I spent last week in San Francisco at Microsoft’s Build conference. Build is an annual (at least I think it’s going to be) event the company holds at Moscone West to share their latest offerings for Windows, mobile, and Azure. I’m not a developer for any of the Windows platforms. Glassboard, however, runs on Microsoft Azure so I was interested in attending both to learn about the new offerings and to put some names and faces together with people I’ve started interacting with recently.
Overall it was a positive experience as someone who only recently dipped his toes back into what Microsoft is doing recently. The last time I used (or even cared) about Microsoft technology was the late 90’s when they were a giant, evil corporation who was charged with being a monopoly. I switched to the Mac when OS X was announced in 2000 and hadn’t really touched since.
Fast forward 14 years later and Microsoft seems to be a whole new company. New products. New CEO. New development offerings. And less of a focus on Windows, Windows, Windows.
Sure, Windows is a key part of the Microsoft ecosystem (and rightly so), but it also no longer seems to be the central focus that directs everything they do. I sat through two THREE HOUR (emphasis mine because oh my god so long) keynotes that prominently featured iOS devices, the Apple logo, iPads, Androids, and even Linux. A few years ago this was the company that dismissed iOS as a failure to launch and instead focused on how they could go from a Windows computer on every desk to a Windows Phone in every pocket.
Windows Phone is still a key piece of technology for them (and 8.1 looks great), but they realize that integrating their services into the other platforms as first-class citizens is best for business.
Whether this was a plan set in place by Ballmer before he left, or new under new CEO Satya Nadella’s watch I don’t know. As an outside just starting to look in, however, it’s refreshing.
A True Partner
One of the biggest differences I noticed between an event like Build and WWDC was in the subtle messaging. Both Apple and Microsoft are massive companies that make billions of dollars and answer to their shareholders. Both companies also offer development platforms for third-parties to integrate with.
What’s different though is that it feels like Microsoft is more interested in working with us as a partner whereas Apple has always given off a vibe of just sort of dealing with us because they have to. Maybe that’s a little sour grapes, but as a developer it was a nice change.
Build was announced far in advance allowing people ample time to schedule and book their travel. Microsoft released the full schedule of the event the night before so you could plan your week out in advance (or just decide to wait for the videos later on). They even provided previews (and access) to upcoming technologies that aren’t ready just yet, but to give us an eye on where they see things going.
It was cool to get a free Xbox One to play Titanfall on, but they also had several sessions during Build that talked about how to actually build an application that can run on that Xbox so that when the time comes that they release a full SDK and support for that, developers will be ready. They provided that to everyone, not just a few select partners that also share a stock ticker symbol.
Microsoft isn’t exactly a showman company. The keynotes were well presented, but they also lacked the pizazz of an Apple event where everything feels as cool as a night out with Frank and Dean.
The one area where I sat up and thought “OK, that was cool” was when Anders Hejlsberg publicly open sourced the new Roslyn C# compiler platform on the Keynote stage at the end of his demo.
Roslyn is a key piece of technology for the future of Microsoft and they’re now managing it as an open source project. This allows for a few things: outside contributions and feedback on the platform from fellow developers for one. More importantly, it allows the Xamarin folks who had implemented their own C# compiler to work on MonoTouch. It’s now possible for Microsoft and Xamarin to collaborate together on a single compiler rather than both building in parallel.
Apple has the LLVM project, which is similar in many ways, but I also can’t imagine them working with a third-party vendor such as RubyMotion (for lack of a better example) to make their jobs easier.
I still hope that some day Apple will open source the core iOS and OS X frameworks the same way Microsoft does with .Net and Google does with Android. I’m not holding my breath, but I can dream.
Overall though, Microsoft seems to be embracing open source in new and interesting ways that the old Microsoft never seemed to care about. Previously when they open sourced a piece of technology it’s because they were no longer interested in it. Now, key pieces of functionality that the future of the company is based on are out in the open.
A week or two before Build, I received a text message from Dave Wiskus of Q Branch/Vesper asking if I was still attending Build. He then informed me that he, Gruber and Brent would be attending the conference as well as part of the keynote.
2.5 hours into the second day keynote, lo and behold my long-time Mac and iOS development friends showed up on a Microsoft stage talking about how Vesper’s sync services are powered by Microsoft Azure.
None of those guys are Windows users. None of them are Windows Phone users either. They’re happily using Microsoft’s cloud services platform to power the backend of their iOS only app.
It was a bit surreal to experience Moscone West with a few other long-time WWDC attendees and compare how similar (and positive) our experiences seemed to be. Outside of there being a DJ spinning house beats above a sea of coding nerds on level 2, we came away impressed.
Showing The Other Side
If you follow me on Twitter, you were probably pretty tired of seeing me tweet things with hashtag #bldwin (you’re lucky I was kind enough to hash them so you could mute if desired). The reason for the excess tweeting was twofold:
First, I tweet a lot anyway. Second, and more importantly, I know my audience is primarily filled with Mac and iOS developers. We’re all fairly busy people and may not always look up to see what is happening outside of the Apple ecosystem.
Build allowed me three days to immerse myself in technologies that I know almost nothing about. I came away impressed with it too. For all its past faults, the New Microsoft is doing things that are on the cutting edge of technology. Their Rx extensions library is everything I hope ReactiveCocoa could be: a fully functional extension to the core C# language built and maintained by Microsoft. Their unit and integration testing story for Windows Phone is light years beyond what either Apple or Google offer for their respective mobile platforms.
Avoiding Longhorn 2015
John Siracusa has a famous article called Copland 2010 where he talks about Apple’s need to begin looking for a replacement for Objective-C and the Cocoa frameworks before they get to the point where it’s too late and they’re in for several years of hurt much like the transition from Classic Mac OS to OS X.
I still love Objective-C and the Cocoa frameworks, but having worked on Glassboard’s Azure backend and Android app in parallel, I’ve seen a different world outside of the Apple prism. What we have is good, but there’s so much more potential to be great with the emerging and more modern development technologies out there.
With things like C#, the Roslyn compiler/frameworks, and the modern WinRT runtime, it feels like Microsoft is way ahead of Apple in the future looking regard. As a developer, I’m jealous of a lot of the technologies coming out of Microsoft. As a user? They’ve got a long ways to go before I consider using Windows over a Mac.
That said, this is the new Microsoft. They don’t need me to use Windows or Windows Phone as long as I use Microsoft services like Azure, Office 365 and the like.
I can’t believe I’m excited about and interested in working with so many Microsoft technologies. The times are a changin’.