Tag Archives: build

Should you go to Microsoft Build?


In the beginning there was the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) – the first was in 1992. They were fantastic events, with deep dives into the innards of Windows and how to develop applications on Microsoft’s platform. Much of the technology presented was in early preview and often did not work quite right; some things that were presented never made it to production, famous examples including “Hailstorm” also known as .NET My Services, and the WinFS file system originally slated for Windows Vista.

These events seemed to be a critical part of Microsoft’s development cycle. Internally teams would ready their latest stuff for a PDC session, which was then adapted and re-presented at other events around the world.

Then PDC kind-of morphed into Microsoft Build, the first of which took place in September 2011. Unlike PDC, Build was specifically focused on Windows, and was originally associated with Windows 8 and its new app platform, WinRT. Part of the vision behind Windows 8 was that it would have a strong app ecosystem and Build was about enthusing and informing developers about the possibilities.

As it turned out, the Windows 8 app ecosystem was a bit of a disaster for various reasons. Microsoft had another go with UWP (Universal Windows Platform) in Windows 10. Build in April 2015 was an amazing event, where the company appeared to be going all-out to make UWP on both desktop and mobile a success. Not only was the platform itself being enhanced, but we also got Project Centennial (deliver desktop applications via the Store), Project Astoria (compile Android apps to UWP) and Project Islandwood (compile iOS code for UWP).

Just a few months later the company made a huge about-turn. CEO Satya Nadella’s Aligning Engineering to Strategy memo signalled the beginning of the end for Windows Phone, and the departure of Stephen Elop and the dismantling of the Nokia devices acquisition. That was the end of the universal part of UWP.

Project Astoria was scrapped. The Windows Bridge for iOS (Project Islandwood) still just about exists, but its core rationale (get iOS apps to Windows Phone) is now irrelevant.

Nadella steered the company instead towards “the intelligent cloud” and to date that strategy has been successful, with impressive growth for Office 365 and Microsoft Azure.

Microsoft has announced Build 2018, in early May, I find it intriguing, given the history of Build, that Windows is not currently mentioned on the event’s home page. In the page description metadata it says:

Microsoft Build 2018, Seattle, WA May 7-9, 2018. Microsoft’s ultimate developer conference focused on cloud, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, and more.

In the main text of the page, about the only specific topics mentioned are these:

Take in keynotes by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and other visionaries behind the Intelligent Cloud and Intelligent Edge

That sounds like a focus on Azure and AI/ML/IoT/Big Data cloud services, and on mobile and IoT devices. It is a long way removed from the original concept of Build as all about Windows and its application platform.

Windows remains important to Microsoft, and to all of us who use it day to day. Still, if you think about cutting-edge software development today, Windows desktop applications are probably not the first thing to come to mind, nor UWP for that matter.

This being the case, it does make sense for the company to focus on its cloud services at Build, and on diverse mobile platforms through what is now an amazing range of cross-platform tools in Visual Studio.

Of course there will in fact also be Windows stuff at Build, including Windows and HoloLens Mixed Reality, Cortana skills and UWP improvements.

Still, if you can only get to one big Microsoft event in the year, Ignite in September is now a bigger deal and closer to the heart of the new (or current) Microsoft.

Let me add that these Microsoft events, whether Build or PDC, have on occasion seen some stunning announcements. Examples include the unveiling of C# and the .NET Framework, the 2003 Longhorn reveal (yes it all turned to dust), Windows 7 in 2008, and Windows 8 in 2011.

I would like to think that the company still has the capacity to surprise and amaze us; but it must be admitted that the current Build pitch is rather unexciting. Google I/O, incidentally, is on at the same time.

Visual Studio Code: an official Microsoft IDE for Mac, Windows, Linux

Microsoft has announced Visual Studio Code, a cross-platform, code-oriented IDE for Windows, Mac and Linux, at its Build developer conference here in San Francisco.


Visual Studio Code is partly based on the open source projects Omnisharp. It supports Intellisense code completion, GIT source code management, and debugging with break points and call stack.

I have been in San Francisco for the last few days and the dominance of the Mac is obvious. Sitting in a cafe in the Mission district I could see 10 Macs and no PCs other than my own Surface Pro. Some folk were coding too.

It follows that if Microsoft wants to make a go of cross-platform C#, and development of ASP.NET MVC web applications beyond the Windows developer community, then tooling for the Mac is important.


