iPad's Platform Impact

By many accounts, the Apple iPad has been a disappointment -- even Apple "fanboy" bloggers and tweeters have proclaimed themselves underwhelmed.

By many accounts, the Apple iPad has been a disappointment -- even Apple "fanboy" bloggers and tweeters have proclaimed themselves underwhelmed. Apple has even taken plenty of ribbing for the iPad name itself.

But no matter what happens with the iPad, it will serve to bolster the iPhone as a platform. iPhone apps run unmodified on the iPad, and development of native iPad apps will involve similar or identical skills, tools and APIs as those used for iPhone development. If you weren't already impressed that the iPhone has emerged as an entrenched platform, consider the fact that there are now multiple devices that generally support it.

With the iPhone/Objective C platform becoming more established, .NET, Windows Touch and Silverlight are becoming more marginalized, especially in the consumer space. What should you be doing about it?

A Tale of Two Platforms
.NET developers have two choices: Do nothing, or go to the considerable trouble of learning Objective C and Cocoa, the programming language and development layer Apple offers for the iPhone. Of course, to do the latter you'll need to learn a new language, APIs, SDK and tools. If you prefer to work in C#, you could turn to Novell's MonoTouch and MonoDevelop. As a .NET developer you'll feel more at home, but the technology and tools will still be new, and you'll be working outside both the .NET and iPhone mainstreams. No matter which way you go, certain .NET base class library functionality, pieces of familiar database APIs, SQL Server Compact and a several other .NET creature comforts go bye-bye.

These issues aren't just an inconvenience: They pose significant risk. If this were 2004 or 2005, jumping ship would be relatively easy, but given .NET's maturity after eight years on the market, switching now is a much tougher sell. Learning a new environment like the iPhone/iPad represents a huge investment in time, which would be better spent actually building your app on a .NET-based mobile platform, were it viable.

The fact that many developers would even consider risking a jump to the iPhone/iPad platform is a testament to Microsoft's abysmal failure in the mobile space. But that doesn't lessen the sacrifice. Right now, for mobile development, .NET developers must choose a lesser evil. And, like it or not, the iPad is adding pressure for us to make that choice quickly.

Is our situation completely grim? Actually, a glimmer of hope remains. By the time you read this, Microsoft's next-gen mobile OS will have been announced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, and we'll be weeks away from learning about its developer story at MIX10 in Las Vegas. Before you invest in either the iPhone or Microsoft's new platform, you should wait to learn the full story on each.

The Importance of Partners
Once you're up to speed on the competing dev stories, it's important to look at the devices themselves. Consider that almost every mobile, touch and new form-factor innovation from Microsoft has been based on the PC paradigm: a multifunction device geared toward providing continuity with the Windows UI that was first introduced in 1985.

Apple, on the other hand, delivers highly stylized -- if inflexible -- devices and applications, which run counter to Microsoft's feature-obsessed approach. Microsoft devices are Swiss army knives; Apple devices are more like fine cutlery. The latter perhaps doesn't do as much, but it does certain things very well.

Gadget freaks may beg to differ, but the consumer audience has made it clear that simple elegance is the mark of a good personal-computing device. If Microsoft doesn't catch that wave and work very closely with its OEMs to deliver on it end-to-end, then the dev-friendliness of the .NET platform will be moot. Just as important, Microsoft must work assertively with its wireless carrier partners in the United States to ensure it's not marginalized.

But what if Microsoft delivers a good platform? What if its OEMs deliver a great mobile device, together providing consumer niceties and a rich Office experience with top-notch Exchange integration? Apple and Google will have a real fight on their hands.

Guard your optimism, but root for your team. If Microsoft loses, you'll be a multi-platform developer. But if Redmond wins this fight, then the original single-platform/multiple-environment promise of .NET will remain unbroken. There is much at stake here for .NET developers.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!

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