Build 2011 Preview: Keys to the Conference

It used to be called the Windows Professional Developers Conference. This year, it absorbs some of the functions of the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, and some of the MIX Web developers’ conference. The result is Build 2011 in Anaheim, which this year is Microsoft’s premiere event for the next version of Windows for PCs and tablets. It begins Tuesday, but at this moment, exactly how it will pan out remains an artificial mystery.

I’m a veteran of conferences like this dating back a few dozen years. I know the pattern pretty well, and I even know quite a few of the people involved. I’m being honest when I say I don’t know how Microsoft will premiere Windows 8 on Tuesday, but I do know that it will do so. Drawing from my own experience and my knack for getting things pretty close to spot on, here’s a list of the main topics RWW will be covering here all week – what I call the keys to the conference:

Metro vs. Aero, and ne’er the twain shall meet. A few weeks ago, Microsoft gave developers a taste of the new front-end of Windows 8, part of which borrows heavily from the “Metro” style created for Windows Phone 7. The key word in that last sentence is “part.” Windows 8 (as it probably will end up being called) needs to be more tactile, to start taking serious steps toward embracing touchscreen PC and tablet profiles. But Microsoft can’t exactly jettison the existing user input scheme without pulling the rug out on its existing software, including Office 2010 which must still be supported.

So product managers demonstrated early prototypes which distinctly divide the Windows 7 world of taskbars and window frames from the Windows 8 world of tiles, flips, and slides. The Desktop itself may be reduced to a tile, and the border of the tile-world and the Desktop-world can slide back and forth. All of which led developers to ask, well, why? Exactly what does this accomplish, and how many new Windows users will this confuse? You can almost imagine the Apple ads now, with the two worlds sliding back and forth on the TV screen.

Where do the HTML5 apps go? We do know that Microsoft is expected to demonstrate its strategy for HTML5 in Windows 8. The company has already taken some heat for its use of the phrase “native HTML5,” originally to refer to Microsoft’s implementation of the standards for Internet Explorer 10. In July, a member of the marketing team tried to backtrack, explaining that HTML5 is what it is.

The problem is, HTML5 isn’t what it is, and that might not be Microsoft’s fault. Although formal specifications are being drawn up, how the standards agency W3C perceives HTML5 and how the browser manufacturers who comprise WHATWG perceive it, are different enough to raise eyebrows.

More importantly, though, developers are wondering what the status of so-called “real HTML5 apps” will be. One such developer told me last week that such classification pertains to apps delivered through the Web but not presented in browser tabs – rather, as applications installed just like any other. If Windows 8 floats its tiles in a place other than the Desktop, and relegates HTML5 apps to the “Metro” world, that’s not exactly what “real HTML5 app” developers will be expecting.

How much of Windows 8 will be in the cloud? There’s a difference between publishing Windows apps online (which is what Windows Live does) and providing cloud functionality. With an enterprise SaaS application, both the functions and the data are stored remotely. With respect to consumers, Microsoft has used the term “cloud” pretty loosely (for example, making your recorded Media Center shows play back to your laptop remotely). But if Windows apps adapt completely to the cloud, then Office 365 could become the true future of Office. Imagine not having to take your work home with you, but finding it there.

Will there ever be a competitive Windows app store? Not for lack of trying, Microsoft may end up becoming the last major software manufacturer to deploy a viable, self-service, competitive app storefront. For heaven’s sake, even RIM has one. If the company truly does intend for Windows to stay focused on developers, developers, developers, then it needs to create channels for revenue, revenue, revenue. A certification program for qualifying for silver hologram stickers to be used on box covers sold at Best Buy, won’t cut it.

Does Windows Server really need the Windows user interface? Last week, the company generally released Windows Intune, a management console for deploying Windows and applications remotely… that doesn’t need Windows Server. At the moment, it does require Silverlight; but the fact that this is all it requires demonstrates that, technically, such a service doesn’t really need Windows at all. It could be HTML5, which means it could run from a smartphone (unless you want to make the case that only IE10 is “native HTML5”).

If remote scripting at this level can be managed through any browser, then much of the raison d’etre for Microsoft Management Console flies out the window. Of course, the kernel of Windows Server is vitally necessary for running Exchange, SharePoint Server, Lync, and distributed applications. But if that process is automatic anyway, and can be controlled from any sort of device, then why isn’t it? Expect this question to be addressed, but maybe not altogether answered.

The experience thing.I go into this in quite a bit of detail elsewhere today here in RWW, so I’ll summarize: Microsoft has sadly fallen into the habit of late of describing the relationship between developers and customers the way one describes the production of a birthday party: You deliver it, and your guest experiences it.

The success of competitive technology platforms of late can be directly linked to the new and beneficial things that people can do with them. Face it, is Salesforce.com really about delivering salespeople a great customer support experience? Or giving them tools that work? Experience is a one-way thing; connectivity is not. Interactivity is not. Each time the metaphor “delivering a great experience” is heard this week from someone at Microsoft, will be one strike against the promise of making Windows work well for people.

We’ll have some fun this week too, and I promise not to wax philosophical about every little thing. Look for reports from the keynotes as well as the conference’s perennial mainstays, such as “Kernel Changes.” We’ll also take some time to scout the floor to see how everyday developers are taking the news of Windows 8. And when it’s all over, I’ll come back to these keys to the conference to see what we’ve learned this week.

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