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

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?