November 2011

Volume 26 Number 11

Don't Get Me Started - BUILD: Microsoft's Call to Arms

By David Platt | November 2011

David PlattMicrosoft sure throws a great pep rally. I’ve just returned from the BUILD conference in Anaheim, Calif., in September, where as everyone knows by now, Microsoft rolled out Windows 8 and its touch-based Metro-style interface. I can’t describe all the features in the 700 words I have here, but the buzz, the excitement, and the geeks saying, “Wow, way cool” is something I haven’t seen in the Microsoft world for way too long.

I remember attending the Windows 3.1 rollout conference in Seattle in 1991. Microsoft had planned for 500 attendees, but got 2,000. They had to move the sessions from the hotel to a nearby theater, and they needed a parade permit for us to walk to the hotel for meals. That was the first inkling that this Windows thing actually had some legs. Steve Ballmer introduced such groundbreaking technologies as TrueType fonts and object linking and embedding, shouting “Windows, Windows, Windows!” He had more hair then, and so did I.

It hasn’t been like that lately for Microsoft. The company’s stock price stagnated. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) squelched almost anything interesting. Vista flopped. Windows 7 cleaned up the mess, but induced little excitement. Windows Phone 7 earned some praise, but with its tiny market share the platform lacks the cool factor of working on iPhone or Android.

All that has now changed.

Microsoft has done some amazing research on the usage patterns of touchscreen users—how they hold a device, where their fingers naturally fall, which motions feel best and worst. It’s carefully constructed a touch language so natural that it’s making me annoyed at the Android phone I dearly love. (Press-and-hold for a command menu? Oh, puh-leeze. That’s so 2010.) The company is knowing its users, because it knows it’s not them.

Windows 8 still faces many challenges. No schedule has been announced, so we know it’ll be a while. They’re still thinking of tablets as full-fledged PCs, not big phones, which I disagree with. I don’t yet see the story for the ultra-light, long battery life, limited function set form factor; which is to say, the fabulously successful iPad market. But Microsoft isn’t just copying Apple, imitating. It’s thinking things through from first principles, and coming out with really good stuff.

Steve Ballmer made an unannounced appearance at the end of the second keynote. The guy has had a tough decade. Sometimes it seems as if he’s aged prematurely, like King Théoden of Rohan in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The U.S. DOJ consent decree must’ve been a drain, with its constant oversight “whispering subtle poisons” into his ear, much as the evil counselor Wormtongue did to Théoden.

Wormtongue is gone now, the DOJ supervision having expired in May. Here in front of 5,000 amped up geeks, clutching their Windows 8 tablets and hopped up on Jolt Cola, I saw Ballmer feed on their energy. He stood straighter, held his head higher, as his talk built to its climax. “This is the best time ever to be a software developer,” he said, and for once in my life, I completely agree with him.

In Tolkien’s epic, the wizard Gandalf told Théoden, “Your fingers would remember their old strength better if they grasped a sword hilt,” and I saw it happen. Ballmer grasped Microsoft’s main weapon, its army of developers—an army of which your humble correspondent has created a tiny part, and helped shape a larger one. The lying video may claim he concluded the speech with his trademark chant of “Developers, developers, developers,” but I swear I heard:

Arise now, riders of Théoden!
Dire deeds awake, dark it is eastward
Let horse be bridled, horn be sounded!
Forth Eorlingas!

So now I see a clash of titans: Apple versus Google versus Microsoft. I know whose side I’m on: my own, naturally, same as you are.

I don’t flatter myself that Microsoft took the advice in my June column about avoiding DEC’s mistakes. (Well, OK, maybe I do.) The company has been working on this strategy for several years. But if anyone wondered whether Microsoft would quietly fade into puzzled obscurity, as DEC did, now you know. It is charging out, swords drawn, shields dressed, lances leveled and helmet visors down.

Win or lose, this battle will be glorious.                   

David S. Platt* teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at*