How Microsoft is changing its developer relations

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If you’re a .NET or Silverlight developer, you might have been feeling a little left out over the last couple of years as Microsoft introduced WinRT runtime, a developer program for Windows Phone, and announced that Unity would be available free to indie devs on Xbox One. You probably have been thinking, “But what about .NET?” Recognizing that many of the advancements as of late have been aimed at everyone but .NET developers, Steve Guggenheimer, head of the Developer and Platform Evangelism team, made a point of highlighting ASP.NET in his keynote at the Build conference last year by announcing new information aimed at .NET developers, and demoing WPF apps and Intellisense for XAML.

But the range of other services that were showcased in the keynote – SignalR integration, the new HTML editor in Visual Studio (now with Node.js support), IE 11 in-browser debugging tools, Unity, Azure and Windows Phone demos – show that Microsoft is taking a much wider view of development. It’s not just about enterprise and line of business apps anymore, and that’s because developers today are a different breed.

What’s changed?

Today, in order to survive, developers need different skills in order to keep up with current devices and services, new business models and very different customer demands. Anand Krishnan, general manager of the Developer and Platform group at Microsoft calls modern developers “brave” because even though they face significant challenges, they’re as enthusiastic as they are varied – and this allows them to have major opportunities.

The change in what it means to be a developer didn’t happen overnight. “The world of traditional development started to shift with the Web,” Krishnan points out, and the importance of mobile development is only the beginning. You can even see the changing priorities visualized by sites like the TIOBE index, where you can find data about the types of languages being used. “The people we see walking into the room when we do developer camps are no longer folks only doing C and C#. We often do a straw poll; they know HTML, they know the frameworks that they’ve picked up to do games.” It’s also the way they think about themselves. “They identify themselves not just as developers but as various flavors of designers and creative professionals. What they have in common is that an app is the end result they want to come out with.”

And that app is going to get written faster than it would have in the past. “Three or four years ago, writing a game meant two people quitting their jobs and spending the best part of a year working on it. Now they’re able to do something in two or three months. Many of the game developers who used to write in native code now use HTML. A hit only lasts a few months now, so they want to get something out every two to three months, and then move to a new platform.”

Even inexperienced developers can put promising apps together quickly with frameworks and tools. Microsoft’s Imagine Cup started out as a problem-solving contest for students, “but it’s become a startup competition in many ways, because most of the finalists are almost funding ready,” Krishnan says. Of course simpler apps are faster to develop and in mobile we’ve seen a lot of apps that solve a single, simple problem. “Developers are hungry to get a handle on some must-do customer scenario they think hasn’t been solved yet, but all too often it’s something very narrow.”

Not less, but more

Krishnan believes developers will be keen to make more powerful apps. He pointed to a survey that Microsoft commissioned from Vanson Bourne which polled 400 UK developers (80 ‘hobbyists’, 100 managers in charge of commissioning apps, and the rest professional developers) about app development, and they were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. So enthusiastic, in fact, that 86 percent of them said “they’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with software and apps.”

“Today we have PCs, phones and tablets, and apps live in siloes in those categories. We’ve got computing wrapped up in a range of form factors, some of which live on a desk, some live in your hand or in your pocket or maybe in your clothes. They’re all powerful enough to do a range of things and they’re blurring together as devices. You could use the phone in your hand in collaboration with the tablet on your coffee table and with your set-top box and with your PC.” That makes it potentially easier to make apps that can run on a PC and a phone and a tablet.

And he hopes some of them will be what he calls “super-apps,” using information about you from all these devices (and the new devices we’ll see as part of the wearables trend and the “internet of things”) plus services from Bing – which he points out is a “digital representation of all the objects in the world.”

“There are apps for finding a restaurant or booking you a table but that’s not what you value most when you’re going out. What you care about is getting to have a meal with a friend who is going to be in town next month. Today apps do pinpoint things where the user walks through a series of steps but devices have the ability to respond to you in a much wider fashion. Imagine I get a text on my phone from a friend. It knows from Facebook and LinkedIn that I’m connected to them, it knows what we’ve talked about, it knows my calendar, it knows what meetings I’m going to be in that day…it could rely on Bing to do traffic prediction. It knows I use TripAdvisor so it could pull up a list of place we’ll both like. You could go in one fell swoop from getting a text to ‘do you want to book a table at this place at 8pm?’ How do you use the combination of what you know and what Bing can provide to go from intent to action? It’s the use of context in information that we largely have but haven’t connected the dots on.”

A new “wild west”

The massive potential is one reason Anand Krishnan calls the size of the market these brave developers can hope to reach “akin to the settling of the West,” and he points to the success story of Richard Walters as an example. “He walked through the door a year ago. He had never written an app before. He signed up for DreamSpark [Microsoft’s program to give students free developer tools], he wrote a calculator app – and he had a million downloads. Folks like that have come out of nowhere.”

So how do other developers repeat that kind of gold rush success? They need the right way to make money from their app, and they need people to find it. “Developers say to us I know how to write an app, but getting it into the store and getting it discovered is not my strength.” Microsoft has a range of tools and programs to help developers, from the way Bing offers custom ‘picks for you’ in the Windows Store to the Microsoft Ventures accelerators the company is setting up in various countries around the world.

This is a balancing act for Microsoft; it has to keep developers on its existing platforms happy while it tries to get enough users on Windows 8 and Windows Phone and Xbox One to attract developers who think of Android and iOS first. But this effort has been more successful outside the US. In Europe, Windows Phone accounts for ten percent of new phone sales and that number is 20 percent and more in Latin America. Markets with fewer developers give you more of a chance to stand out.

While the traditional PC – and the traditional developer – is far from dead, they’re no longer all Microsoft has to care about. Mobile is as important to enterprise as it is to consumers. HTML and JavaScript are a lingua franca; you can run almost anywhere and developers have to move faster and change faster. Microsoft’s message to developers is that it wants to help with all of that, especially all of the developers who’ve only started coding in the last five years and might not think of Microsoft as anything more than Windows and Office. Reaching those new developers is the goal, and that’s why Microsoft is changing its tone.

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Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe has been a technology journalist for over two decades, and she’s been the formal or informal IT admin for most of the offices she’s worked in along the way. She was delighted to see the back of Netware 3.11, witnessed the AOL meltdown first-hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and has been a freelance tech writer ever since. She's used every version of Windows (client and server) and Office released, and every smartphone too. Her favourite programming language is Prolog, giving her a soft spot for Desired State Configuration in PowerShell 4. And yes, she really does wear USB earrings. Find her on Twitter @marypcbuk.