Visual Studio Code is free and is available for download here.

The IDE will lack the rich features and templates of the full Visual Studio, but if it is fast and clean, some Visual Studio developers may be keen to give it a try as well.

Microsoft Build Sessions published: Windows Phone XAML and HTML/JS apps, new Azure APIs and more

Developing for Windows Phone is now closer to developing for the Windows 8 runtime, according to information from Microsoft’s Build sessions, just published.

Build is Microsoft’s developer conference which opens tomorrow in San Francisco.


Building a Converged Phone and PC App using HTML and JavaScript states that “An exciting part of Windows Phone 8.1 is that you can now start building applications natively in HTML and JavaScript.”

Other sessions refer to the Common XAML UI Framework, which seems to refer to a shared UI framework for Windows Phone and WIndows 8, but using XAML rather than HTML and JavaScript.

This is in addition to Silverlight, not instead, judging by this session:

We’ve been doing a lot of work with new converged XAML app support on Windows Phone 8.1, but what about legacy Windows Phone Silverlight XAML based apps?  Come learn about all the new features we’ve enabled with Silverlight 8.1.

Microsoft has also come up with new APIs for applications that integrate with its Azure cloud platform and with Office 365. The Authentication library for Azure Active Directory lets you build both Windows and mobile applications that authenticate against Azure Active Directory, used by every Office 365 deployment. There is also talk of using Azure for Connected Devices, meaning “Internet of Things” devices using Azure services.

Some other sessions which caught my eye:

Connected Productivity Apps: building apps for the SharePoint and Office 365 platform.

What’s new in WinJS: the road ahead. XAML vs HTML/JS is a big decision for Windows developers.

Anders Hejlsberg on TypeScript

Automating Azure: “The Azure Management Libraries and Azure PowerShell Cmdlets allow this type of automation by providing convenient client wrappers around the Azure management REST API”

Authentication library for Azure Active Directory: The Active Directory Authentication Library (ADAL)

Panel discussion on desktop development: is there a future for WPF? Maybe some clues here.

Miguel de Icaza gets a session on going mobile with C# and Xamarin. I recall when de Icaza ran sessions on Mono, the open source implementation of the .NET Framework which he initiated shortly after Microsoft announced .NET itself, in nearby hotels at Microsoft events; now he is inside.

Learning from the mistakes of Azure: Mark Russinovich on what can go wrong in the cloud.

Looks like both cloud and apps for Windows Phone/Windows 8 are big themes at Build this year.

What next for Windows as Microsoft announces Build 2014?

Microsoft has announced Build 2014, its premier developer conference for Windows, April 2-4 in San Francisco.


In his blog post on the subject, developer evangelist Steve Guggenheimer mentions the Windows 8 app platform and Xbox One, and promises that Microsoft will talk about “what’s next for Windows, Windows Phone, Windows Azure, Windows Server, Visual Studio and much more.”

How is the buzz around Microsoft right now? Here are a few things that are not so good:

  • The Windows 8 app platform continues to struggle, despite picking up slightly from its dismal launch. Most of the conversation I hear around Windows 8 looks back to Windows 7 rather than forward to the new tablet platform: will the Start menu return?
  • The decline of the PC remains in full flow, while the non-Windows mobile platforms iOS and Android continue to grow
  • Xbox One, with its focus on Kinect and family entertainment, is falling behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 in terms of which console is most desired. Sony’s cheaper price and higher resolution on games like Call of Duty Ghosts make it a better for buy for gamers who can live without Kinect

On the other hand, a few positives:

  • Microsoft’s cloud platforms Office 365 and Windows Azure are growing fast, as far as I can tell
  • Server 2012 R2 is a solid upgrade to an already strong server product, and Hyper-V is making progress versus VMWare in virtualisation
  • Windows Phone 8 is making some progress in market share, though whether it will cross the point at which it becomes important enough for companies with apps to feel they have to support it remains an open question (currently they mostly do not)

What does that mean for Build? We may of course just see more of the same: improvements to Windows 8.x, further convergence with Windows Phone and Xbox platforms, new features for Windows Server and Azure, early previews of the next Visual Studio to support the new stuff.

I wonder though whether we may also see some new directions. Microsoft is supporting Xamarin for cross-platform mobile development and it would not surprise me to see more being made of this, or possibly some new approaches, to promote the use of Microsoft’s cloud services behind apps that run on iOS and Android.

