Some Thoughts About My Week at Build and Windows 8

(UPDATE: I added a more careful version of how I feel about the future of Silverlight to the bottom of that section.)

I spent last week at BUILD (all caps?). What a good week for Microsoft! Now that I’ve had a day or two to consider the big announcements and shake off the reality distortion field of Steve Ballmer (err, wait… wrong Steve) , I thought I’d share some thoughts and impressions. Forgive me if these are a little disjointed. It’s been a lot of information to synthesize, but I wanted to share early.

Overall feeling: sincerity

First a note about the mood last week: there was a lot of excitement. For the most part, the conversation shifted from concerns over an opportunity lost (bemoaning the fate of Silverlight) to one of opportunity gained (450 million potential metro app customers). The “XAML is not dead” message became credible and in spite of some concerns around Silverlight proper and it’s place on the web, it’s clear that .NET developers still have a big seat at the new table, even if it’s only kind -of-sort-of .NET.

That said, if the excitement is a little palpable, it’s also a little different. It feels buttoned up and restrained. I’ve heard many attendees comment on the sincerity of what they heard. That might sound like a strange way to characterize a keynote or conference, but this is a crowd that’s recently grown a little skeptical and sincere may have been precisely the sentiment du jour. In that regard, this conference was perfect. The “ra ra” antics of Ballmer PDCs were displaced by a much more controlled, prescriptive and even autocratic message: do this and these will be the results and, by the way, we can sell 400 million copies of Windows 8 with our eyes closed.

The numbers are magic

Because they don’t lie. We all know, of course, that they do…but we also know that Microsoft (and it’s umpteen thousand partners) really can sell 400 million copies of Windows 8 without trying too hard and that realization, more than anything else, might as well be alchemy for the developers I talked to. While everyone spent the last 12 months wondering if they managed to miss opportunities with iOS (and then again with Android), we just woke up to the news that the Microsoft ecosystem is, indeed, gigantic just like we thought (but managed to forget).

Can Microsoft deliver on that promise? I think so. I won’t pretend to know how that really works, but the PC market will grow 4.6% this year (a bad year) and then spike next. In my simplified view of the world that means Best Buy, Walmart, Dell and Costco need something to sell and those will be Windows 8 PCs. So, I think we can take it as a given that Microsoft will move 100+ million copies of Windows 8 in the first year and that’s probably a conservative number.

Metro-style apps and Windows’ split-personality

I think the only question worth asking is whether anyone will care about those new apps we all want to build. The new shell is pretty fantastic. And Microsoft is clearly committed to its adoption. Windows has turned over their single most valuable asset to the new shell: the start button. That’s the kind of commitment we’ll see from Microsoft and there’s no doubt that the store will be a front and center part of that. Every Windows 8 user will spend a little time in the new store… Only question is whether and how well it will stick.

To that end, I hope we don’t have the whole story yet. While the new shell is on track to be a really great slate experience, it’s a little lack-luster as a with a mouse. I’d hope to see at least three big investments from Microsoft:

  • First, desktop Windows needs some cleanup. Aero feels antiquated and glass feels like a parlor trick. We need the rest of Windows to be just as “authentically digital” as the new shell. Until this gets fixed, the experiences will feel bifurcated and that diminishes the value of the desktop which, frankly, is the still the value of Windows. Instead of driving people to use the new shell (a reasonable goal), my hunch is that sort of schizophrenia will drive people to ignore it (or use a mac).
  • Second, mouse interaction in the new shell needs to get much, much better. The mouse feels like a second-class citizen and in spite of what Jensen says, I don’t expect (or want) to swipe my monitor every time I want to launch Photoshop. If you’re inclined to tell me to get over it, stop. I’m still modal and I use a mouse and keyboard at my desk because they are precise and efficient and (relatively) ergonomic. If I become slower or have back problems from Windows 8, it failed.
  • Metro is a little cold. As a design language, the window for customization is still little narrow. That makes me worry that it’s going to get tired quickly. I’d love to see Microsoft push the boundaries a little themselves—and hopefully, in doing so, provide us with some examples of a friendlier and more personable metro. We need to get their for this UI to have staying power.

The most innovative thing I saw last week

I don’t really like the word innovation because it buries the real attribute that we should be after: vision. It’s easy to make something new. It’s hard to make the right new thing, to make the right bets.

