Microsoft’s Build Conference is a very unique animal. It’s a strange mish-mash of old world and new, filled with people I feel were a bit caught in the middle. Or, perhaps they’re the middle children of history.

In the long run of computing history, the operating system landscape, in broad strokes, goes: nothing, UNIX, DOS, Windows, Linux. With a broad view, this is essentially a circle around a circle. Unix and Linux, while not technically the same thing, are really the same thing. This is vaguely true for Windows and DOS as well, but to a much lesser extent.

But the way that computing has gone recently, it certainly doesn’t look like that non-Unix evolutionary chain is doing too well. Android and iPhone are both Unix-y, and they’re the fastest-growing operating systems on the planet. Windows Phone remains stagnant, and the Windows Tablet isn’t selling well either.

Desktops remain Windows-y, but that’s being eroded primarily by Apple’s Unix-y Mac OS X. It’s a frightening situation if you’ve been building on Microsoft technology for 20 years.

You were right to do so at the time! Microsoft was not just the dominant force in software development and application delivery technology, they were the ONLY force there. Anyone that stood against their products burned alive, their stock in ashes. It was as if anyone who wasn’t a Windows developer was just some weird old bearded guy in a basement with an Indigo, or a SPARC, or a DB2 server.

But today, looking around Build, that world is now the Microsoft world. Comparing this to Google’s developer conference, which takes place in this exact same building (San Francisco’s Moscone West), there is a distinct difference in attendees.

Microsoft Build attendees are quite often from overseas, and often my age. That is to say, 30’s and up. It’s not an old crowd, but it’s also not a crowd filled with colored hair, skinny jeans and ironic beards. These beards were here before the beard craze made them cool.

Google’s developer conference, on the other hand, has youth on its side. This is not only evident by the ages of the attendees, but also by their gender. I really didn’t want to go there, but it’s a clear indicator of generational divide. Microsoft Build has the gender ratio of a 1990s tech conference: one woman to every 10 to 20 men. Maybe even higher. A younger show, such as a Web conference or even a data conference, would be more like one woman to every five to nine men.

This is not some failing of Microsoft. This is just a shift in the relevant platform for developers. The Web was a battleground for Microsoft only as long as Internet Explorer was a major product for them. The browser battle ended around 2004 or so, so it became largely irrelevant anyway as JavaScript development coupled with asynchronous database connectivity made for a completely new paradigm in application development.

Since that time, the new applications that are pushing forward the needle on innovation are all either Web-based or mobile. Desktop applications just aren’t sexy anymore, and Microsoft was left holding their browser, scratching their head as to why no one would compete with them anymore.

The most vicious business practices in the world don’t work against open source and open standards. Microsoft is finally getting this, and Satya Nadella is pushing for developers again. You can see it this week.

While Microsoft’s announcement this week of universal Windows apps is receiving a somewhat tepid response from developers, this is only because their mobile platforms aren’t quite popular. Imagine if Apple were to offer this type of development workflow, however. It would be a game changer.

Expect Apple to do just that. And then we’ll enter a period where, horror of horrors, Apple will copy Microsoft, not the other way around.

Because Microsoft has the money and the power to push some amazing developer tools out the door. They’ve always understood developers and administrators, but their previous lack of openness had led to the typical walled garden you hear about. And today, that garden is no longer the world’s only real source of food.

So Nadella and Microsoft are learning what it means to be a software company in the era of open source. The biggest indicator of this is Roslyn, their next-generation VC and C# compiler. The fact that Microsoft is making this project available as an open-source project says a lot about how much they’ve learned over the years. Clearly, they’re still copying Apple, as Apple hired many core LLVM contributors years ago.

And you can sort of feel that “getting it” at Build. While the developers here seem to be a tad nervous—but also extremely set in their ways—there’s a definite buzz in the air that there’s something new going on at Microsoft, something that could result in some great wins for developers.

Heck, it looks like it already has.