Microsoft's Build 2014 and (re)building developer trust

Microsoft's Build 2014 and (re)building developer trust

Summary: Registration for Microsoft's Build 2014 conference opens today. What's the pulse of Microsoft's developer community, going into the show?


Today, January 14, at 9 a.m. PST, Microsoft will open registration for its Build developer conference.


If rumors are right, this year's Build show, which runs April 2 to 4 in San Francisco, won't focus on only current and nearly launched platforms, like Windows Phone 8.1. It also may include some high-level "visionary" information about "Threshold," which is Microsoft's next Windows wave due in the spring of 2015.

As in years past, Build also will provide a venue for taking the pulse on Microsoft's developer community. The readings on developers' attitudes towards Microsoft and its strategy have varied widely over the past three Build shows. At the first Build in 2011, many developers were nervous going into the show about Microsoft officials' commitment (or lack thereof) to the existing .Net platform with Windows 8. Last year, Microsoft management apologized to the .Net development community on stage for confusing/mixed messaging.

This year at Build -- especially if execs do disclose some early information about Threshold (which may end up being christened "Windows 9") -- Microsoft needs to insure its developer community that it isn't going to leave them behind as it hones its platform strategy.

Microsoft's developer division brass has been communicating that Microsoft's goal is to unify its Windows Phone, Windows and Xbox platforms so that they share more than "only" a common Windows NT core. They also are on a path to share more of the same frameworks, development tools and even a single, common Store.

But that has some worried about backward compatibility. Can and will Microsoft guarantee that existing Windows and Windows Phone devices will run Windows 9 and Windows Phone 9? What about apps built for the current platforms? When will developers be able to get their hands on test builds and software development kits? Will speakers at this year's Build be authorized to be transparent about these issues, even though Threshold is still a year away?

The Windows transparency debate has waged since Microsoft got burned by sharing too much information too early about Longhorn/Vista. The course correction was to share next to nothing, resulting in fear and confusion -- as well as delays in getting hardware and apps to market -- among the Microsoft ecosystem.

The war between Windows and Microsoft's Developer Division exacerbated the situation. For an interesting take on what led to that battle, check out this January 7 blog post by former Windows Manager David Sobeski. (He posted "Trust, Users and The Developer Division" on Facebook, and made it available on his personal site, too .) Sobeski, who left Microsoft in 2006, revisits the many twists and turns Microsoft has expected its developers to navigate over the past decade plus.

An excerpt from Sobeski's post (which, on Facebook, is getting lots of kudos and comments from a number of current and former Softies):

"Even as XAML was being created, an internal group within the XAML team realized it was heavy for 'the web' and created a XAML clone and called it Silverlight. This was to compete with Flash. But XAML and Silverlight were not even fully compatible. Developers were livid and frustrated. The Windows Phone team had their own version of a CLR and it wasn't fully compatible with the desktop version. Being a developer for a Microsoft platform was insane. Don't forget Office. One of the largest platforms on the planet. It avoided all this and you still used VBA. Office had to continue to use VBA because there was no guarantee of compatibility between VBA and VB.NET. But now you were an island."

Sobeski's conclusion: "At the end of the day, developers walked away from Microsoft not because they missed a platform paradigm shift. They left because they lost all trust. You wanted to go somewhere to have your code investments work and continue to work."

How Microsoft goes about regaining that trust -- as well as how it should try to garner interest from those who haven't got the battle scars from the Microsoft platform wars -- are thorny issues. Another former Microsoft exec, John Ludwig (who was one of the early Internet champions inside the company before he left in 1999), said fixing Microsoft's developer mess should be priority one of the next CEO.

Ludwig, who also was one of the founders of Ignition Partners, says he'd have a six-month plan to make Microsoft "relevant to every developer." From his own January 7 blog post:

"If I was the new CEO at Microsoft... I’d buy Github or Atlassian. Stackoverflow. I’d buy or embrace a Linux dist — CentOS maybe, or screw it, just buy RedHat. I’d jump into the vagrant/docker world and buy a position in that space. I’d buy modern leading noSQL and Hadoop distributions. Xamarin as a tool. And 10 more things. At the end of this, Microsoft would be in the conversation with every developer on the planet. OK it would be a chocolate mess of technology assets, but read David (Sobeski's) write up — Microsoft has a chocolate mess of assets now, without any developer relevance."

Microsoft does have a lot of cash on hand, but wow... a chocolate mess is right. 