Microsoft has been a little short on vision for a while, maybe ever since realizing the “pc on every desktop” battle cry of the 1990s. You might characterize the post-BUILD era of Microsoft as a “pc in every pocket” because surely that’s where this is all going. I think that’s a strong, bold vision and, hopefully, an accurate one. Maybe it’s a borrowed view of the world, but MS is making big bets on that future instead of shoring up against it and we saw a Microsoft this week that appears to be executing toward a single goal in a way that I haven’t seen since my first day there 10 years ago.

Joking at the conference, I said Steve is the new Steve. I’m not quite as serious about that as this guy, but I gained a new respect for his ability to focus an organization on a singular goal. More than that, his risky bets are paying off. It was his call to refocus Windows around HTML5—a decision he made at least two years ago, well before the writing was on the wall. He’s also responsible for big bets on cloud services, ARM and WinRT—all moves that seem obvious in hindsight but carried massive risk at the time of inception.

The other exciting things I saw last week

First, I love contracts: I know, I’m a UI guy and I should be gushing about metro. I have been and will… but contracts have the potential to tie the web together in a way that finally makes sense to non-technical users and that’s a big deal.

On the UI side, I think that docking is game changer for slates. Plus, it has the potential to make metro-style apps relevant to information workers and other folks who continue to spend most of their time in the desktop.

Along those lines, I liked the design attitude from Microsoft. We’ve moved beyond the “hero” UIs that got us excited in 2007 and replaced them with content-driven, prescriptive UIs that make sense for the way consume the world today. On the other hand, metro is easy to make good but hard to make amazing. There seem to be some good helpers for that, though. I’m excited about the “personality” animations library in WinJS.

Finally, Blend for HTML5 in Win8 is really incredible. You need watch Christian’s amazing talk to understand the depth of that tool. Poking around won’t reveal the extent of the possibilities there.

Yeah, Silverlight is pretty much dead. So what?

I think the Windows 8 platform story is really exciting. One nitpick about messaging: maybe I just don’t have the data, but I can’t figure out why C++ is getting so much airtime. XAML and C++ is a clever move, and good for a lot ISVs but I was surprised that it got the sort of love it did at BUILD. On the other hand, I was actually pleasantly surprised at the love that C# + XAML got. With all the FUD about the end of XAML, I was pleasantly surprised by a really great story (even if HTML5 is clearly the wearing the pants in that family).

And, yeah, Silverlight proper (the web browser plugin) will, as they say, likely be phased out over the next few years. I don’t understand why everyone is so upset about this? Your investment in XAML and C# and MVVM and Blend and that whole ecosystem transfers directly to metro and that’s big business—much bigger than Silverlight for the web ever was. If you want to build Silverlight apps for desktop (non-metro-style apps), stick with WPF. But think about it this way, Microsoft isn’t killing Silverlight, the web is. We really just don’t need plugins in browsers to create rich web experiences anymore. In the meantime, XAML and C# remain very important for every other UI situation where Microsoft has influence: metro, desktop and phone. That’s a pretty great story.

UPDATE: Here’s a no-hype version of how I feel about Silverlight. I can’t see how Silverlight makes Windows better and Microsoft is laser focused on Windows right now. Because of that, I would expect investment from Microsoft to taper off over the next several years. In that sense, “dead” was too strong. You’ll be able to download the runtime for a decade. So if you’re building projects in Silverlight, you’re still in great shape and, in most cases, I would stay the course. We (Pixel Lab) have at least two active Silverlight projects right now and no plans to jump ship on either. In both cases, Silverlight was and is a good decision. At the same time, now is a great time to ramp up your HTML5 and Javascript skills. I think there is a disconnect, a feeling that HTML5 isn’t “ready for primetime” and that simply isn’t true. Also, WPF got lost in the Silverlight shuffle. If I needed to build a Desktop app for Windows today, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to use WPF and let’s not forget that desktop is and will continue to be the reason that people buy Windows.

Is Microsoft on track? Are you just a fanboy?

Take these opinions for what they’re worth. I’m the first to admit that I’m an insider (though not really a fanboy—I mostly split my time between two macs) but two final thoughts: first, this is the most excited I’ve been about Microsoft in 5 years. The company vision seems cohesive and inclusive and long-term. It hasn’t felt that way in a long time. Second, yes, I’ll be building apps and I think you should too (unless you’re really talented—in that case, um, ignore this post and focus on Android please).


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