Mobile development research shows complex picture

Vision Mobile has published its report on mobile development. It is a detailed report and worth reading, though I would be wary about taking it too seriously since some of the results are puzzling. This is what the report is based on:

We spent the last few months quizzing developers and industry executives about the future of mobile. Our research included 20+ industry executives, along with 900+ developers from 75+ countries working on 8+ major platforms.

There are a few surprises. Android fragmentation is generally regarded as a problem, particularly since operators are slow or reluctant to release updates, but according to the report Android is the least fragmented platform after Apple iOS; the worst is Java ME.

Here are a couple of charts I found interesting. What kinds of apps are people paying for?


Source: Developer Economics 2011

It is games that dominate, but at 45% they are still less than half of the whole. Note that these stats are based on iOS sales tracked by App Annie.

In terms of monetisation, iOS is the most revenue-generating platform according to the report, and Android well down.


Source: Developer Economics 2011

Windows Phone is too small to make this list, but the report notes:

Windows Marketplace offers a trial version for applications, which doesn’t help developers monetise from impulse purchases – a
naive differentiation move on the part of Microsoft.

There is a fascinating section on winners and losers in the mobile platform race. There is almost no correlation between number of devices shipped and the number of apps published.


Source: Developer Economics 2011

Java ME is way ahead on devices shipped; but these are feature phones for a market that buys relatively few apps.

Finally, a look at the platforms developers are planning to use, and the ones that plan to abandon. Here is the first:


Source: Developer Economics 2011

I am not sure what to  make of this one. 621 developers were surveyed, and placed Android top, Windows Phone 2nd, Chrome OS third, and iOS level pegging with MeeGo in fourth place. I could almost believe it if it means which additional platforms, since many will already be developing for iOS. I wonder if the question was clearly put?

Next comes a chart of platforms developers are planning to abandon:


Source: Developer Economics 2011

Bad news for Symbian and Java ME, and also uncomfortable reading for HP with webOS and Adobe with Flash. However, only 285 respondents for this part of the survey.

There are harsh words for Adobe. The report gives several reasons why Flash is losing the battle for developer mindshare, including the abandonment of Flash Lite and the perception that “by focusing on large business partners, Adobe has been unable to cultivate momentum among developers in the long-tail.”

Microsoft is praised for its developer tools, but the decline of Windows Mobile and “lacklustre sales” for Windows Phone raise questions over whether it can create a viable market for mobile developer. The report is not always clear about when it means Windows phones of all kinds, and when it means the new Windows Phone 7+ platform.

The report shows that actual usage of Windows Mobile and Windows Phone by developers has gone down from 39% to 36% between 2010 and 2011, while Flash/Flash Lite has increased from 22% to 34%. It is rather hard to make sense of this alongside the other figures showing platform intent and abandonment intent and again it makes me wary of the report’s accuracy.

Frankly, it is hard to discern any safe bets in such a complex market, though Apple seems to be a consistent platform from a developer perspective – provide that the company does not decide to absorb the functionality of your app into iOS itself.

Apple iCloud: i is for integrated

Apple has announced iCloud, smart cloud storage for Apple devices.

The iCloud will store documents, email, contacts and appointments, and synch the data to multiple devices including iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, Mac or PC. You get 5GB free with more available to purchase. Books are synched so that your place is saved from one device to the next, a feature borrowed from Amazon Kindle.

Apple has also exposed an API for developers:

Apple apps are seamlessly integrated with iCloud, and we’ve given developers the tools to make their apps work with iCloud, too. So you’ll be able to paint a masterpiece, play a game, create reminders, edit stock lists, and more — and have it all stay with you on all your devices.

This API allows for key-value pairs to be stored as well as documents.

The iCloud also backs up settings, including device settings and app data. If your iOS device is stolen, restoring it should be just a matter of reconnecting:

When you set up a new iOS device or need to restore the information on one you already have, iCloud Backup does the heavy lifting. Just connect your device to Wi-Fi and enter your Apple ID and password. Your personal data — along with your purchased music, apps, and books from iTunes — will appear on your device.

This is similar to what Google is promising for the Chromebook; in fact, there are quite a few parallels there.

Email is also synchronised, provided you use Apple’s email account. Users of Microsoft Exchange or similar server-based systems already have the experience of email, appointments and contacts synched across all devices; now iCloud brings this to all Apple users.

