Will Developers Determine the Success of Windows 8?

Microsoft has gone through some rigorous changes for a company it’s size. Until now, they have not had an answer to the modern tablets–namely Apple’s iPad–that continue to cut into PC sales. At this late stage, the company has a lot of market share to regain. Apple essentially defined a post-PC era with its iPhone and iPad devices, while Google’s Android has kept pace through its broader reach. Together, those two platforms appear to satisfy the needs of the majority of consumers. With mobile and cloud ecosystems debasing the relevance of the PC, Microsoft’s plan is now to entrench itself in the consumer tablet market. Its newest Windows operating system is a hybrid that runs on a tablet, yet can do all of the work of a desktop PC, depending on the device’s capabilities. It sounds like a viable plan, but is it too late? Can Microsoft entice the software developers, enterprises and consumers it needs to keep Windows relevant in this new generation of computing?

From the consumer’s perspective, Windows 8 (and its cousin Windows RT) introduces an entirely new visual language and way of navigating the operating system. While its tile-based UI looks slick and is simple to use once you’ve acclimated to it, it can be alienating and foreign to long-time desktop PC users. “Windows 8 is designed around a mobile interface with a small number of large touch activated icons and a fallback to the more traditional desktop when used on non-mobile devices,” surmises Roundarch Isobar Front-end Architect, Lawrence O’Sullivan. “It remains to be seen if this way of unifying the UI on small display devices and large display devices will lead to a trend or be a dead end.”

Meanwhile, enterprises in recent years have grown accustomed to supporting devices running Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. However, these non-Windows devices require third-party management tools which incur additional costs and lack of centralized access control. Microsoft on the other hand has decades of experience integrating with IT infrastructure and management systems. For instance, Windows 8 BitLocker enables file system encryption to protect a user’s files in case of a lost or stolen device before it can be remotely wiped by security management tools. DirectAccess VPN allows IT staff to configure Windows 8 to enforce the use of a VPN when the user isn’t connected to a corporate network, helping to mitigate threats of data theft that may take place in an airport or coffee shop. However, none of these features are insurmountable by the competition.

But what about developers? An unparalleled ecosystem of apps was always the secret sauce of Microsoft’s OS strategy. And today, Apple and Google have a head start at beating them at their own formula.  However, with its new Windows Store platform for apps, “Microsoft has made a commitment to supporting developing of native apps in Web technology (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript),” says O’Sullivan. “This will quickly expand the app developer base and hopefully push Android and iOS to provide better support for Web technologies.” Roundarch Isobar iOS Architect Chris Steele agrees, but notes apps built on Web technologies are “likely fine for quick prototypes, forms, and data display. In other words, it’s good for Web apps. If you want an app that runs like a native app with native performance you’re still going to want to drop down to C++/XAML or C#/VB.NET.” This brings the barrier to entry down significantly for (arguably) the largest pool of developers, since most developers understand HTML and JavaScript on some level.

 

TunedIn Facebook app by Roundarch Isobar team: Bill Welense, Paul Karpenko, Mark Ferry, Steve Zahner

As it turns out, building an app for the Windows Store using HTML, CSS and JavaScript is a straightforward affair for a team of experienced designers and developers. Recently, Roundarch Isobar hosted an internal hackathon to build social apps on top of Facebook’s OpenGraph API. Our team built a Windows 8 Store app in just a few days, placing 2nd overall.  Not a bad learning curve for a completely new platform. Below is the team’s pitch video.

 

 

Will Windows 8 see wide adoption the way Windows 7 has? Steele thinks it may be slowly adopted over time, but mostly by default. “Based on Microsoft’s track record, this is the version that is not likely to do so well (every other OS version seems to be ill received). Early reactions I’m hearing about Windows 8 are mixed and I think until the tablet/laptop hybrids really start making it in the hands of users we won’t know. My gut tells me we’ll see Windows 7 hanging around for a long time, similar to how XP was the preferred Windows OS during the Vista period,” he says. Windows will likely carve out some segment of the tablet market over time, but may never achieve the same market share dominance in tablets that Microsoft enjoyed with PCs. The barriers to entry are high and the margins are shrinking, but the overall market is still growing.  Firefox announced a mobile platform targeted to low-end devices, and Research In Motion is coming out with a new BlackBerry release in early 2013.  Whether or not any of these platforms succeed in the short term is not necessarily relevant—what is relevant is the pursuit of competition that drives innovation and provides more value for everyone.


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