I'm curious what those developers who've stuck with (as well as abandonned) Microsoft and its platforms think the company needs to do going into Build this year. Thoughts?

Topics: Software Development, Cloud, Microsoft, Web development, Windows 8, Windows Phone


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Continue to Unify

    I think the path they are on is the correct one. Unify the API set around an ever expanding WinRT, consolidate/enhance tooling to support 3 screens, and (eventually) have one store. That's a lot of work and won't happen over one release cycle. It might not even be fully baked when Windows 9 (Spring 2015) shipps, but it is the right end goal.

    I've used/purchased/sold/managed Microsoft technologies for 20 some years and now is the first time they all seem to be reading from the same page in the same play book. That wasn't true even 5 years ago when I worked with an MS evangalist on an internal prototype. He went asking for components, speech processor, image processor, rules engine, etc. And found multiples of each. And not one team had any idea the other had a similar component. That's changed for the better.

    And no offence to Mr. Ludwig, but there are better ways to get at developers than buying a bunch of tech junk. Though I do agree MS needs to improve outreach (e.g. Colleges, FIRST Robotics, etc.).
    • Integration not random accumulation

      I agree -- integration is key.

      The good....

      Microsoft is better off than anyone when it comes to developer tools. From Visual Studio to the .NET Framework down to the C#/F# -- these are all products that are very well managed & there are plenty of people on the market that can use them.

      The bad...

      The biggest problem in the past is that all the pieces were spread around. So, for example, Microsoft has long had some kind of speech recognition tool -- as a separate SDK. Now the speech recognition API's are built into Windows Phone but not available in Windows 8 Store apps and just as inconsistent everywhere else. True integration means that all the pieces will be readily available and consistent, and built into the core of the product, rather than some periphery thing that might be dropped next month.

      The fix...

      The idea of buying up a bunch of assets makes no sense. Stick to your business plan and buy where it makes sense......buying other companies means cutting redundancies (people & products) and will anger more developers than it appeases, in the long run.

      Where it might help is something like is something like GitHub, where it could give a boost to the (where TFS and, I imagine, all of Visual Studio is moving to the cloud). I'm weighing this right now for my personal work, as converts to pay model. As is, it's not well suited for individual developers who don't want/need the full TFS structure or cost that comes with it.
    • I strongly agree with your first paragraph

      I've felt that unification of the major operating environments: phone, tablet (winrt), pc (win 8.1), and Xbox One should be their major long term focus.

      I'm concerned that even with the recent reorg there are still too many opportunities for groups to operate at cross purposes.

      I'm also concerned that Threshold is a year away -- we need a more incremental release cadence from the Windows team. There are lots of small things that they could do in the shorter term to improve the developer and user experience. After the Longhorn experience (and the prior Blackcomb) I'm really suspicious of big picture grandiose long term "plans".
    • what they should do with Win RT

      Open it up and turn it into fully functioning Windows with desktop installable apps and retail it as an OS for ARM so users can install it on their ARM tablets.
      I would be extremely happy if I could run Win RT on my Asus Transformer ARM tablet.
      There isn't that many variations of SOCs and IO chipsets that it would be a huge issue.
      It would bring back Arm devices suffering from lack of updates and obsolescence and Win RT would dominate ARM tablets in time.
      Developers would be able to leverage their windows apps a lot easier and have their apps run on more mobile devices than any other mobile OS.
      Announce this at Build 2014 and it would ROCK the world!
  • Stop the insanity

    I have been developing on the MS platform since 1998 and by far the best UX platform they have ever delivered, Silverlight, was left in shambles. Not even the courtesy of coming forward and saying they were killing it, just let it start dying a slow death. If MS doesn't fix this and many other sins against the developer community I and many others will continue leaving in droves. Job number one of the new CEO is to fix what they have been breaking for so long. Without developers creating products for Windows, Windows will continue to dye a slow death and the faster developers leave the faster that death will come. I am a huge MS fan and feel shafted by them at the same time. For the first time in years I am considering moving platforms so that I can stay relevant in my career path. To me that is sad that I can't depend on MS anymore. I am hoping the new CEO will fix that because the last several years have been a joke. All of the execs who have dissed the developer community should be fired in my opinion to send a strong message that they can never let this happen again. No developers, no apps and we all know where that leads.
    • "Without developers creating products for Windows ... "

      Developers are part of the problem. "Creating products for Windows" is the last thing they should be doing.

