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Build Attendee Reaction: Excitement for New Bing, .NET Developer Tools

Microsoft's annual Build conference drew about 6,000 attendees to San Francisco this week, and an estimated 60,000 caught the keynotes online. The Redmond software maker officially released the preview edition of Windows 8.1 at the show (complete with a resurrected Start button), unveiled new Azure cloud services focused on mobile and Web development, and pitched the Bing search engine as a development platform.

Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer trotted out a truly dizzying array of Windows devices (an "explosion of new devices," he said), including small tablets, that he said were flying off the shelves. ("The small form factor is very important," he said.) He also showed off a new Facebook, Flipbook and NFL apps for 8.1, and beat the drum of "touch, touch, touch." He also pointed out proudly that it has been only eight months since the last Build conference -- evidence, he said, of the new rapid release cadence of Microsoft products. (Not that Windows 8.0 needed a rapid refresh.)

The company also promoted a public preview of Visual Studio 2013 and .NET 4.5.1, which impressed conference attendee Ryan Balsick, manager of a small development group in Nashville-based ICA. Balsick's company is a .NET shop that builds a suite of products that facilitate health information exchange.

"Microsoft always has great developer tools," Balsick said, "but the company's biggest challenge is to get people to use Windows 8. If you're an app developer, like we are, that's critical. It's only if a lot of people are using that platform that we get to start developing applications that take advantage of cool things like touch."

Balsick thought Microsoft's announcement that it was opening up the Bing search engine as an app development platform could prove to be a game changer. Microsoft launched a developer portal this week stocked with a collection of APIs. 

Gurdeep Singh Pall, VP of Microsoft's Bing group, made the Bing pitch during his portion of the keynote. "Bing is a great search tool," he said, "but it's actually very valuable outside of the search box as well. For a long time now, we've thought that you could use these capabilities to create some great experiences."

"Making it possible for developers to tap that and create seamless applications that tie into search: that's huge, too," Balsick said.

Steve Testa, an application developer at Cleveland, Ohio-based Hyland Software, was also impress by the Bing-as-a-dev-platform strategy. "I think it'll be amazing to see what comes out of that in the next year," he said.

Testa's co-worker at Hyland, Chuck Camps, agreed. He also felt that the unified Windows platform vision seemed to be coming together. And he credited Microsoft for its attention to its developer community.

"Microsoft doesn't always get it right," he said. "But one thing they do get right is the developer experience," he said. "They nail it, year after year."

Zack Williamson, an independent contractor from Tampa, Fla., who works mostly with servers and clients, was impressed by the new multiple-monitor support coming in Windows 8.1 and "enhancements to the Start screen experience." He added that he's "all in" when it comes to the new OS.

"I've been pushing for it in my environments," he said, "trying to get people to migrate in that direction. It's the future. It's where we're going, and it's not actually a particularly painful transition."

But it was the Windows Azure integration with Visual Studio 2013 that interested him most as a developer. VS now connects with Azure Mobile Services, allowing developers to synchronize over multiple devices.

"To be able to update and edit your procedures in Azure right from the IDE instead of having to go off into Azure management is going to be a big, big deal for a lot of developers," he said.

One common complaint I found among the attendees I spoke with after the two keynotes was a lack of detailed announcements around Windows Phone. Ballmer spoke briefly about the platform, and showed off a several Windows phones. It was also announced that Sprint will be adding the HTC 8XT and the Samsung ATIV S Neo Windows phones to their device lineups -- good news for Microsoft, which has yet to make much of a dent the cell phone market.

Beau Mersereau, who leads the development team at the law firm of Fish and Richardson, felt that Windows 8 had created a true inflection point that might give a lot of people pause, but not one that would cause his firm to leave the Windows platform.

"We're a law firm and documents are what we do," he said, "so for us, it's about Office. We have a tight integration with Office now and we're going to be rolling out Office 2013 in the fall. We're on Windows 7 and Office 2010, so the question is really, do we stay with Windows 7 or move to Windows 8?"

I also sat down with IDC analyst Al Hilwa (who seems to be everywhere) at the show. He sent me his take on the conference later in an e-mail:

"When you look at the body of changes that is 8.1," he wrote, "you can't help but be startled by what Microsoft has accomplished in 8 months. In addition to the long list of features, the app store re-design and the enterprise integration enablement, I have to add the retail work with Best Buy, the new device sizes, and the fact that [the upgrade] is free. All this could amount to a game changer for this platform. To be sure Microsoft's work is not over, as there is much more alignment between Windows Phone and Xbox ecosystems still to be done, but on both the PC and tablet front, 8.1 looks like a release that will see a significant increase in adoption."

Not surprisingly, I did not hear a single complaint about Microsoft's decision to hand out free Acer Iconia W3 Windows 8 tablets and Microsoft Surface Pros to attendees at this year's show. (Taking a page from Google's playbook, no doubt.)


Posted by John K. Waters on June 28, 2013