Microsoft’s Loyal Developers Are Upset And Confused About Windows 8

Ballmer at PDC 2010
Steve Ballmer at last year’s Microsoft developer conference.

As Steve Ballmer said last year, Windows 8 is a huge risk for Microsoft in a lot of ways — it will offer a new look, run on different hardware, and break backwards compatibility with millions of existing Windows apps.But it could also anger the loyal Microsoft developers who have long been one of the company’s most important assets.

Here’s why.

Earlier this month at D9, Microsoft showed its Windows 8 tablet interface for the first time. When asked how developers could write apps for it, the company answered “HTML5 and JavaScript.” 

From a business and technical perspective, this makes sense. Windows 8 will run on a bunch of different hardware — traditional Intel x86 chips, new Intel systems-on-a-chip, and at least four different flavours of ARM. Programming separately for each of these platforms is complicated — it would require developers to recompile their code for each platform, and perhaps rewrite portions that don’t work.

HTML5 and Javascript are Web standards, and they’re built to be cross-platform. (At least that’s the intent — reality is always a little bit more complicated.)

As analyst Rob Sanfilippo of Directions on Microsoft points out, Microsoft has been very clear: HTML5 is fully supported in IE9 and coming to the Windows Phone mobile browser, and it’s Microsoft’s preferred way to write cross-platform apps.

Windows 8 tablet apps are basically cross-platform apps. So Microsoft is being consistent here.

So what’s the problem? As Peter Bright of Ars Technica outlined, a lot of Microsoft developers have been following Microsoft’s various platforms for years. They learned Visual Basic. Then .NET. Then Silverlight.

Now, Microsoft seems to be saying to them “forget all that time you’ve invested — if you want to write apps for the most advanced version of Windows, just write Web apps.”

That not only makes their past experience less useful, but also opens development to an army of Web-focused developers who have never been particularly interested in Microsoft. Suddenly all these young hotshot Web jockeys will be able to write competitive Windows programs? That’s a lot to bear for the guy who spent a decade perfecting C#.

(Note: Windows 8 will also include a more traditional Windows-looking layer that will probably run apps written using traditional Microsoft developer technologies. Think of it like two OSs in one. But the tablet layer — Microsoft calls it the “tailored UI” — is the cutting edge, and represents Microsoft’s answer to the iPad.)

Of course, this is all based on a few comments at a brief single conference.

Sanfilippo actually thinks that Microsoft was pressured into showing Windows 8 early because of the success of Apple’s iPad and declining PC sales, which raised questions about whether Steve Ballmer and other leaders really “got” the threat from tablets. So it doesn’t have the developer story fully worked out yet.

Sanfilippo also points to a mysterious rumoured project codenamed “Jupiter” that may provide a bridge between older platforms (Silverlight and .NET) and the new tablet UI for Windows 8. But as ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley pointed out shortly after D9, Microsoft hasn’t said anything official about Jupiter, and the complete silence is making developers nervous.

Microsoft has a big developers’ conference, BUILD, coming up in September, where it has promised to reveal more information about how to write programs for Windows 8. Hopefully, it will resolve these questions and get developers excited writing tablet programs for Windows 8.

But Sanfilippo cautions that if Microsoft doesn’t clarify its position then, it stands to lose developers to other platforms, particularly Apple’s iOS. “If they really let people down and say it’s very difficult or a lot of work to get apps running on tablet, that’s a big strike against them.”

See also: The First Official Pictures Of Windows 8 For Tablets Look Pretty Cool.