Six key messages Microsoft is sending to Windows 8 developers

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Steve Ballmer looked relaxed on stage. Dressed down in a short sleeve shirt and pants, he smiled, he cracked jokes, and he energetically rallied the 2000-strong crowd of developers at the opening keynote to Microsoft’s Build conference on the company’s leafy Redmond, Washington campus.

It was a very different Ballmer on stage than we saw at other events in the past year, including last week’s stiff and formal Windows 8 launch event in New York City. The energetic tenor of Ballmer’s keynote and the second, Windows Phone 8-focused keynote, reflected the conference’s underlying theme of building out the Windows app ecosystem.

“In case it’s not clear, we’re all in with Windows 8,” Ballmer enthused during Tuesday’s Build opener. “Every group in Microsoft has contributed something that’s optimized for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 and touch.”

Tuesday’s keynote was clearly aimed at its audience of attending developers. But six trends and takeaways emerged from the talk that paint a clear picture of Microsoft’s view of the world.

Windows 8 has huge potential for apps

Ballmer opened things up Tuesday by noting that Microsoft has sold 4 million Windows 8 upgrades since the operating system went on sale three days ago. (For context, 670 million Windows 7 PCs have the potential to run Windows 8.) And current estimates are that some 400 million new devices will soon be shipping that developers can target.

“Our industry is rebuilding itself around new devices and services,” Ballmer noted before he called on developers to rise to the occasion. This new universe represents an opportunity for app developers to make one app for all PC forms. “It’s an unprecedented market. Hundreds of millions of users are dying to buy your application.”

Throughout the morning, Ballmer energetically rallied the troops. “This is a market in which you can do your best work, most innovative work, most creative work. Whatever you do as a developer, Windows 8 is the best opp for software developers today.

“I guarantee you this will be the best opportunity software developers will see.”

The apps are coming

At last week’s Windows 8 launch event, I was disappointed to hear so little about Windows 8 apps. During Tuesday’s keynote, Microsoft showed off more app icons on-screen, though it was unclear from how they were presented which ones were shipping now and which were coming soon.

The big news was that Ballmer announced that SAP, Dropbox, and Twitter have all announced plans for Windows 8 apps. This is exactly the kind of app development commitment consumers need to hear about and see more of in the coming weeks if people are to get excited about the modern interface in Windows. It’s a pity we didn’t hear this last week—a time when consumers were paying attention.

I still wish that that Microsoft could be more specific about the number of apps, and which apps are coming. To say that Windows 8 has more apps than other platforms’ app stores did at launch isn’t enough: The market has changed since those other App Stores debuted. And consumers want to know more what they’re buying into up front if they’re to have confidence in what Microsoft’s building.

Opportunities for new and more personal apps are huge

“Your application will be the most personal [it can be] if you choose to marry the opportunities in the system [with the software],” Ballmer told Build attendees. He emphasized the easy sharing between phone and PC, the ubiquity of various Windows experiences like search and share, and the strength of integrating with a Microsoft account and leveraging SkyDrive cloud storage.

“Search, share, live tiles, live activity—these are all things you can also do with your apps,” Ballmer said.

Perhaps Steven Guggenheimer, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of developer and platform evangelism, put it best: “The thing about the hardware ecosystem is that it doesn’t come to life without the software. It’s about the marriage of hardware and software—and services, in some cases.”

The reality check here is that what Guggenheimer espouses isn’t new. In fact, it’s what we’ve known for years now, and have seen epitomized by Apple’s iPhone hardware and its integration with the iOS app ecosystem.

The difference now is that we’re hearing this from stodgy old Microsoft—the company that arguably has the most vibrant and daringly different touch interface of any operating system today. It’s refreshing to hear, because it’s an admission that means Microsoft does indeed get what it needs to do to succeed in this brave new mobile world.

