013

I attended the Microsoft Build Conference a couple weeks ago in San Francisco.  I was very impressed with the keynote presentations, the depth of knowledge of the presenters at the technical sessions, and the manner in which the conference was run in general.  A few themes kept emerging throughout the conference.

1. The Computing World is Changing

The first of these was that the computing world is changing.  This is pretty obvious, but the clip at which things are changing is staggering.  Check out these stats from Gartner:


Microsoft finds themselves in a world where PC sales are declining, while portable device sales (phones and tablets, most notably) are on the rise.  If Gartner’s predictions hold true, it shows that consumers are going to be interacting less and less with traditional Windows PCs.

Another set of numbers from Gartner that plays into the reactionary mood at Microsoft is that Windows is no longer the dominant OS for computing devices:


To quote Ms. Milanesi, from Gartner,

“The trend towards smartphones and tablets will have much wider implications than hardware displacement,” said Ms. Milanesi. “Software and chipset architecture are also impacted by this shift as consumers embrace apps and personal cloud.”

2.  Microsoft is Playing Catch Up

It was clear to all attendees that Microsoft is well aware of these trends and is doing its all to catch up with the wave that has, in some cases, passed them by.   Steve Ballmer described the new “One Microsoft” initiative, where he said that function will take precedent over organization.  To quote from Ballmer’s “One Microsoft:  Company realigns to enable innovation at greater speed, efficiency” memo:

“We are rallying behind a single strategy as one company — not a collection of divisional strategies. Although we will deliver multiple devices and services to execute and monetize the strategy, the single core strategy will drive us to set shared goals for everything we do. We will see our product line holistically, not as a set of islands.”

They are playing this strategy out in spades in their mobile division.  They are cutting prices on their Surface tablets and working across divisions to bring function to users by providing apps on the tablet that play through the Azure service with other devices, like phones, PCs and the XBox.  They are courting developers who work in Java and Javascript by creating way for them to enter the ecosystem.  As Ballmer stated, Microsoft is developing with a “rapid release cadence” to try to more quickly bring content to the market.  I think this is great and can only help us as developers and help spur competition and innovation in the market in general.

One interesting thing of note is that they seem to be trying to buy market share.  I spoke with developers from Hulu, Jeppessen, and NBA online and they were all there on Microsoft’s dime.  In fact, they all discussed that Microsoft has been funding their development efforts, to one extent or another, to bring their apps to the Windows 8/Windows RT platform.

3.  Microsoft Has A Lot Riding on Azure

The second keynote was spent going into detail about the Azure platform and the benefits of implementing solutions in IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS using Azure.  Discussion was made about how Azure is used by Microsoft for XBox gaming, SkyDrive, Skype, Outlook.com, and Office 365.  They stated that Azure storage and compute size doubles every 6 months and that there has been a 3x growth in the use of Hyper V virtualization.  Demos were given of the Azure Portal interface and I have to say that it is very slick.  I have since set up a website, a Windows Server VM, and an Ubuntu VM through the Azure Portal and can attest that it is very well done.  It is apparent that Azure is a big part of Microsoft’s future strategy and that as developers, we are long overdue to be embracing the cloud.

Microsoft seems to be turning the ship and is doing what it can to lure us as developers into its mobile ecosystem.  Given the large embedded user base, the number of line-of-business apps that run on Windows, and given the company’s obvious commitment to change with the industry, I think they will be a safe bet for a long time to come.