There is also special provision for music. In this case you do not actually have to upload the tracks in most cases, since Apple will “scan and match” your collection. This applies to CDs you have ripped as well as iTunes purchases, which strikes me as a big concession from the music industry, since there is actually no way to tell if you ripped your own CD or copied it from a friend. You do have to pay $24.99 annually for this though, so it is a kind of music subscription. However it falls short of Spotify’s play-anything offer, since you have to acquire each track by some separate means first.

Taking each feature individually, there is little new here other than Apple’s deal with the music companies. Taken together though, this is a big deal. Apple iOS devices are no longer tied to an iTunes installation on Mac or PC; they are now cloud devices. If you think as I do that cloud+device is the direction of computing today, this is a key move.

One weak point is collaboration. The iCloud seems to be a private store, whereas with technology like Microsoft SharePoint or Google Apps you can publish documents to selected individuals or to the world.

I expect it is just a matter of time before Apple adds document sharing based on Apple IDs or email identities. Another obvious move would be some sort of web site integration so you can publish certain kinds of data.

Another weak point is system requirements. Some features will require iOS 5 or OS X Lion. However, in the past iOS upgrades have been free so that is unlikely to be a problem; and even an upgrade to Lion will only be $29.00, provided your Mac is compatible – it needs Intel Core 2 Duo or better.

There is also the question of whether you want to store all your critical data on Apple’s servers. In my own encounters with Apple’s online security I have not been impressed. Someone managed to sign up for iTunes using my email address once; I could have had full access to his account and stored credit card details. Apple also uses the notorious “security questions” technique for resetting passwords. It is also not clear whether data in iCloud is encrypted.

That said, as with the iPad versus Microsoft’s Tablet PC, I am struck by how Apple has taken a feature which Microsoft has worked on for years but failed to implement sensibly and consistently. Microsoft had Live Mesh for example back in 2008 complete with an API for synchronising documents across PCs. The API was poor, there was an operating system component which could be problematic to install, and mobile device support never really came. Then in 2010 Microsoft scrapped most it and replaced it with a new Live Mesh based on SkyDrive which is now part of Windows Live Essentials. It is an optional extra for Windows users and aimed at consumers; business users can get some of this using Exchange and SharePoint as mentioned above, though these are usually privately hosted. Everything is an extra, some things free, some things paid for. In the confusion third party services like Dropbox have flourished.

Microsoft will learn from Apple and we will see a nicely integrated cloud story in Windows sometime around 2014, based on past performance.

Full circle at Microsoft: from the early days of .NET to the new Chakra JavaScript engine

A discussion with a friend about the origins of Microsoft’s .NET runtime prompted a little research. How did it come about?

A quick search does not throw up any detailed accounts. Part of the problem is that much of it is internal Microsoft history, confidential at the time.

One strand, mentioned here, is Colusa’s OmniVM:

OmniVM was based on research carried out by Steven Lucco at Carnegie Mellon University. Steven co-founded Colusa Software in February 1994 in Berkeley, California. Omniware was released in August 1995. Colusa started working with Microsoft in February 1996. Microsoft acquired Colusa Software on March 12, 1996. Steven is currently a senior researcher at the Microsoft Bay Area Research Center.

OmniVM was appealing to Microsoft because Colusa had already created Visual Basic and C/C++ development environments for the VM. The VM was also claimed to be capable of running Java.

Microsoft took to calling the VM by the name of CVM, presumably for Colusa Virtual Machine. Or perhaps this is where the code name Cool came into being. Other names used at Microsoft include Universal Virtual Machine (UVM), and Intermediate Language (IL).

Microsoft’s Jason Zander, commenting to a story on this blog, does not mention OmniVM:

The CLR was actually built out of the COM+ team as an incubation starting in late 1996. At first we called it the "Component Object Runtime" or COR. That’s why several of the unmanaged DLL methods and environment variables in the CLR start with the Cor prefix.

Still, the timing pretty much matches. If Lucco came to Microsoft in 1996, he could have been part of an incubation project starting later that year.

In June 1999 Microsoft previewed the Common Executable Format for Windows CE:

A demonstration on Common Executable Format (CEF), a new compiler target within the Visual C++® development system for Windows CE, was also presented. This compiler enables cross-processor portability within a category of devices, such as Palm-size PCs or Handheld PCs. A single program executable under CEF is translated to the native code on either the host PC or the device, as desired. This capability eliminates the need for developers to recompile an application for every possible processor on a given Windows CE-based appliance before bringing it to market, thus enabling them to support every version of a device (Palm-size or Handheld PC) quickly and easily.

