Never before has Microsoft so desperately needed to prove itself — perhaps because it’s never been in such a precarious position.
Microsoft, a company that’s traditionally been the prime example of boring and conservative tech giants, is no longer afraid to try new things. Its new touch-centric Windows 8 interface will force consumers to relearn everything they know about Windows. Windows Phone 8 brings some distinctive features not found on any other mobile OS. And it’s also building up a cohesive experience across all of its platforms (some games will let you synchronize your progress across Windows 8, Windows Phone, and Xbox, for example).
But, as innovative as this new Microsoft may seem, it still needs support from developers to succeed. In fact, Microsoft needs developers now more than it ever has before (yes, even more than when Ballmer famously chanted “Developers!” over a dozen times like a sweat-soaked madman).
That’s where the Build conference comes in. Microsoft’s annual developer conference kicks off today in Redmond, after selling out in just under an hour. It’s so big that the company has built one of the largest tents in North America to house the conference (you can read some obvious symbolism into that).
Developer excitement is palpable — the real question now is, can Microsoft leverage that into killer apps for Windows Phone and Windows 8?
Apps! Apps! Apps!
Gathering new apps is important for Microsoft, because it’s clear that all of the Windows software we’ve grown used to won’t be around for much longer. Windows 8 offers a desktop interface that looks similar to Windows 7 and runs older software — something that’s nice for backwards compatibility but is absolutely jarring alongside Win 8’s touch-friendly interface.
Windows RT, the stripped-down version of Windows 8 for ARM processors, won’t even run older Windows apps. That limitation is evident with the RT-powered Surface tablet released last week, which is entirely dependent on new apps from the Windows Store.
Given that the Surface literally embodies Microsoft’s vision of the future of computing, the absence of old software seems particularly telling. (Microsoft will also release a Windows 8 Pro powered version of Surface that can run old software, but it’s thicker and will be more expensive than the current $499 Surface.)
Just as Apple offered emulation in OS X for OS 9 apps as a transition step, the desktop in Windows 8 and its compatibility with older software feels like a stopgap measure. The future clearly lies in Microsoft’s new Windows 8 apps. The big problem now is that there simply aren’t many of them. I expected Microsoft to announce some major Windows 8 apps during last week’s NYC launch event, but instead the company repeated a bunch of marketing rhetoric from the past year.
Fixing the Windows Phone dilemma
Apps are also Windows Phone’s biggest problem. Microsoft’s mobile platform offers some truly compelling features that the competition doesn’t, like fully customizable Live Tiles in the start screen, but it’s still failed to make a splash with consumers. Now Windows Phone finally seems to be catching up to the competition, with more than 120,000 apps available, and Windows Phone 8 will launch with 46 of the top 50 apps, according to Microsoft’s Windows Phone head Joe Belfiore.
Given Windows Phone’s low market share, it’s been tough to convince developers to create apps. But at Build, Microsoft can sell its unified computing vision. Windows Phone 8 is powered by the Windows NT kernel, which is also what lies at the core of Windows 8. That means developers will be able to easily create apps that run across both desktop and mobile platforms without much of a sweat.
In comparison, creating an iPhone or iPad app is a dramatically different process from developing an OS X app. It’s also something Microsoft can hold over Google — Android has proven itself a capable mobile platform, but it’s no match for Windows when it comes to powering laptops.
When it comes to wooing developers, Microsoft still has a long road ahead. But with Build, the company has a rare chance to win the hearts and minds of the developers it desperately needs. As VentureBeat’s executive editor Dylan Tweney notes, it’s do or die time for the software giant.
VentureBeat’s John Koetsier is on the ground at Build, and I’ll be following the conference remotely. (I blame Hurricane Sandy for ruining my trip to Redmond.) Check back here for updates from the Build conference throughout the week!
Photos: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat