Sunday, November 4, 2012

Microsoft, the Coolest Tech Company on the Planet

BUILD 2012 Delivers all of BUILD 2011's Promises, and More

A year ago, at BUILD 2011, Microsoft shared a bold vision for the future--and they needed to, because the world was changing fast. As I attended last year's conference, my mind abounded with questions--and Microsoft had answers for all of them. Good answers. Let's review what was shared then, and then we'll see where we actually are today.

The Vision and the Promises of BUILD 2011

• How would Microsoft survive what was being called by some the "Post-PC era"?
 With a cross-over operating system that would work on traditional PCs as well as touch tablets, and on ARM devices as well as x86 devices.

• What would Windows 8 look like? What languages would be used to program it?

Windows 8 has a compelling UI and design language, a big brother to what was originally called "Metro" on Windows 7. Along with that is a new Windows Runtime (WinRT), which can be programmed via HTML5/JavaScript, C#/XAML, or C++/XAML.

• How would Windows Phone make inroads in market share?

Microsoft wasn't saying a whole lot about Windows Phone 8 at the time. The hope of attendees of course is that the pantheon of large-to-small screens and devices for Windows 8 would also include the Windows 8 Phone family in some way at some point in time.

• When and how would Microsoft became a player in the ARM tablet world?

Windows 8 will work on both x86 and ARM devices. So along with upcoming hardware, you'll be able to have that iPad-like ARM tablet experience with long battery life on Windows 8.

• Would we be seeing original design or copied designs?

Original! What we now have to call Modern UI (the Metro name can no longer be used) is a cutting edge design and it's original. It also gives a fair degree of consistency of user experience between Windows 8 and Windows Phones.

• Where was Microsoft going with Windows Azure and their public cloud offerings?

Microsoft said they were working on all kinds of great things for Windows Azure, but we'd have to wait for some announcements.

• When would there be a credible Microsoft private cloud story?

Yes! What was code-named Windows Server 8 is built for public cloud. It allows many servers (even thousands) to be clustered, and they can be managed from a single console. Compute, network, and storage resources can be pooled, then carved out in virtual sections. Multi-tenancy is a core concept of the OS. System Center provides management.

• Was Microsoft really embracing HTML5, and how well would they support it?

Microsoft had already been demonstrating increasingly good support for the HTML5 client-side web stack, which also includes CSS, JavaScript, and common frameworks. Visual Studio 2012 and Blend would support them even more strongly, along with ASP.NET MVC4. Great work was also coming with TFS, and Microsoft was working on a cloud-based edition of TFS.

• Was there going to be any kind of strategy to unify all of this great stuff into a composed whole?

Yes! Microsoft calls this the era of "Connected Devices, Continuous Services" and it's a great way to think about how all the pieces fit together. You can see the mobile device and HTML5 web movements as part of a front-end revolution--which needs to be supported by a back-end revolution: a change in how we do IT, whether on-premises or in the cloud.

You had to be excited if you tuned into to BUILD 2011. Microsoft had the right answers and the right vision. Attendees even received an early preview copy of Windows 8 on a tablet PC so they could start learning how to develop Windows 8 apps.

A Year Has Passed... Did Microsoft Deliver?

You bet Microsoft delivered. If you attended or watched BUILD 2012 online you should have no doubt of that whatsoever. In case you missed it, I strongly recommend watching the following at before reading further:

Day 1 Keynote by Steve Ballmer, Steve Guggenheimer, Kevin Gallo
Day 2 Keynote by Satya Nadella, Scott Guthrie, Scott Hanselman, Dave Campbell, Jason Zander, Josh Twist
Day 3 Web Talk by Scott Hanselman

Here's how the vision and promises of BUILD 2011 have become a reality. Microsoft not only delivered on their promises, they gave us even more.

Windows 8, The Cross-Over Operating System

Windows 8 has been available in some form for the last year in a variety of preview releases, but it was released for General Availability on October 26. So it's real, it's here, you can have it now.