Microsoft still intends for Windows 8/Windows Phone to be a major mobile platform alongside iOS and Android but its progress in reaching that point is slow. The task of building its cloud platform seems to be going better, despite competition from the likes of Amazon and Google, and in this context deep integration with the Windows client could be as much a liability as an advantage.

It may seem perverse; but it could pay Microsoft to focus on improving how well its server offerings (and Office) work with iOS and Android, rather than pushing for Windows everywhere as it has done in the past.

Microsoft Build 2013: Love the platform?

The paradox of Microsoft: record revenue and profits, but yes, Windows 8 has been a disaster so far, and the company has lost developer and consumer mind share.

That might explain why there was no lack of availability for tickets to Build in San Francisco. With a smart PR move, Microsoft “sold out” of a limited first allocation, then made more available, and you could register right up to the day before. Attendance estimates are around 4,500.


The atmosphere was good though, and someone remarked to me that it felt a bit like an early Mix event, Microsoft’s web and design conference back in Silverlight days.

Blue was the colour; and for me Build 2013 was a Windows 8.1 event, though attention was also given to Windows Azure and Windows Phone.

Microsoft has two goals with Windows 8.1.

One is to placate users who essentially want Windows 7.1 and have been wary, confused, or worse, in their reaction to the Windows 8 Modern (or Metro, or Windows Store) user interface.

The other is to establish a new tablet platform, something which has yet to happen despite significant numbers of Windows 8 installations out there since the launch.

There was solid progress on both these fronts at Build, though whether it was enough is of course open to debate. Windows 8.1 is a nicer experience, especially for desktop users, and the user interface feels more elegant and refined than Windows 8.0.

No matter what you may have read elsewhere though, Microsoft is not backtracking. The focus at Build was on the new app platform and its improvements. Developers I spoke to were generally happy with these. “It’s caught up with Silverlight”, one told me.

At Build 2011 and 2012 there was some disappointment among developers, that Microsoft seemed to be pushing HTML and JavaScript above C# and .NET, for its new app platform. There was a perception at Build 2013 that this is no longer the case, though C# architect Anders Hejlsberg spoke on TypeScript (which compiles to JavaScript) rather than C# at his session; and a Microsoft engineer I spoke to denied that there had been any change of direction internally; the official line is that this is developer choice.

In practice, the developer choice tends to be C#, which dominated the session examples, and there was no more gossip about Microsoft abandoning .NET.

Windows seems to be on a one-year refresh cycle now. No date has been announced, but the signs are that Windows 8.1 will follow one year after Windows 8.0, which means RTM (the release build) no later than August and machines on sale in time for the winter season.

Much was already known about Windows 8.1, so were there any surprises? The main one was the evolution of Bing. The key phrase is “Bing as a platform”.

Bing is much more than just a search engine. We’re always a platform company. As we’ve been building this great search experience, we’ve actually been building this rich platform.

said Program Manager David Robinson in this session. Bing services are not just search, but also speech recognition (as seen on Xbox) so that developers can create “natural user interfaces” with voice control, text to speech, and 2D and 3D mapping with driving directions.

The other twist on this is the new search app in Windows 8.1. The way search works in Windows 8.1 has changed quite a bit. Search within an app should no longer rely on the Charms menu, and developers are expected to put a search box into their user interface. Search in the Charms menu is a system search, that integrates local and web results. Thus, if I search for Build, I get the Build apps, local documents mentioning Build, my own photos, web results relating to the building industry, word definitions, and so on. If I search for “Event viewer”, I get the control panel applet, a Wikipedia entry, a couple of Microsoft support articles, and then a general web search with infinite scrolling to the right. If I search for a celebrity, I get a rich multimedia view.


The search engine here is not pluggable; only Bing will work. This is smart strategic thinking, since it is at once a compelling app, an easy way to navigate Windows, and a way of building search share for Bing.

There are some details of search yet to be revealed. In particular, I asked how an app can integrate its own content into an “Everywhere” search, and was told it has yet to be announced (even though Windows 8.0 has a search contract that you would have thought would fit perfectly here).

My own experience of Windows 8.1 is positive, though since I have little difficulty with Windows 8.0 I am not a good test case as to whether it will win over those sticking with Windows 7. The Start button is mostly cosmetic, but I suspect I will find myself right-clicking it frequently to bring up the Win-X menu, now complete with Shutdown option.

