Microsoft Build 2019: Azure is the star, and Windows is a bit player

Ten years ago, Microsoft announced the official release of Azure and pitched "three screens and a cloud" at its signature developers conference. Today, its developer pitch is all about Azure.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Before there was Build, there was PDC. Ten years ago, in 2009, Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference was the place to be if you were building software for Microsoft's platforms.

A decade later, PDC has been replaced by Build, which is different in much more than just the name and the fact that it occurs every May rather than sporadically in October-November. The biggest change is that the Build conference is no longer tied to the release of a milestone version of Windows.

In fact, when I sifted through the session list for Build 2019, I discovered that only about 10% of the scheduled sessions were grouped under the Windows heading. And that relatively meager selection includes multiple sessions on the new Chromium-based Edge browser (a cross-platform deliverable) as well as the Windows Subsystem for Linux. Would you like to jump in a time machine and explain either of those products to someone attending PDC ten years ago?

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I have vivid memories of the November 2009 PDC, which was held in Los Angeles a month after the release of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2. Looking back on that event with the benefit of hindsight, it's possible to see how we got to Build 2019. It's a story that involves one phenomenally successful bet alongside an almost comic series of stumbles and missteps.

Today's jackpot success, of course, is Azure, which had been in preview release throughout 2009 and whose official release for commercial customers was announced in the PDC 2009 keynote. I recall plenty of skepticism from analysts in the audience who wondered whether Microsoft could really make a significant business out of cloud services.

But if you could time-travel back to that opening keynote in search of clues for where things were about to go wrong, you'd probably zero in on the "three screens and a cloud" mantra that was repeated ad nauseum at PDC 2009.

At Build 2019, the cloud is quite literally taking center stage. As for those three screens from a decade ago... well, let's just say things didn't work out exactly as planned.

The most important of the three screens, of course, was the Windows PC, which was still the core of Microsoft's business. Microsoft still dominated the computing landscape even as Apple was nibbling at its market share by sniping at the much-unloved Windows Vista. Windows 7 was still fresh, and the Windows 8 debacle was still in the future.

That 2009 conference might, in fact, have marked the PC's peak. Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad to much fanfare just two months later, and Google showed off its Chrome OS for the first time in a webcast that pointedly went head-to-head with Microsoft's PDC. Thanks to the Great Recession, PC sales declined in 2009 for the first time in many years, a harbinger of difficult times ahead.

The second screen, of course, was the mobile device. Microsoft had been caught flat-footed by the success of the iPhone, and spokespeople had to stoically admit to reporters that Windows Phone 7 would not be on the PDC 2009 docket, not even in private briefings.

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  • The Windows Phone software eventually mutated through several releases into Windows 10  Mobile, and the company made one last, desperate bet on the platform with its acquisition of Nokia. But those investments were written off within a few years, and the Windows 10 Mobile project was officially killed off in 2017. At Build 2019 most of the mobile app development sessions are focused on using Xamarin to create apps for iOS, Android, and MacOS.

    And then there's the third screen, the TV. Windows Media Center was a signature feature of Windows 7 in 2009; a decade later, it's long gone, as are most of Microsoft's other consumer-focused products and services. The sole exception is Xbox, which practically lives in a parallel universe.

    Among Build 2019's hundreds of sessions, I found only two that even mentioned Xbox, and one of those was a case study for business app developers who want to profile their apps using the same tool that the Xbox One development team uses for its testing.

    The grand vision that led to today's Microsoft Azure took one sharp turn along the way. Back when Microsoft was still intent on being a significant player from top to bottom in those three screens, Azure was a place to consolidate apps for those platforms. One ZDNet report from PDC 2009 included this quote from Bob Muglia, President of Microsoft's Servers and Tools division:

    One of the key things will be our ability to take the investments you have made in apps that run in your own environment and take those forward into the cloud. We are learning how we can structure the cloud application model to take existing applications forward.

    Azure's evolution proceeded down a different path, as a cursory inspection of this year's list of Build sessions indicates. Today, its role is as a hub for databases and app services, especially cross mobile devices.

    What's even more remarkable about that session listing is that Azure no longer gets a category of its own, because it's a crucial part of every category, from App Development to AI to IoT.

    Especially telling is the session on Microsoft's plans to move its signature user experience beyond Windows. In the pre-conference precis for "Fluent Design System: The journey to cross-platform," Microsoft Senior UX Engineering Manager Peter Jahn and Principal Program Manager Chigusa Sansen note that "Microsoft is expanding Fluent to the Web, across platforms, and more devices."

    And in a conference marked by business-focused topics, one session stands out: "Lessons learned from building Candy Crush for Windows 10." Presumably one of those lessons will be how to remove it from your users' PCs.

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