Here's what my Windows 8 start screens look like on my x86 Dell laptop:

Windows 8 Pro Running on Dell Laptop

Because my laptop is an x86 device, I also get a classic desktop allowing me to run traditional apps:

 Windows 8 Pro Running on Dell Laptop - Classic Desktop

Innovative Hardware to Match the Innovative Operating System

We knew, as in the past, hardware manufacturers would work with Microsoft to create PCs and devices to work well with Windows 8. We learned a few months back that Microsoft themselves would be issuing their own tablets called Microsoft Surface, available in both ARM and x86 editions. This device is really cool: the cover not only does what you expect but is also a keyboard. It has a kickstand. Even Oprah Winfrey likes it, saying it "feels like a Mercedes-Benz to me, people".

Here's what my Windows 8 start screen looks like on my Microsoft Surface ARM tablet. Here, like on the iPad, I'm working solely with Touch. The edition of Windows 8 for ARM devices like this, Windows RT, doesn't include the classic desktop mode. However, it does come with a touch edition of Office 2013.

Windows RT Running on Microsoft Surface Tablet

 Modern UI

The "Design-Language-Formerly-Known-As-Metro" has a sleek design. This user experience is a hit. Even before Windows 8 was released, the look has been imitated everywhere, from web sites to presentation slides. Modern UI has well-defined precepts, clear principles, and is aided by controls in the Windows 8 runtime (WinRT) and project templates in Visual Studio.

There are a lot of fantastic features in the Modern UI, not least of which is the many controls that come with it. A favorite feature of mine is built-in spell checking across the OS and any apps that use text-oriented input.

New App Model

Modern UI isn't just about the start screen or a recommend user interface. There's a new app model, call Windows Store Apps. They have interesting concepts including the use of contacts to interact with other apps and the operating system for searching, sharing, and other functions. Apps don't have chrome, showing content and allowing users to intuitively interact with it is what you're supposed to do with your real estate. Touch, mouse, and keyboard work equally well. And you can summon app bars when you need toolbars of controls.

Here's what the built-in weather app looks like on my laptop running Windows 8. Note that it not only shows the weather, but the actual weather is depicted (e.g. day, night, raining, cloudy). It's very cool.

Weather App Showing Current Weather

Windows Runtime & Programming

If you're running on the classic desktop (e.g. on an x86 device), you can run all of your traditional apps that worked on Windows 7. But if you're working on the new kind of app, a Window Store App, what do you program in?

Wisely, Microsoft decided not to alienate the various developer circles out there and supports three different paths to creating native Windows 8 applications: C++/XAML, C#/XAML, or HTML5/CSS/JavaScript. The XAML-based approaches allows WPF or Silverlight developers to transfer their existing skills to Windows 8 development. The HTML5/JavaScript approach allows web developers to transfer their existing skills to Windows 8 development. Brilliant.

In a Windows Store App, you are in a sandboxed security environment. That means you must use the new WinRT APIs for many functions such as file storage or accessing the web. The API is available in each of the 3 language paths outlined above. For JavaScript developers, it's called WinJS.

Windows Phone 8

Although Microsoft wouldn't say much about Windows 8 plans or dates at BUILD 2011, they were sure enough working on it. Windows Phone 8 was released less than a week ago.

Attendees at BUILD 2012 received these wonderful Nokia Lumia 920 phones running Windows 8. These are nothing like the "frankenphones" given out at PDC 2010. These are extremely nice phones with large screens. They support qi charging, which means when I get the adaptor plate I just ordered I can just lay the phone on the pad to charge it without having to plug anything into the phone.

Here's what my start screen looks like on my Nokia Lumia 920 Windows 8 phone. I have to say, this phone is a thing of beauty. I was pretty happy on Windows 7.5 with my Samsung Focus (except for the short battery life), but I can only describe what I have now as that perfect marriage of well-designed hardware and well-designed software.

Start Screen on my Nokia Lumia 920 Windows 8 Phone

There's more good news. A lot of Windows 8 is now in Windows Phone 8. There's a new SDK out for Windows Phone 8. Best of all, you can reuse a lot of common code in apps that you want to have both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 editions of.