Surface RT is greatly improved by the update. There is some performance gain, and the addition of Outlook to the RT desktop makes it twice as useful for businesses using Exchange or Office 365. Windows 8.1 also comes with Internet Explorer 11 with WebGL and some user interface improvements.

Microsoft does feel somewhat diminished these days, thanks to the decline of the PC and its smaller area of dominance, despite its continuing healthy financials. Can the company recover any of that ground? To do so it has to drive adoption of the tablet personality in Windows 8. Microsoft has made a poor start, but it may yet come together.

At a sparsely attended session on The Story of Bringing Nokia Music from Windows Phone to Windows 8 the Nokia Design Principles caught my attention:


The speakers conveyed real enthusiasm for the last of these, “Love the platform”, which is something I have not often encountered in the context of Windows 8.0, especially as the first release felt rough and not-quite-ready from a developer perspective. There is no doubting its potential though, and if Microsoft can win a bit more developer love with the 8.1 release, then we may see growth. 

Microsoft Build: Windows 8.1 for developers, Visual Studio 2013, Xamarin for cross-platform

Microsoft’s Build developer conference is getting under way in San Francisco.


Today Microsoft is expected to announce the public preview of Windows 8.1 together with technical details of what is in the latest Windows update. Sessions include What’s new in the Windows Runtime (the tablet platform in Windows 8), and what’s new in XAML (the interface design language for Windows 8) and WinJS (the interop library for apps written in HTML and JavaScript).

Gartner’s Hype Cycle for new technologies runs from the Peak of Inflated Expectations through the Trough of Disillusionment, eventually settling at the Plateau of Productivity. Inflated expectations for Windows 8 – the iPad killer – expired many months back and we are well down in the trough, with little momentum behind the Windows 8 tablet platform, OEM partners still searching for the right way to package Windows 8 and coming up with unsatisfactory and expensive hybrid creations, and iPad and Android tablets ascendant.

At this point, Microsoft needs to win over its core market, much of which is determined to stick with Windows 7, as well as injecting some life into the tablet side of Windows 8. The platform has promise, but it is fair to say that the launch has been difficult.

The advantage now is that Microsoft is in a period of incremental improvement rather than reimagining Windows, and incremental improvements are easier to pull off. More reports soon.

The schedule also includes news of Visual Studio 2013 and there is likely to be a new preview for this as well. A smoothly integrated development platform across Windows client, Windows Phone, and the Windows Azure cloud, with a dash of XBox One for game developers? Microsoft has all the ingredients but with questions about whether it is able to deliver, as it is currently losing the battle for the client (PC and devices).

One answer for C# developers hedging their bets, or just trying to take advantage of the huge iOS and Android market, is the Xamarin toolset which lets code in C# and .NET and share non-GUI code across all the most popular platforms. Xamarin hosted a large party for Microsoft-platform developers last night in San Francisco. Xamarin’s approach is winning significant support, since it ensures a native GUI on each platform while still sharing a large proportion of your code.  Mono and Xamarin founder Miguel de Icaza was there to evangelise the Xamarin tools.


There was also a giant Jenga-like game. Here’s hoping that neither Xamarin’s nor Microsoft’s development stack looks like this.


Microsoft’s growth areas: Azure, Server with Hyper-V, Office 365, Windows Phone

Microsoft has left slip a few figures in posts from PR VP Frank Shaw and platform evangelist Steve Guggenheimer.

Observers have tended to focus on Windows “Blue” and what is happening with Microsoft’s core client operating system, but what caught my eye was a few figures on progress in other areas.

  • Windows Azure compute usage doubled in six months
  • Windows Azure revenue growing 3X
  • Office 365 paid seats tripled year on year last quarter
  • Server 2012 Datacenter edition licenses grown 80%

A notable feature of these figures is that they are relative, not absolute. Office 365 is a relatively new product, and Windows Azure (from what I can tell, since Microsoft did not release numbers) performed rather badly until its renaissance in early 2011 under Satya Nadella, Scott Guthrie and others – see here for more about this). It is easy to post big multiples if you are starting from a small base.

This is real progress though and my guess is that growth will continue to be strong. I base this not on Microsoft’s PR statements, but on my opinion of Office 365 and Windows Azure, both of which make a lot of sense for Microsoft-platforms organisations migrating to the cloud.

