The Irish Times – Friday, September 16, 2011
WIRED: Windows 8 is more than just the next version of Microsoft’s flagship PC operating system
I HAD a brief flurry with internet popularity 10 years ago when the newsletter I worked on publicised a couple of videos of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer at his, well, most Ballmeric.
“Developers! Developers! Developers!” he screamed in one, which ended up being downloaded by millions of Microsoft-bashers. “Give it up for me!” he screamed as he danced, spasmodically, in front of an audience of somewhat shell-shocked geeks, who built software based on the Windows platform.
In those thumbnail video files, called names such as “dancemonkeyboy.avi”, handed around before the age of YouTube, you can see a terrifying vision of Microsoft at its most driven. Armpits stained with sweat, the freshly-minted chief executive urged on a captive crowd of programmers to do more and sell more as Microsoft partners.
Ballmer made the smallest shout-out to that ancient leak this week in a keynote premiering the first versions of Windows 8. “Developers, developers, developers,” he muttered as the downbeat pay-off to a somewhat bland speech about how Microsoft planned to “re-imagine” itself in the next few years.
It sounded a bit like he’d been put up to it by his scriptwriters. But even when running with someone else’s joke, Ballmer is usually pretty game for a laugh.
And, frankly, this was an opportunity for the chief executive to look a little cheerier than usual. The preview of Windows 8 had gone well – more than half a million people had downloaded it and the reaction was generally positive.
Windows 8 is more than just the next version of Microsoft’s flagship PC operating system. It’s also the company’s response to its perceived falling behind in the mobile and tablet markets.
It’s not a response that has any guarantee of winning anyone over. Just as Ballmer is not so energetic on stage these days, so his audience of developers are not so gung-ho about the future of Windows. It’s where they live and work, but the strategic decisions Microsoft has made in the last few years have not seemed confident. The sort of innovations that make coders excited have been happening elsewhere: in Apple’s iOS operating system, in the browser and on the web.
But the best parts of Windows 8 come from Microsoft managing to turn its own quiet victories in other niches, and redirect them into the flagship Windows.
The design aesthetic of Metro, Microsoft’s new user interface, is a direct descendant of the clean square iconography of Windows Mobile 7, a phone system that suffered in the market against the hype of the iPhone and Android platforms, but was critically well-received by users and programmers alike.
Microsoft is pulling in talent from its success in the gaming space, too.
There aren’t many programming environments that include a 3D model design system, but Microsoft’s new Visual Studio does, and it’s clear that the company wants to inspire Windows programmers to take advantage of the fast 3D engine behind Windows 8 to create more dynamic, and visually impressive, applications.
But most of all, for all of Steve’s resistance to screaming it from the hilltops, Microsoft is also, finally, returning to its best resource: the huge army of third-party coders that grew up programming to its Windows specifications.
Most of the Windows programmers I know are a little sceptical of the squelching together of a tablet and desktop sides of Microsoft. They’re conservative about flashy new user interfaces and many have long, bad memories of previous attempts by the company to force together its desktop and server offerings.
But those same coders feel that the behind-the-scenes tidying up of how you actually code in Windows, and the tools Microsoft makes to let you create Windows software, is a step in the right direction. There’s a sense that, at least behind the scenes, coding for Microsoft software has neither been growing easier nor has it been much fun to keep up with the company’s sprawling initiatives. Windows 8 at least shows the company is starting to focus again.
Watching Ballmer calmly read off a list of buzzwords and vague promises before disappearing behind a curtain made me miss the old high-energy gormlessness of Microsoft’s executives. But even if they can’t quite give it up for the developers any more, it’s clear to me that the developers still want Microsoft to succeed.
It would be rough for Microsoft if Ballmer or another major executive left. But what would kill the company is if any more of its developer community gave up on it. I think Windows 8 at least gives it one more chance to encourage and inspire them.