In 2000 I interviewed Bob Powell, then at Stingray, who told me this in relation to .NET:

There was an early version of the system for Windows CE called the Common Executable Format (CEF). The Pocket PC, which uses around seven different processor types, and which has many different versions of the operating system, is a deployment nightmare. This problem was addressed by the CEF, which was a test case. What is now in the IL is a more refined version of that.

Hmm, now that Windows is coming to ARM alongside x86, this sounds like it could be useful technology … though despite obvious similarities, I don’t think CEF was really an early version of the CLR. Maybe the teams communicated to some extent.

Now this is interesting and brings the story up to date. Lucco is still at Microsoft and apparently his team built Chakra, the new JavaScript engine introduced in Internet Explorer 9:


Steven E. Lucco is currently the chief architect for the Microsoft Browser Programmability and Tools (BPT) team. BPT builds the Internet Explorer’s Chakra Javascript script engine, as well as the Visual Studio tools for creating scalable, efficient Web client applications.

Right now, these are dark days for .NET, because Microsoft now seems to be positioning HTML and JavaScript as the new universal runtime.

It seems that the man who perhaps began the .NET Runtime is also at the centre of the technology that might overtake it.

Update: this post has prompted some discussion and the consensus so far is that the OmniVM acquisition probably had little to do with the technology that ended up as .NET. The one thing that is beyond doubt is that the COM team created the .NET CLR as Zander reported. I actually spoke to Zander at TechEd recently and we touched on his early days at Microsoft working with Scott Guthrie:

I was actually one of the original CLR developers. When Scott and I first started working together, he invented ASP.NET and my team invented the CLR.

The history is interesting and if the relevant people at Microsoft are willing to talk about it in more detail it is something I would love to write up – so if that is you, please get in touch!

Nintendo bringing dual screen to the Wii with smart controller

Nintendo has announced the Wii U, set for release sometime in 2012. If the unique feature of the original Wii was the motion controller, this new one is characterised by a smart controller that is in effect a mini-console in its own right, complete with 6.2″, 16:9 touch screen, accelerometer and gyroscope. In fact, it sounds a lot like a tablet with game controller buttons.



As for the console, it is not so different from before except that it now includes an IBM Power-based multi-core processor and from what was seen at E3, a substantial advance in graphical power. The original Wii Remote controllers are still supported, as are accessories like the Wii Balance Board.


The console has internal flash memory, but you can attach an external USB hard drive. The disc drive reads a new proprietary high-density format as well as existing Wii titles, with which it is backward-compatible.

Why two screens? Well, it opens up many new possibilities for game play as well as non-gaming uses. At E3 it was shown being used for video chat.


Nintendo spoke of the Wii U having a “strong bond between games, the TV and the internet,” and the new controller could be used for social interaction while the main screen is showing TV or internet content.

Having a second screen also means you have use one for navigation and the other for content, which makes a lot of sense.

I admire Nintendo’s ability to innovate. Now that the other consoles have picked up the idea of motion controllers, Nintendo is branching in a different direction, and this looks like a good upgrade for the Wii.

At the same time, the similarity of the new controller to an Apple iPad or RIM PlayBook or Android tablet gives me pause for thought.

First, it is going to be expensive relative to the original Wii.

Second, what are the possibilities for gaming if Apple put together the iPad and the Mac, or if Microsoft broke with its past and actually integrated Windows 8 on a tablet with the Xbox 360?


Financial Times ports app to web to avoid iTunes

The Financial Times, which is among the few web publications that seems able to make sense of paywalled content, is launching a web application [paywalled article] for mobile devices, specifically to bypass Apple’s iTunes App Store. Here they are side by side.

image image

Rob Grimshaw, managing director of, said the FT had no plans to pull out of any apps store, but that it would encourage users to adopt the web app with a marketing campaign, including a week’s free access.

The issue highlighted in the FT’s own article is analytics. The FT says it wants to "secure a direct relationship with readers." Apple currently does not divulge information about subscribers to publishers.

Another possible factor may be Apple’s insistence that all subscriptions and in-app purchases are offered through its own payment system, ensuring a 30% cut of every transaction. Publishers may also offer subscriptions on their own site, but may not undercut the App Store, nor include links to such offers within the app, as detailed here.