Why the growth in Server 2012 Datacenter? This one is easy. Datacenter comes with unlimited licenses for Windows Server running in Hyper-V virtual machines on that server, so it is the best value if you want to the freedom to run a lot of VMs, especially if some of those VMs are lightly used and you can afford to overcommit the processors (you need a new license for every two physical processors you install).

Here’s another figure that Shaw puts out:

Windows Phone has reached 10 percent market share in a number of countries, and according to IDC’s latest report, has shipped more than Blackberry in 26 markets and more than iPhone in seven.

Spin, of course. This February report from IDC gives Windows Phone just a 2.6% market share in the 4th quarter of 2012. Still, it did grow by 150% year on year, thanks no doubt to Nokia’s entry into the market.

My personal view is that Windows Phone will also continue to grow. I base this on several things:

  • I see more Windows Phones on the high street and in people’s hands, than was the case a year ago.
  • Windows Phone 8 is decent and the user interface is more logical and coherent than Android, which mitigates a lack of apps.
  • Nokia is bringing down the price for Windows Phone devices so they compare well with Android in the mid-market below Apple and the premium Android devices.
  • There is some momentum in Windows Phone apps, more so than for Windows 8. Guggenheimer notes that downloads from the Phone Store now exceed 1 billion.

The context of the above is not so good for Microsoft. It is coming from behind in both cloud and mobile and the interesting question would what kind of market share it is likely to have in a few years time: bigger than today, perhaps, but still small relative to Amazon in cloud and Apple and Android in mobile.

There is also the Windows 8 problem. Many prefer Windows 7, and those who use Windows 8, use it like Windows 7, mostly ignoring the tablet features and new Windows Runtime personality.

How will Microsoft fix that? Along with leaked builds of Windows Blue, Microsoft has announced the next Build conference, which will be in San Francisco June 26-28, 2013 (I am glad this will not be on the Microsoft campus again, since this venue has not worked well). There is a lot to do.


Steve Ballmer shows off Windows 8 in Build keynote

Microsoft’s BUILD conference has kicked off in Redmond with a keynote featuring CEO Steve Ballmer, Developer evangelist Steven Guggenheimer, and Kevin Gallo from the Windows Phone team. There were also a few guest appearances, including Tony Garcia from Unity, a cross-platform games engine.

The company has a lot to talk about, with Windows 8 just launched – four million upgrades sold so far, we were told, which seems to me a middling OK but not great result – and Windows Phone 8 also fully announced for the first time.

The keynote opened with a performance by Jordan Rudess from Dream Theatre, enjoyable and somewhat relevant given that he has helped create two music apps for Windows 8, Morphwiz and Tachyon, which he talked briefly about and played on a Surface RT and Lenovo desktop.


Then Ballmer came on and gave what I can only describe as a hands-on tutorial in how to use Windows 8 apps. I found this odd but it was well received; my conclusion is that many people have not bothered to look closely at Windows 8, or have been put off by the Start menu issue, and much of what Ballmer showed was new to them. It was not to me, so I was not gripped by this section of the keynote.

I preferred the presentation from Steven Guggenheimer; most of what he presented is also covered here, and included the announcement of forthcoming Windows 8 apps from Disney, ESPN and Dropbox. The Dropbox announcement is particularly significant, since I have heard complaints about its absence from Surface RT, which is unable to run the usual desktop client for Dropbox. Another app that is on the way is from Twitter. Guggenheimer also described a new PayPal API for Windows Store apps.

I do wonder why key services like Dropbox and Twitter are only now announcing Windows 8 apps. Windows 8 has been available in preview versions since last year’s Build event, and has not changed that much as a developer platform.

Gallo introduced some of the new features in Windows Phone 8, and claimed that Microsoft has delivered the majority of developer requests in the new Phone SDK which is available from today. He emphasised the possibility of sharing code between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8, using Visual Studio to ensure compatibility.

Garcia presented Unity for Windows Phone, which is potentially a big deal, since it is widely used. The demo of immersive gaming graphics on Windows Phone 8 was impressive.


Finally, Nokia’s Richard Kerris came on, mostly to announce a giveaway of the new 920 Windows Phone 8 device for Build attendees.


This raised a loud cheer as you would expect, though it may be significant that the free phone won an even warmer reception than the earlier announcement of a free Surface RT.

The cost of signing up for a Windows Phone developer account has been reduced to just $8.00 for the next few days; see here for more details.

