Microsoft has always understood that to win a platform war, you must engage the developer community. More than engage: Energize. Empower. Aggressive support for developers, through great tools, outstanding technical guidance and marketing assistance, propelled Windows past OS/2 so many years ago. It’s how Microsoft has remained the desktop leader for so many years.

But the world has changed, and in important new spaces (smartphones, tablets and the cloud), Microsoft clearly is lagging. Not only are consumers voting for non-Microsoft products, but developers are as well.

Take phones. Apple and Google, with iOS and Android, have raced out of the starting gate and left Microsoft plodding, well up the track and way off the pace of smartphones and tablets. Microsoft will need a game-changer here to make headway, as the number of apps available on the other platforms far exceeds apps available for Windows Phones, which has finally reached 100,000. But it’s more than quantity. Many popular apps simply aren’t on Windows Phone 7.5.

Developers clearly are elsewhere. Meanwhile, Amazon and Heroku, among others, are off and running into the cloud, with applications written for those platforms already deployed and working.

Microsoft, of course, has responded. At the recent TechEd conference, high-level executives gave presentations for Windows Azure and Windows Server 12, claiming the two make up what the company is calling “the cloud OS.” Windows 8, the new operating system that brings Metro app styling to the desktop and tablet, was demoed on a Samsung device and looked as if it will be competitive in the tablet arena.

(Since then, of course, Microsoft unveiled its own tablet, called Surface, marking the company’s move into hardware as well as software. Surprisingly, it didn’t make the announcement four days earlier, when more than 10,000 dedicated Microsoft administrators and developers were gathered in Orlando, waiting for some kind of direction.)

What struck us most about TechEd was the lack of meat for developers, and we’re not just talking about the assembly-line lunches.

In an interview with Visual Studio honcho Jason Zander after the second-day keynote, we were told that among the biggest takeaways for developers was the news that LightSwitch, a RAD tool for Web development, now supports HTML5. That’s it?

We even got a chuckle from the fellow who walked up to the SD Times booth at TechEd, noticed the June issue of the magazine, and shouted delightedly, “At last! I’ve found something here for developers.”

Microsoft should not lose sight of “who brung ‘em” to the big dance. If developers aren’t writing applications for the company’s phones, tablets, laptops and desktops, there’s nothing for end users to use, and whenever possible they will pick up other devices.

The software giant still has an opportunity to compete. The Surface device has generated a good deal of early buzz and even drove the stock price up for a day. But will that displace the iPad?

The Windows Phone situation is murkier. To win against iOS and Android (and, we suppose, BlackBerry 10), Microsoft will need the ISV Army working overtime to create the compelling apps that will power Metro tiles and take advantage of all that back-end cloud connectivity displayed at TechEd.

Finally: Two big unknowns are Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10. Will developers embrace the new version of Windows? And will they customize their websites for Microsoft’s latest browser? Much depends on whether Microsoft can energize them. Based on what we saw in TechEd, we are not optimistic.
The judges will save us
Thank heaven for activist judges. Sure, not everyone loves that term, and in the United States at least, some people downright loathe judges who appear to take the law into their own hands. But we’re entirely in favor of at least two activist judges: Richard Posner and William Alsup.

Thanks to their level-headedness, it would appear that two large software patent cases against Google’s Android platform are being put to rest. In the Oracle-Google lawsuit, Judge Alsup not only exonerated Google, he structured his jury’s ruling in a way that will make it very difficult for Oracle to appeal.

Judge Posner went even further in the Apple-Motorola Mobility case. There, he chided both sides for their claims of damages for patent infringement, and he particularly called out Apple for stretching the definition of its already vague touch-screen interface patents: Apple has a patent on touching a screen, it would seem, and it feels this also entitles it to own the swipe gesture.

Posner wasn’t having it, however, and he delayed the actual court case by threatening to dismiss the case with prejudice, which would mean that Apple could never bring the case to court again.

It would seem that the horror of our patent system isn’t going to be reformed anytime soon. Software patents do seem like they’re not going anywhere, especially with our Congress in a complete deadlock during an election year. But at least with some very smart and activist judges sitting on the bench out here in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, we could at least see a reduction in cases brought, simply because companies may have to learn that our judges aren’t going to take this silliness anymore.