      They should be standing up and saying "Windows is obsolete, give us a new, mobile-based OS so we can REALLY develop something that people want"

      It is terrifying that a once great company is being brought to it's knees because no-one dares point out the obvious: There's No Future In Windows.

      Even the bloggers can't be honest, because their income depends on agreeing with whatever nonsense passes for policy at Redmond.
      • I'm a developer...

        "There's no future in Windows"?

        I don't develop for it because I'm forced to, but rather, because it's one of the best development platforms available.

        Until the competition can match them, I'm not jumping ship.
        • Where Windows is good it is good

          Nobody is arguing the good about Windows it is where they are lacking that concerns developers. Why is not Docker available for Windows? It is because LXC or Linux containers have no suitable equivalent on Windows so this technology can not be developed. If this then so more exists which also can not be developed using Windows. Being closed source hampers Windows innovation. Linux suffers from no such problem.
          Tim Jordan
      • Disagree

        The gist of the story is the correct story; unify the code. Yes, the desktop and legacy is a dead man walking and needs to pass along with the 20th century but saying that Windows is obsolete is like saying Linux or Apple OS is obsolete. The core platform is fine, its evolving, and powerful. The ability of W8.1 to run fluidly on a Dell Venue Pro 8 device with great battery life, low memory requirements, and small footprint shows that there is nothing wrong with the core.

        Not sure what you mean by "mobile OS", I use my Surface RT as a mobile OS and it runs great with 8.1. Metro needs more apps but that is part of the discussion with unifying the code and allowing Metro apps to run in floating windows on the desktop to transition desktop users to Metro. If they can convert all the system UIs to Metro, I would love to see RT on a phone. Would love to be able to Miracast it to a monitor and use a BT keyboard/mouse and use it like a desktop.
        Rann Xeroxx
        • Transition to Metro?

          As an embedded developer, I don't want to transition to Metro. 4 viewable apps is way too limiting for code development. I almost invariably have 7 or more windows open while creating code. If the desktop goes away, I would probably jump to linux since as a developer of embedded code all the tools I use are also available on linux.
      • They used to be honest

        How COM was a problem and a bad idea had been explained when .Net was advertised. How Win32 was a problem and a hopeless codebase had been explained when Metro was called "the future of the computing".
    • Show me the money

      If MS can simply create an environment where developers can reasonably make money, it will do fine. In fact if it can create an environment where 10 - 20% of developers are able to make reasonable amounts of money in Windows / WP app stores, it can flaunt this fact in front of developers in competing ecosystems, and get them to switch over. MS needs to start by raising the minimum price for apps, in maybe a second Windows (professional app) store.
      P. Douglas
      • Plus 1!

        Perfect motivational tool!
    • A Tech savy CEO is our only hope

      Crazy Steve failed as a leader IMO. I totally agree that his years in charge have destroyed developer trust full stop. This headless chicken approach has left Microsoft with zero credibility. They need to rebuild trust from the ground up and they've only got themselves to blame. Personally I've given up on Windows as a target for app development and now focus my attention on mobility apps that will run inside a modern browser. At this stage it seems like I may have moved off one minefield and onto another though ;-)
  • They're doing some interesting things for web and server

    Like TypeScript and MVC with Razor, and also WebAPI. Oh, and node.js for VS. This stuff plays well with other technologies.

    I'm still sore about the way they treated .NET developers with Windows Store apps. We got something like the Silverlight profile, but on a local desktop machine. So it is yet again a trip down Relearn Everything Boulevard, to find the equivalents for the other namespaces.
    • I agree with some of what you say ...

      ... but your latter statement is simply nonsense, which makes me question your position overall.

      "So it is yet again a trip down Relearn Everything Boulevard"

      No. If you want to Relearn everything, go learn an unfamiliar platform & toolset like node, Ruby, Groovy, etc.

      All you've had to do is make a few generally minor adjustments and a few namespace corrections and adopt a few new controls. Most of your code stays the same.

      It is facetious to claim that developers were driven away from Microsoft's platforms because they changed and required spme re-learning because anyone who jumped to OSX, Linux, Android to build apps using Ruby, Python, Perl, Node, Groovy has *and will continue to have* a large and continually changing new learning curve to deal with.

      That said, I am excited that Microsoft appear to have finally started to listen and accept the thousand paper-cuts that exist in their current Dev platform, and are doing something to remedy these issues. This will be a very interesting 12-18 months.
      • I don't agree

        And we've haggled on this before.

