Never in my recollection has so much—and so little—been shared at a technology conference. But Microsoft managed to pull off the dubious feat at the recent BUILD Conference in Anaheim.
(For the sake of disclosure, I was not in attendance; what follows was gleaned from multiple discussions and interviews with folks who were on site.)
It began in the run-up to the event, as Microsoft put the clamps on corporate lips, leaving many in the industry to try to piece together what Windows 8 would and would not support, what the future held for Silverlight, XAML and the .NET Framework, and what the new development stack would look like.
Then came BUILD, and developers were handed a tablet running the new operating system with the Metro styling and touch capability, and attendees raved. New toys will do that to people. Developers couldn’t wait to go to sessions to learn more, then to scurry back to their hotel rooms to play with the tablets and see what made them tick.
In keynotes, Microsoft executives laid out a vision for the future of development. Use your existing skill sets in the development tools you already own, and now you’ll target 450 million Windows users with your applications. Not desktop users, or tablet users, or phone users, but all of them.
Now BUILD is over, and Microsoft again seems to have put a gag order on its field people, telling them they cannot discuss any of the things that were unveiled at the conference.
Here is a brief list of things Microsoft should be discussing:
Silverlight: Microsoft didn’t say it’s dead, but it didn’t say it’s alive either. In fact, Microsoft didn’t say anything at all about Silverlight. That’s a shame, because for now, Silverlight remains the only tool in the Microsoft arsenal that enables rich Internet applications to run cross-platform. With HTML5/CSS/WinJS, “as soon as you develop against the WinRT stack, you’re tied to Windows 8. You can’t lift it out and plug it into a browser,” explained Scott Lock of Excella Consulting.
C#: Most of the keynote demos were written in C/C++, apparently the preferred language of the Windows 8 team. But, as Lock pointed out, if the majority of the people at the conference are C# developers, and most of the demos are in C/C++, what message is Microsoft sending?
X86 vs. ARM: First, developers were told that x86 applications would not run on the ARM chips, then word was that they would run on the chip. Then, another about-face occurred, and again, developers were told they would not run on the chip. Now, the last word is that they will. Developers deserve a straight answer on this.
XAML: Microsoft kept referring to XAML as “Microsoft XAML” at BUILD, and positioned it almost as a proxy layer atop Windows RunTime. Clarification would be good.
These are but a few questions that emerged after the early look at Windows 8. Other questions involve moving Silverlight applications to Metro. During a demo, a Microsoft exec said he could change but two lines of code in the XAML-based Silverlight app to run it with the Metro styling. “A lot of folks said, ‘Yeah, I don’t know about that.’ That looked like some kind of demo magic,” Lock said.
Microsoft is excellent at marketing. It paints a grandiose picture of the future of development and offers up a bunch of cool demos. Part of its vision, of course, is to compete with Apple in the smartphone and tablet space. For its part, Apple demos a product and ships it three weeks later. Microsoft demos the future and says there is no hard deadline for release. Could be six months. Could be a year. The only word is that it will ship “when it’s ready.” Developers like that; customers, not as much.
All this secrecy leads some, including this observer, to believe the idea is only half-baked at this point. Lock summed it up this way: “All this gives the impression that it’s not all worked out yet.”
David Rubinstein is editor-in-chief of SD Times.