Did Microsoft do enough in this keynote? Personally I would like to have seen more technical depth, and a more convincing presentation of why the company thinks these new devices have what it takes to take on Apple and Google. Still, this is all about partners, and the arrival of Dropbox and Twitter as Windows 8 apps, and Unity for Windows Phone 8, are all significant events.

Why Microsoft is scrapping the MIX conference

Microsoft is scrapping its MIX conference, according to General Manager Tim O’Brien:

we have decided to merge MIX, our spring web conference for developers and designers, into our next major developer conference, which we will host sometime in the coming year. I know a number of folks were wondering about MIX, given the time of year, so we wanted to make sure there’s no ambiguity, and be very clear… there will be no MIX 2012.

O’Brien says that MIX started in the aftermath of the 2005 PDC because:

there was a lot of discussion around our engagement with the web community, and how we needed a more focused effort around our upcoming plans for Internet Explorer, the roadmap for our web platform, the work we were starting on web standards (we were shipping IE6 at the time), and so on.

That is not quite how I recall it. PDC 2005 was the pre-Vista PDC, no, not the “three pillars of Longhorn” in PDC 2003, but the diluted version of Longhorn that was actually delivered as Windows Vista. One thing Microsoft really did get around this time was that design mattered. Apple had cool design, Adobe had cool design (and a strong grip on the designer community), but Microsoft did not.

Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) was intended to win designers to the Windows platform, with its graphically-rich and multimedia-friendly API. In order to do this, the company needed to win designers over to the idea of using Expression Blend rather than Adobe Flash and Photoshop.

This was doubly true when Microsoft decided to bring WPF to the browser in the form of Silverlight, a decision that was announced at PDC 2005 and expanded on at the first MIX in 2006.

One of the things I recall at the first and second MIX events were groups of bemused Flash designers who had been bussed in by Microsoft to enjoy the lights of Vegas and learn about Blend.

General web authoring was a factor as well, as Microsoft sought to bring Internet Explorer back on track and to persuade web designers of the virtues of Microsoft’s web platform.

I enjoyed the MIX events. They were small enough that you could easily get to speak both to attendees and to the Microsoft folk there, and once you allow for the fact that Vegas is Vegas, the atmosphere was good.

As an attempt to appeal to designers though, MIX was a failure. It was all too forced; many of the people attending were developers anyway; and Microsoft itself included more and more developer content in ensuing MIX events.

The 2010 MIX was hijacked by Windows Phone 7, an interesting topic but drifting far from the original intentions.

It comes as no surprise to hear than MIX is no more. It is associated with WPF and Silverlight, neither of which are now strategic for Microsoft in these days of Windows 8 and the Windows Runtime (WinRT).

That said, Microsoft still has difficulty appealing to designers.

What next then? O’Brien says:

we look ahead to 2012 and beyond, the goal is to ensure that global Microsoft developer events are of the caliber that many of you experienced at BUILD last September, in addition to the thousands of online and local developer events we host around the world to support communities and connect directly with developers. We will share more details of our next developer event later this year.


Reflections on Microsoft BUILD 2011

I’m just back from Microsoft’s BUILD conference at Anaheim in California, which lived up to the hype as a key moment of transition for the company. Some said it was the most significant PDC – yes, it was really the Professional Developers Conference renamed – since 2000, when .NET was introduced; some said the most significant ever.


“Significant” does not necessarily mean successful, and history will judge whether BUILD 2011 was a new dawn or the beginning of the end for Windows. Nevertheless, I have not heard so much cheering and whooping at a Microsoft conference for a while, and although I am no fan of cheering and whooping I recognise that there was genuine enthusiasm there for the new direction that was unveiled.

So what happened? First, let me mention the Windows Server 8 preview, which looks a solid upgrade to Server 2008 with a hugely improved Hyper-V virtualisation and lots of changes in storage, in IIS, networking, in data de-duplication, in modularisation (enabling seamless transition between Server Core and full Server) and in management, with the ascent of PowerShell scripting and recognition that logging onto a GUI on the server itself is poor practice.

The server team are not suffering the same angst as the client team in terms of direction, though the company has some tricky positioning to do with respect to Azure (platform) and Server 8 (infrastructure) cloud computing, and how much Microsoft hosts in its own datacentres and how much it leaves to partners.