        People aren't "jumping" to those other mobile platforms. They've been there all along. Microsoft is the upstart on mobile, and was least able to afford to have peoples' latent .NET skills (which most developers have in the repertoire) require an upgrade.

        Microsoft's changes to its prefered calls have changed much more dramatically then other platforms.

        To a fault, PHP's data engine has stayed the same (married by MySQL Maria), Objective C of today would be entirely recognizable to an OpenSTEP developer, and Android required an initial learning curve, but has been reasonably stable since Cupcake.

        Over on the Microsoft side, we went from ODBC Jet to OleDb/ADO, then ADO.Net with Compact SQL and SQL.... to, well, nothing. Yes, that is correct, nothing. Not even SQL Compact. Roll your own SQL Lite, folks!

        That's just databases. Don't get me started.

        So yes, I am glad they are listening. I hope they hear the message "don't change what ain't broke!" Which is the thing I think most developers would tell them.
        • I disagree

          If people aren't jumping onto other platforms, how do you explain the explosive adoption of iOS and Android, neither of which existed until just a few years ago and which, therefore clearly haven't "been there all along".

          Further, "Microsoft is the upstart on mobile," just isn't true. Microsoft has been "in mobile" since it released PocketPC/Windows Mobile back in 2000. I am not claiming that Microsoft got it all right - clearly, they haven't - but to selectively ignore the past is silly.

          PHP has barely changed. That's a good thing? If not changing was such a good thing, why are all the PHP developers I know moving to something else - ANYTHING else?

          Don't fix what ain't broke? I agree to a point, but I COMPLETELY disagree with build something good enough and never evolve and improve.

          ODBC fixed the myriad DB access mechanisms that preceded it and gave developers a single API through which they could access almost any structured storage. But ODBC was a C based API and was not well suited to modern languages like VB. OLEDB and

          ADO fixed that, further broadening access to structured and relational storage to VB and Delphi and PowerBuilder developers, etc.

          ADO.Net overcame the marshaling costs of calling through COM, but, again gave developers universal access through a single API to SQL, SQL Express, SQL Compact, Oracle, DB/2, Sybase, MySQL, Ingres and any number of other relations DB's.

          Nowadays, many developers continue to enjoy Many others are learning to enjoy the now open-source Entity Framework 5+.


          In one breath you're saying 'don't change things'. In another you're saying 'what cones next?' pick one.

          You enjoy ADO? Stay with VB6 - the runtime for which is STILL supported in Win8!

          You want your existing .Net code to continue to access your DB2 DB? Great. No change for you then.

          You want the benefits of EF? Go have at it.

          Personally, I like to move forward. Some steps forward are less valuable than others, but I am damn glad to be spending most of my time coding C#, F#, etc. than still being mired in VB6.
          • Agree in Part Only

            The move on the database side to a better tech base is an example where the technology change worked and evolved.

            I do believe that MS has changed too much in the developer space compared to objective C. Obj C has had evolutionary changes but no quantum shift. They have clear guidance - you build for iOS - you use Objective C and X-Code.

            Microsoft builds then neglects many technologies over the time. Moving from VB6 to VB.NET/C# was a great transition I believe as things did not dramatically change in how it was applied.

            After this was the huge push to Silverlight while neglecting desktop systems, and then killing it off shortly after the roadshows. Now is the push for Apps, neglecting the desktop yet again.

            Yes - apps are great for many situations. However we still have customers that work in offices, behind a desk, and to that situation a desktop based system is the optimal approach. WPF really has had no love from MS.

            If we do need to integrate the office system externally we made the choice to stay as far away as possible from the Win8 tablet mess - with editions, unlock keys etc. and push to android.

            Discussions with MS at the time they were going to promote the LOB side more and this never materialised. They were fixated on "why wouldn't you buy our more expensive tablet - you can get Office on it"
          • Going Forward is OK Zig Zagging is NOT

            We all appreciate that Microsot are trying, and in some areas succeeding with new technologies. The problem is that they lost the confidecne of the Developer community, in whether they are committed to a technology Branch.

            Simply too many good technology Branches (Silverlight, XNA etc) have been discarded, before they got to three year olds. Many Developers and Projects have invested into Microsoft technologies, only to find that Microsoft spread FUD and then discard their own technologies base.

            Metro IE browsers support Flash, but Not Silverlight (Which still remains superior to HTML5 for LoB Web Apps) - How stupid and insulting is that.