Is the web app as good? Well, A banner encourages the user to pin the app to the home screen so that it behaves more like an app:


Further, the web app makes use of HTML 5 local storage to enable offline reading and prompts the user to increase its local storage space:


With these two features, the web option can be nearly as good as a native app. However, while there are advantages for the FT, there will be little or no intrinsic advantage for subscribers, who like the convenience of purchasing through the App Store, unless the web option is cheaper or better. Perhaps it is: the FT’s Tim Bradshaw says it is “actually faster than native”.

The dark side of Apple’s success with iOS is the company’s control over the platform and tax on all transactions within it. Interesting to see the FT turning back to the open web in an effort to win back a little freedom.

Gang of Four member Erich Gamma joining Microsoft’s Visual Studio team

Microsoft’s Jason Zander has announced

that Erich Gamma will be joining the Visual Studio team as a Microsoft Distinguished Engineer

Gamma is one of the “Gang of Four” who shook up software development back in 1994 with the book Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software.

The other authors are Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson and John Vlissides.

Gamma has previously been associated with Java rather than .NET. He was co-developer with Kent Beck of the JUnit unit test framework, and also worked on the Eclipse tools platform and at IBM Rational on application lifecycle management (ALM).

It is a prestigious hire and I would expect Gamma’s influence on Visual Studio to be a positive one, especially in areas like software quality, refactoring and ALM.

Considering Windows 8 as an HTML platform

Amongst all the fuss about whether Microsoft is deprecating Silverlight or even client-side .NET, it is easy to lose sight of the other angle on this. What are the implications of Microsoft embracing HTML and JavaScript as a new first-class Windows development platform? Here’s the quote again:

Today, we also talked a bit about how developers will build apps for the new system. Windows 8 apps use the power of HTML5, tapping into the native capabilities of Windows using standard JavaScript and HTML to deliver new kinds of experiences. These new Windows 8 apps are full-screen and touch-optimized, and they easily integrate with the capabilities of the new Windows user interface.

When Microsoft introduced IE9 with hardware-accelerated graphics, support for some key parts of HTML 5, and a new fast JavaScript engine, it was not only trying to recover ground in the browser wars. It also had in mind a new application runtime for Windows, for desktop as well as for web applications.

In order to achieve this, we can expect more hooks between the browser engine and the local operating system. There is potential security risk, but Microsoft of all companies will be sensitive to this and I would expect it to get the security right. The further implication is that some parts of a Windows HTML application will be Windows-specific. It is an “Embrace and extend” strategy, as I noted in this Register article back in September last year when former Silverlight product manager Scott Barnes broke the story of how the Windows team at Microsoft was favouring HTML and JavaScript above .NET.

The rationale for this is two-fold. First, I’m guessing that Microsoft thinks it will work better. Although .NET client apps are now commonplace, especially for custom business applications, problems like slow start-up and heavy memory requirements never really went away, though I would argue that in Silverlight they are almost eliminated.

Second, HTML and JavaScript is a universal programming platform. With the new model, any developer who can code a web page can also code a Windows app. Corporate VP Michael Angiulo said at Computex in Taipei:

Windows 8’s new application platform … is based on HTML 5, JavaScript and CSS, the most widely understood programming languages of all time. These languages form the backbone of the web, so that on day 1 when Windows 8 ships hundreds of millions of developers will already know how to build great apps for Windows 8.

These are both compelling arguments. Nevertheless, there are several reasons why making Windows an HTML platform might not be the instant hit that Microsoft will be hoping for. Here are a few:

  • Microsoft’s Visual Studio is .NET oriented. It does have a web design tool, Expression Web, which is OK but still falls short compared to Adobe Dreamweaver. Web designers tend to use Dreamweaver anyway, thanks to Mac compatibility and integration with other Adobe tools. Even Dreamweaver is not great as an application development tool, as opposed to a web design tool. Tooling is a problem, and it is fair to say that whatever goodies Microsoft comes up with in this area will likely be a step back compared to what it already has for C# or C++.
  • Standards are a mixed blessing if you are trying to sell an operating system. If Microsoft does such a good job of standards support that the same apps run with minor tweaks on an iPad and on Android, users may do just that. If Microsoft encumbers the standards with too many proprietary extensions, the universality of the platform is lost.
  • Windows plus HTML and JavaScript sounds a lot like Palm/HP WebOS, which has gained favourable reviews but has yet to take off in terms of sales. Otherwise, Palm would not have been taken over by HP.
  • The question of whether HTML and JavaScript will really take over app development is open. I certainly hear voices saying so. I interviewed Nitobi’s president André Charland, in charge of PhoneGap, and he makes a good case. On the other hand, App development today is still dominated by platform-specific development, Objective C for Apple iOS and Java on Dalvik, the Google Android virtual machine.
  • The standard in HTML/JavaScript app platforms is not Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, but WebKit, as used in iOS and in Google Android and Chrome. Microsoft did great work in standards support in IE9, but so far it has not stopped its browser share decline. Worldwide figures from StatCounter show Internet Explorer in continuing slow decline overall, and Chrome still growing and set to overtake Firefox in a year or so.