What about Windows client? This is the interesting one, and you can almost hear the discussions among Microsoft execs that led them to create the Windows Runtime and Metro-style apps. There is the Apple iPad; there is cloud; there are smartphones; and Windows looks increasingly like a big, ponderous, legacy operating system with its dependence on keyboard and mouse (or stylus), security issues, and role as a fat client when the industry is moving slowly towards a cloud-plus-device model.

At the same time Windows and Office form a legacy that Microsoft cannot abandon, deeply embedded in the business world and the source of most of the company’s profits. The stage is set for slow decline, though if nothing else BUILD demonstrates that Microsoft is aware of this and making its move to escape that fate.

Its answer is a new platform based on the touch-friendly Metro UI derived from Windows Phone 7, and a new high-performance native code runtime, called Windows Runtime or WinRT. Forget Silverlight or WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation); this is a new platform in which .NET is optional, and which is friendly to all of C#, C/C++, and HTML5/JavaScript. That said, WinRT is a locked-down platform which puts safety and lock-in to Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows Store ahead of developer freedom, especially (and I am speculating a little) in the ARM configuration of which we heard little at BUILD.

BUILD attendees were given a high-end Samsung tablet with Windows 8 pre-installed, and in general the Metro-style UI was a delight, responsive and easy to use, and with some fun example apps, though many of the apps that will come as standard were missing and there was evidence of pre-beta roughness and instability in places.

The client strategy seems to me to look like this:

Windows desktop will trundle on, with a few improvements in areas like boot time, client Hyper-V, and the impressive Windows To Go that runs Windows from a bootable and bitlocker-encrypted USB stick leaving no footprint on the PC itself. Many Windows 8 users will spend all their time in the desktop, and I suspect Microsoft will be under pressure to allow users to stick with the old Start menu if they have no desire or need to see the new Metro-style side of Windows..

A new breed of Intel tablets and touch-screen notebooks will make great devices towards the high end of mobile computing. This is something I look forward to taking with me when I need to work on the road: Metro-style apps for when you are squashed in an aeroplane seat, browsing the web or checking a map, but full Windows only a tap away. These will be useful but slightly odd hybrids, and will tend to be expensive, especially as you will want a keyboard and stylus or trackpad for working in desktop Windows. They will not compete effectively with the iPad or Android tablets, being heavier, with shorter battery life, more expensive and less secure. They may compete well with Mac notebooks, depending on how much value Metro adds for business users mainly focused on desktop applications.

Windows on ARM, which will be mainly for Metro-style apps and priced to compete with other media tablets. This is where Microsoft is being vague, but we definitely heard at BUILD that only Metro-style apps will be available from the Windows Store for ARM, and even hints that there may be no way to install desktop apps. I suspect that Microsoft would like to get rid of desktop Windows on ARM, but that it will be too difficult to achieve that in the first iteration. One unknown factor is Office. It is obvious that Microsoft cannot rework full Office for Metro by this time next year; yet offering desktop Office will be uncomfortable and (knowing Microsoft) expensive on a lightweight, Metro-centric ARM device. Equally, not offering Office might be perceived as throwing away a key advantage of Windows.

Either way, Windows on ARM looks like Microsoft’s iPad competitor, safe, cloud-oriented, inexpensive, long battery life, and lots of fun and delightful apps, if developers rush to the platform in the way Microsoft hopes.

There are several risks for Microsoft here. OEM partners may cheapen the user experience with design flaws and low-quality add-ons. Developers may prove reluctant to invest in an unproven new platform. It may be hard to get the price down low enough, bearing in mind Apple’s advantage with enormous volume purchasing of components for iPad.

Still, one clever aspect of Microsoft’s strategy is that everyone with Windows 8 will have Metro, which means there will be a large installed base even if many of those users only really want desktop Windows.

I also wonder if this is an opportunity for Nokia, to use its hardware expertise to deliver excellent devices for Windows on ARM.

Finally, let me mention a few other BUILD highlights. Anders Hejlsberg spoke on C# and VB futures (though I note that there were few VB developers at BUILD) and I was impressed both by the new asynchronous programming support and the forthcoming compiler API which will enable some amazing new capabilities.

I also enjoyed Don Syme’s session on F#, where he focused on programming information rather than mere algorithms, and showed how the language can query internet data sources with IntelliSense and code hints in the IDE, inferred from schemas retrieved dynamically. You really need to watch his session to understand what this means.

In the end this was a great conference, with an abundance of innovation and though-provoking technology. In saying that, I do not mean to understate the challenges this huge company still faces.