Microsoft's annual Build conference starts Tuesday, post Windows 8 launch, post Surface RT launch, and even a day after a big Windows Phone 8 event. You might think the boys in Redmond would have exhausted any shiny, new stuff by now.
Build is a developer's conference, so Microsoft will be hosting a host of sessions on how to develop applications across a range of Microsoft operating environments that keeps getting more numerous. There's Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone 8 and even the Xbox 360 environment. Yet they've also played very close to the chest about the agenda, not revealing anything about the technical sessions that will be the heart of Build.
Still, there's a lot of stuff I'd like to see at Build. I'm not looking for shiny new toys, but hard information on what developers need to know, with some hints at how Microsoft sees its ecosystem of applications building. So here's my wish list, in no particular order.
Kinect for Windows
The Windows 8 touch interface integrates significant gesture recognition. But Kinect offers gestures without the need for touch (though you do need a Kinect for Windows sensor.) In addition to being a camera, Kinect also integrates depth information and has a microphone.
More than one user has complained to me that touch doesn't seem natural in a desktop PC environment, where you need to lean forward a bit and lift your hand off your mouse or keyboard to interact with your screen. Kinect, properly implemented, would still require you to lift your hands, but the gestures would be in your "user" space, without needing to break the plane between keyboard and display.
I'd love to hear and see what developers might be doing with Kinect for Windows.
Xbox updates for Smartglass integration
Smartglass, the Windows 8 app that enables two-way streaming and lets you interact with your Xbox 360 via a Windows 8 tablet or PC, is still more a promise than a reality. As it stands today, Smartglass is more a toy than a real application. It works well enough, but what it does is pretty limited. Yes, you can watch Xbox videos on your tablet, but not much else.
The promise of Smartglass will be when Xbox games can use a tablet or phone running Smartglass as a gaming accessory. Or when Smartglass on a tablet enables better integration between the PC and the console. I'm hoping we'll see some hints of what Smartglass will really do going forward.
Desktop app integration with Windows 8 apps
As it stands today, Windows 8 apps and traditional desktop applications might as well live on separate systems. Windows 8 apps have their own way of communicating with other apps through the contracts mechanism. Desktop apps use Windows APIs. Even Office 2013 runs only as a set of desktop applications.
In theory, nothing prevents a Windows 8 app from communicating with a desktop application or with the underlying Windows environment. One tool conspicuously missing, for example, is a Windows 8 app that handles file management chores. I'm hoping Microsoft will be encouraging more integration between the two parallel universes the company has built into Windows 8.
Cross platform development issues and techniques
Microsoft is trying to bootstrap itself into multiple operating environments. It's attempted this in the past, with little success. But given the increasing mobile nature of modern computing, the company can't rely on desktop Windows and desktop Office to remain competitive.
Microsoft's developers have seen some success in the past with cross platform development between the Xbox 360 and Windows PCs, in the form of PC games. As the distinction in users' minds between tablets, smart phones and PCs becoming increasingly blurry, applications that can run cross-platform will be critical to Microsoft's success. One measure of potential success will be how enthusiastically Microsoft's cadre of developers embrace the cross-platform message.
PC gaming and touch
I'm sure we'll see plenty of lightweight, Windows 8 game apps that use touch. I'm more interested in how larger, desktop enabled game titles might embrace touch. Eugen Systems created R.U.S.E.several years ago. R.U.S.E. is a real-time strategy game that enabled multi-touch in a Windows 7 enviromment. Firaxis is readying an update to Civilization V that will enable multi-touch support in the game. Hidden Path Entertainment will be adding touch to its popular Defense Grid: The Awakening tower defense game. But other game developers have been pretty quiet about Windows 8 and touch. I'd love to see how game developers might integrate touch and gestures into the PC games, particularly role-playing or action titles.
Final thoughts: applications beget users
At some level, this year's Build conference will be anticlimactic, since the event is going on after the Windows 8 launch. In some ways, though, that make Build even more important. Windows 8 is more of a known quantity among developers now.
The secret to Microsoft's success has been in vast array of large and small developers building must-have applications for the company's operating system. If developers don't embrace Windows 8 in large numbers, and instead take up other platforms, the boys in Redmond may find themselves on the margin in an era of Android, the Web and Apple. That's not a position it wants to be in. Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows 8 Phone need to appeal to developers who create the applications that users will want. What happens at Build will give us clues as to whether those developers remain loyal, or start looking for other opportunities. Either way, it's going to be an interesting conference.