In other words, there is little evidence that embracing HTML and JavaScript as an app platform will ensure success for Windows 8.

That said, other factors count for more. Developers will go where their customers are, and if Microsoft turns out a version of Windows that wins substantial market share in the emerging tablet market as well as on traditional notebooks, the new platform will be a hit.

The risk though is that the market will continue to perceive Windows as an OS for desktop and laptop, and look to iOS or Android for mobile and touch devices. The dual personality of Windows 8 may count against it, if it means devices that are compromised by having to support both user interface models.

Microsoft refuses to comment as .NET developers fret about Windows 8

There is a long discussion over on the official Silverlight forum about Microsoft’s Windows 8 demo at D9 and what was said, and not said; and another over on Channel 9, Microsoft’s video-centric community site for developers.

At D9 Microsoft showed that Windows 8 has a dual personality. In one mode it has a touch-centric user interface which is an evolved version of what is on Windows Phone 7. In another mode, just a swipe away, it is the old Windows 7, plus whatever incremental improvements Microsoft may add. Let’s call it the Tiled mode and the Classic mode.

Pretty much everything that runs on Windows today will likely still run on Windows 8, in its Classic mode. However, the Tiled mode has a new development platform based on HTML and JavaScript, exploiting the rich features of HTML 5, and the fast JavaScript engine and hardware acceleration in the latest Internet Explorer.

Although D9 is not a developer event, Microsoft did talk specifically about this aspect. Here is the press release:

Today, we also talked a bit about how developers will build apps for the new system. Windows 8 apps use the power of HTML5, tapping into the native capabilities of Windows using standard JavaScript and HTML to deliver new kinds of experiences. These new Windows 8 apps are full-screen and touch-optimized, and they easily integrate with the capabilities of the new Windows user interface. There’s much more to the platform, capabilities and tools than we showed today.

Program Manager Jensen Harris says in the preview video:

We introduced a new platform based on standard web technologies

Microsoft made no mention of either Silverlight or .NET, even though Silverlight is used as the development platform in Windows Phone 7, from which Windows 8 Tiled mode draws its inspiration.

The fear of .NET developers is that Microsoft’s Windows team now regards not only Silverlight but also .NET on the client as a legacy technology. Everything will still run, but to take full advantage of Tiled mode you will need to use the new HTML and JavaScript model. Here are a couple of sample comments. This:

My biggest fears coming into Windows 8 was that, as a mostly WPF+.NET developer, was that they would shift everything to Silverlight and leave the FULL platform (can you write a Visual Studio in Silverlight? of course not, not designed for that) in the dust. To my utter shock, they did something much, much, much worse.

and this:

We are not Windows developers because we love Windows. We put up with Windows so we can use C#, F# and VS2010. I’ve considered changing the platform many times. What stops me each time is the goodness that keeps coming from devdiv. LINQ, Rx, TPL, async – these are the reasons I’m still on Windows.

Underlying the discussion is that developers have clients, and clients want applications that run on a platform with a future. Currently, Microsoft is promoting HTML and JavaScript as the future for Windows applications, putting every client-side .NET developer at a disadvantage in those pitches.

What is curious is that the developer tools division at Microsoft, part of Server and Tools, has continued to support and promote .NET; and in fact Microsoft is soon to deliver Visual Studio LightSwitch, a new edition of Visual Studio that generates only Silverlight applications. Microsoft is also using Silverlight for a number of its own web user interfaces, such as for Azure, System Center and Windows InTune, as noted here.