The closer affinity between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 is going to help market penetration of Windows Phone 8. For Windows 8, there's an extremely large market of Windows 8-ready PCs already out there. With the work Microsoft has done to make Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 provide a very similar experience, and the ability to sync changes made on one of your devices to your other device(s), Windows 8 is going to help Windows Phone 8. Just as many apple fans own not one Apple device but many, you can now do that in the Microsoft world with great sync, sharing, and a common user experience from big screen to small.

Windows Azure / Public Cloud

Although Microsoft didn't say too much about Windows Azure at BUILD 2011, as an MVP I knew the product was working all Fall and Spring on a massive rollout of a broader, deeper, more mature cloud platform. In June 2012, all of this was made public and everyone had a chance to Meet Windows Azure all over again.

The updated Windows Azure platform now provides both Platform as a Service (PaaS) as well as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). And, it has a special mode just for 2-tier web sites with ultra-fast deployment called Windows Azure Web Sites (WAWS). You can read about the updates here. All of this means Windows Azure has something for everybody. PaaS users enjoy more automated management and can take full advantage of new services in the cloud. IaaS users can ensure portability of workloads between running in the public cloud or on-premesis. WAWS users get both benefits: management plus portability.

Windows Azure Now Has Three Modes of Use

But that's not all. Microsoft has been working hard on usability. The new HTML5-based portal (shown below) reflects this. Some of the newer services, like WAWS, are extremely simple to use. Even the lowest-level "manage it yourself" IaaS Virtual Machines feature was implemented lovingly.

New Windows Azure HTML5-based Portal

Another very important service Microsoft has added is called Windows Azure Mobile Services. This allows you to create a back-end in the cloud for your preferred mobile device at the click of a button. It currently supports Windows 8, iOS, and Windows Phone 8--with more mobile platforms on the way. This service makes storage, identity, push notifications, and more a snap. The mobile developer can now very easily set up a scalable back-end in the cloud without having to learn a lot about the cloud.

For a simple walk-through of Windows Azure Mobile Services, see my blog post. For a deeper and more functional demo, watch the BUILD 2012 Day 2 Keynote.

Windows Server / Private Cloud

A few months ago, Microsoft release Windows Server 2012, the official name for what had been described at first as Windows Server 8. The ability to cluster up to thousands of servers and pool their resources, managed from a single console, is amazing. It also has a beefed-up management UI. You can even move VMs around while they are running.

Along with System Center, Windows Server 2012 provides a credible private cloud story for Microsoft. And, Microsoft is aligning their public cloud and private cloud stories under the term CloudOS.

Visual Studio 2012, .NET 4.5, ASP.NET, MVC4

Visual Studio 2012 was also recently released. Web developers will find that VS2012 has superb support for HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript as well as detection and handling of various mobile devices. Web project templates have built-in support for responsive web design (adaptive layout).

Why This Makes Microsoft The Coolest Tech Company On The Planet

For Microsoft to really address the challenges facing it, it needed to demonstrate 4 things:

1. Design Savvy-ness. Microsoft needed to really show that it could be a cool design company and not just borrow inspiration from others. It did this both with the Windows 8 Modern UI as well as with the Surface device.

2. Coherency. Microsoft needed to ensure that for customers who stay within the Microsoft microcosm, it's devices, services, tools, and technologies work extremely well together. That is to say, if you own a PC, a tablet, and a phone all from Microsoft they should sync and work together to an amazing degree, and allow you to juggle them effortlessly.

3. Interop. Recognize there are other platforms out there and play nice with them. Microsoft is amply doing this with its mobile support in cloud services; in its HTML5 support in VS2012 and ASP.NET; in the use of open protocols like REST in cloud services APIs; and in its continued open sourcing of its core technologies.

4. The Fun Factor. Just play with a Surface tablet or a Windows 8 phone or interact with a Windows Store App, and you'll find yourself smiling. What you're doing is functional as well as fun, and that's the secret to being technologically cool.

...which is what Microsoft has become: the company making the coolest products.

Mission accomplished!


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James said...

I agree they are always on the edge of what people want to deliver the coolest products. My son tried 8 and it had some glitches, just like any new product, but the interface was incredible.