I’ve caught up with some of the Microsoft Build developer conference videos now. Between the non-jokes about the weather in Seattle being bad but not as bad as it is back East and giving away oodles of hardware to attendees there were some pretty interesting things to come out last week’s meeting. It was of course an opportunity for Microsoft to show off Window 8 and Windows 8 Phone along with some of the hardware that is available shortly. A lot has been made of the Microsoft Surface (and touch interfaces in general in Windows 8) and of course WP8 but I think if we can take away something more fundamental about Microsoft from the themes running through this event.
At Build 2012, developers were told they should be excited about Windows 8 and Windows 8 Phone. Since watching the videos I’ve come away with the idea that developers had better be excited because I believe this generation of software potentially changes everything for the user. Indeed I’m pretty blown away by the joined up thinking going on in Microsoft land. What Apple have been hinting at, Microsoft have just said “Screw it, let’s do it”. Xbox gaming integration, Xbox music (which I love) even Live Tiles are all starting to make sense. Suddenly I feel like my desktop PC is like an Xbox or like my PS3 – it is a game console with other capabilities. Except now the sometimes clunky way that games consoles deal with personalisation and network integration is somewhat, hopefully, relegated to the past.
In existing mobile devices we have many apps and platforms providing some form of integration with other services – some of it ok (say iOS Mail for example) and some pretty terrible (too many to mention) – but what is clear is that there has been a lack of systemic thinking by software architects on what constitutes providing a service to the user rather than as a service to another piece of software. A lack of clear thinking on user bound services has also been compounded by a tentativeness to execute on a totally user-oriented experience. Microsoft have shortened the pipe between data and user giving less wiggle room, less API elasticity. This can only be a good thing. For example I have an iPhone but I’ve not had the need to get involved with iCloud as I don’t have a Mac. I have Windows iTunes but I still need to plug my iPhone into it to upload my existing music (if I want to avoid buying it again from the Apple store). Microsoft through Windows 8 is trying to change the linear approach to device management. Windows 8 wants to better integrate devices that I already own rather than necessarily forcing me to buy new hardware to do cool stuff. In fact this is where the underlying marketing strategies between the two companies perhaps differ – Apple say you’d better buy the hardware if you want our software to continue to work, Microsoft say you can have some great software which will work on your existing hardware and you can also buy new hardware later if you find it useful.
With Windows 8 and Windows 8 Phone the ability to share my account across devices is implicit. As Microsoft themselves say – the user is at the heart of the experience – it’s all about personalisation on all your devices but doing this consistently. While this sounds a lot like they are just paying lip-service to what everyone else has been doing badly already it seems however like they are actually trying to do this thing properly. The cloud integration is seamless across devices and somewhat surprising – for example I notice I get my file view preferences taken across between W8 PCs without having to specify them on each device. Of course apps-wise Windows 8 and of course Windows 8 Phone lag far behind and much has been made of the numbers in the various app stores. What should not be underestimated is the amount of software already there in Windows 8 already doing most of the things you need. Indeed until you link up your Facebook and your Skype accounts you don’t really understand what Live Tiles are about – but then suddenly you see that the experience is personal, and it’s personal across all devices and I can seriously consider logging into my desktop or my laptop in the same house and now having to worry about having all the documents I need being to hand (if I take advantage of Sky Drive). I imagine I’ll be thinking twice before renewing my LiveDrive account next time around.
Slow erosion of boundaries between apps and services has been going on for a while but what Microsoft has done has said – ok you want a properly personalised experience on every device? You can have it. And not just through Microsoft services – you can have everything in one place and we won’t stop you integrating so the ability to bring Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and undoubtedly many others right on to your new look desktop directly without installing anything from a third party. You don’t need to worry about putting a pretty picture on your desktop because the pictures are everywhere.
Of course one question that pops up is how this level of integration will work when it comes to security. The paranoia exhibited by all presenters at Build when they were saying “I’d better lock this as it’s my actual device” is probably as much a testament to how much of their lives are on that device (or at least the services to which it interfaces) as it is to corporate sensitivity. If all of your accounts are at the mercy of your single Windows Live sign-on then you’d better be very careful with whatever devices have access to it – longer term this could have serious implications for security officers everywhere.
Many other questions still remain of course not least over the newly released Windows Phone 8 SDK. A requirement on using 64 bit hardware only for developing is a shame and there is a lack of clarity on the purpose of the bundled XNA 4.0 among others. What is clear however is that with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 Microsoft have delivered a big bundle of software to play around and have fun. The results from devs will come in over the next few months to years. As an enticement there is a stack of engaging hardware to play around with this stuff on. Putting the user at the centre of the experience is something that only developers can do – Microsoft can only go so far with their intentions – and as the phrase has it, the market ultimately decides. However I know I can’t wait to get my hands on some proper Windows 8 and Windows 8 Phone hardware to see, and also to try and deliver, the fully integrated experience that people have been waiting for probably since the invention of the Smartphone. Maybe it won’t be this iteration but by betting this big, Microsoft are getting mighty close.