Now, I still expect that both Silverlight and native code, possibly with some new XAML-based tool, will be supported for Windows 8 Tiled mode. But Microsoft has not said so; and may remain silent until the Build conference in September according to .NET community manager Pete Brown:

You all saw a very small technology demo of Windows 8, and a brief press release. We’re all being quiet right now because we can’t comment on this. It’s not because we don’t care, aren’t listening, have given up, or are agreeing or disagreeing with you on something. All I can say for now is to please wait until September. If we say more before then, that will be great, but there are no promises (and I’m not aware of any plans) to say more right now. I’m very sorry that there’s nothing else to share at the moment. I know that answer is terrible, but it’s all that we can say right now. Seriously.

While this is clearly not Brown’s fault, this is poor developer communication and PR from Microsoft. The fact that .NET and Silverlight champion Scott Guthrie is moving to Windows Azure is no comfort.

The developer division, and in fact the whole of Server and Tools, has long been a bright spot at Microsoft and among its most consistent performers. The .NET story overall includes some bumps, but as a platform for business applications it has been a remarkable success. The C# language has evolved rapidly and effectively under the guidance of Technical Fellow Anders Hejlsberg. It would be bewildering if Microsoft were to turn its back on .NET, even if only on the client.

In fact, it is bewildering that Microsoft is being so careless with this critical part of its platform, even if this turns out to be more to do with communication than technical factors.

From the outside, it still looks as if Microsoft’s server and tools division is pulling one way, and the Windows team the other. If that is the case, it is destructive, and something CEO Steve Ballmer should address; though I imagine that Steven Sinofsky, the man who steered Windows 7 to launch so successfully, is a hard person to oppose even for the CEO.

Update: Journalist Mary Jo Foley has posted on what she “hears from my contacts” about Jupiter:

Jupiter is a user interface library for Windows and will allow developers to build immersive applications using a XAML-based approach with coming tools from Microsoft. Jupiter will allow users a choice of programming languages, namely, C#, Visual Basic and C++.

Jupiter, presuming her sources are accurate, is the managed code platform for the new Windows shell – “Tiled mode” or “Tailored Apps” or “Modern Shell – MoSH”; though if that is the case, I am not sure whether C++ in this context will compile to managed or unmanaged code. Since Silverlight is already a way to code using XAML, it is also not clear to me whether Jupiter is in effect a new Windows-only version of Silverlight, or yet another approach.

Asus announces combined smartphone and tablet – the Padfone

Asus has announced the Padfone, a combined tablet and smartphone running Google Android. The phone docks inside the tablet, which means you get an internet-connected tablet without having to pay for an additional SIM card and contract. It is a similar concept to Motorola’s Atrix, which combines smartphone and netbook. I like the concept and its efficiency, though I am not sure that this is quite the right approach.




Asus is also having another at at Linux on a netbook. The Eee PC X101 will run MeeGo, the Linux-based operating system which was once a joint Intel-Nokia project, but ditched by Nokia in favour of Windows Phone. MeeGo enables Asus to offer the X101 at a lower price than would be the case with Windows, as well as offering snappier performance; however there will also be a Windows 7 option so I guess the market will decide.

A pivotal moment for Microsoft as it attempts to escape its Windows legacy


Last year I wrote a piece for The Register on 25 years of Windows. I even ran up Windows 1.0 in a DOS box to have a look.

The surprising thing about Windows is not how much has changed in 25 years, but how little. The WIMP model (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer) has stayed the same. Inevitably, Windows was completely rebuilt during that period, in the form of Windows NT, but Microsoft was careful to make the user interface reassuringly familiar. Windows NT 3.1 looked the same as Windows 3.1, but did not crash so often. Windows NT 4.0 used the Windows 95 user interface. Further, as far as possible old applications still ran. In fact, Notepad on Windows 1.0 looks very like Notepad on Windows 7.

Then Apple releases the iPhone in 2007, and suddenly Microsoft has a problem. Apple demonstrates that it is possible to create a touch user interface, without a stylus, that really works. Apple does this by creating a new operating system, iOS, which is incompatible with its existing OS X used for desktops and laptops. Yes, much of the underlying code is the same, but OS X applications do not run. Nobody would expect them to on a phone; but then Apple does the iPad, approaching the screen size of a laptop, but still iOS, touch-centric, and incompatible with Mac OS X.

The advantage of Apple’s clean-room approach is that there are no compromises or fudges to make applications built for keyboard and mouse somehow work. iPhone and iPad are huge hits, and users seemingly do not mind sticking with OS X for their productivity applications like Microsoft Office and Adobe PhotoShop, and using the iPad and iPhone for web browsing and for apps that are more about consuming than creating – except that productivity apps like the iWork suite are now creeping onto iOS, and this together with the web application/cloud computing model may mean that OS X gets used less and iOS more over time; but OS X is not going away.