Businesses are interested in Windows 8

Before Tuesday, the signs around how enterprise’s interest in Windows were tepid at best. And that’s not surprising, given IT departments’ traditional reticence to jump on a major Windows upgrade.

But Ballmer announced Tuesday that Microsoft had sold some 10 million units of Windows 8 into the enterprise market. While no mention was made of when those unit might be deployed into the field, it still highlights burgeoning interest in the new operating system within the business world.

Even better: In talking with developers here at the event, it sounds like businesses are investigating how to make the jump to the new platform. One developer, Anthony Handley of Magenic, noted, “We have a lot of enterprise clients that are interested in taking their internal line-of-business applications to Windows 8.”

Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have a lot in common, as this slide from Tuesday’s Build conference keynote suggests.

Windows app development tools are robust, but not perfect

Before this event, I heard praise for Microsoft’s development environment. By comparison to what mobile tablet and phone developers are used to with Google’s Android, in particular, I’ve heard some waxing poetic in casual conversation about working with Microsoft’s tools. I’ve also heard grousing that Microsoft didn’t do enough to unify development for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, but on the whole, the vibe has been more positive than what I hear about Android.

Magenic’s Handley is a cross-platform developer for iOS, Android, and Windows. “Obviously there’s a good story around iOS,” he said. “But as a designer working with Microsoft tools, they’ve come a long way in the past couple of years. Designers can work in Blend, and developers can work in Visual Studio, and the two can be melded in the end. Underneath the covers, we’re working on the same code. So there’s a lot of things to be excited about.”

We saw a glimpse of why the tools matter in action during the Windows Phone 8 portion of the keynote. Tony Garcia of Unity showed off the first demo of the Unity platform on Windows Phone 8. He emphasized during his demo how the Shadowgun sample being shown off was really easy to develop and debug on the PC. And the visuals looked great.

Build conference attendees saw the first demo of the Unity platform on Windows Phone 8 Tuesday.

Also during the Windows Phone 8 keynote, we got a picture of Microsoft as a company that was being responsive to its developers’ needs to create compelling app experiences. Microsoft said it has delivered 90 percent of the top developer requests. That doesn’t say how many requests the company received, mind you, but it does show Microsoft is listening and responding.

Among the additions highlighted here: NFC support, SD card access, voice commands and navigation, in-app purchasing, peer-to peer networking, advanced networking, Bluetooth data transfers,text-to-speech, better multitasking, support for VOIP and video chat, and new proximity requests. Microsoft has also added deeper integration with native phone experiences; for example,it opened up access to its camera.

Microsoft is backing its developers

Every developer attending Build will walk away from this year’s conference with a 32GB Microsoft Surface RT tablet, 100GB of SkyDrive storage, and a Nokia Lumia 920 phone. The idea, of course, is to stimulate excitement and energy among developers for creating new apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.

Giving out new hardware to developers is common at developer-centric events like this: Google and RIM have done the same thing at their events. But this is a notable shift for Microsoft, and Ballmer’s plea after announcing the Surface giveaway to “please go out and build lots of apps” underscores that the company recognizes it needs to generate enthusiasm in its developer community around making apps.

Contrast that with the mood at last year’s Build conference in Anaheim. That’s when Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky held their big Windows 8 unveiling, and developers were gaping open-mouthed at the implications of the vast software changes.

This year, Microsoft shifted its attention from simply introducing Windows 8 to focusing on getting developers to create apps for its new platforms across desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone. And this time, we had real, shipping hardware to spark app developers’ creativity.

“I think the creativity of your app is not just a function of what we build in [the software] but also of the hardware it sits on,” Ballmer told developers.

In the end, one of Ballmer’s lines particularly underscored that Microsoft’s success rides on more than what the company itself can control. “We need your support. Need your commitment [to building apps],” said Ballmer.

That right there sums up Microsoft’s Windows 8 “if you build it they will come” gamble. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 are here. Now all Microsoft—and us consumers—need is for developers to come and build out the ecosystem.

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