What about Microsoft? It has a big hit with Windows 7, but suddenly it all feels rather legacy. What about the new computing model which is mobile, touch-centric, and enjoyable to use in a way previously unknown in computing? One thing is sure: Microsoft cannot continue with WIMP. It has to break with 25 years of Windows and find a different user interface model.

2010, and Microsoft does Windows Phone 7. This is Microsoft’s iOS: same old Windows underneath, though based on the cut-down Windows CE, but otherwise a complete break from the past. The user interface is a new touch-centric effort called Metro and based on sliding tiles. The main thread of continuity for developers is its app platform based on Silverlight, which runs .NET code written in C# and Visual Basic.

You might have thought that Microsoft would follow Apple by using the phone OS for other form factors as well, and making Silverlight its core app platform for Windows (the cross-platform dream is long gone).

Instead, Microsoft embarked on a third strategy.

“We introduced a new platform based on standard web technologies”, says program manager Jensen Harris in his preview video. Windows 8 uses elements from the Windows Phone 7 UI, but driven by HTML and JavaScript rather than by Silverlight. Well, maybe you can use Silverlight instead; or maybe native code. Not everything is clear yet; but what Microsoft is choosing to focus on is its use of web technology.

Who will buy touch-centric Windows 8 devices? Microsoft’s problem: there is already a touch-centric OS out in the market, supported by countless third-party apps. As it has discovered with Windows Phone 7, it is not enough to do a decent alternative. So what, says the market, we already have iOS, and if we want something non-Apple, there’s Android. And WebOS. And Blackberry PlayBook.

The one thing Microsoft can do that others cannot is run Windows. Not new Windows, but old Windows. There is a reason why Windows 7 was the fastest-selling operating system of all time – most of the business world runs on Windows.

Therefore Windows 8 does both. There’s the new platform, and there’s the old platform, and you just swipe between them.


Windows 8 is a migration strategy. Is a mobile, touch-centric UI the future of client computing? Quite possibly, but in the meantime you have all this old stuff to run, not least Microsoft Office. Here is the answer: run both.

There are a few problems with this strategy.

First, while Microsoft will focus on the new HTML-based platform, in the real world people will buy Windows to run their existing Windows apps. That means they will need keyboard and mouse. Windows 8 OEMs will be fighting an old battle: how to make devices that run well as tablets, but also have keyboard and trackpad, and a competitive price. We have seen that approach fail with the old Tablet PC line and its swivel screens.

Alternatively, we will see touch-only devices and users will curse as they try to run Excel.

Second problem: Microsoft’s Windows team is focused on the new UI. The old one will likely be pretty much Windows 7. The success of Windows 7 was driven by innovations and improvements that matter whatever you run, rather than ones that you can only use if you are running apps built for the new platform.

A split personality means divided attention, and one or other or both will suffer. Is Windows 7 now frozen in time as the last of its line? That does look possible.

Third, what is the developer story? Hitherto, the Windows developer story has been pretty simple and single-minded. There is native code and the Windows API, or for the last decade or so there has been .NET. All-conquering C# has been the unifying language from desktop to server, with Silverlight bringing it to the browser.

Now Microsoft is saying HTML and JavaScript. Plaudits from the standards folk – who mostly do not run Windows and still will not – but confusion for the Microsoft-platform community.

That said, I will be surprised if Silverlight is not also an option for new-style apps, enabling Windows Phone apps to be ported easily.

Even so, there must be a reason for Microsoft’s emphasis on HTML and JavaScript for local apps as well as web applications. It does feel as if the one common thread to the company’s developer story has suddenly been cut, and for no good reason given that Silverlight fits perfectly with the new UI model.

Let me add, it is hard to see a future for the Windows Phone 7 OS, given what we have seen in Windows 8. It seems plausible that Windows Phone 8+ will use the same code as Windows 8, which is another reason to suppose that Silverlight will be fully supported.

I can see where Microsoft wants to get to. It wants to succeed in mobile and in the new touch-centric world, as the alternative is gradual erosion of its entire market and Windows ecosystem. Is this the best way, and will it work? Open questions; and the company has some tricky positioning to do, especially to its developers. The forthcoming Build conference will be critical.