104. //build It and They Will Come (Hopefully)
“I've never witnessed this much excitement in a Microsoft audience at a keynote before. It's electric.” –Tom Warren, Winrumors
Imagine building a computing platform that powers a generation. Now imagine taking the big step of building the replacement for that platform while the original needs to keep going for another decade or more. This is the story of unveiling the new Windows 8 platform for building modern apps, WinRT, at the first //build conference. The difficulty in telling this story is how everyone knows how the world came to view Windows 8. The developer conference of 2011 was a different story entirely. We still had to work through the big issue within the world of .NET developers and their extreme displeasure with the little we said about the Windows 8 developer story a few months earlier at the preview of the user experience. We had so much to share and were very excited as we made our way to Los Angeles.
Back to 103. The End of Windows Software
The iPad was out there and still had skeptics. Pundits continued to assert that tablets were not good devices for content creation. Techies saw it as a consumer toy for lightweight computing. This same thing had once been said of PCs, right up until they overtook computing. It was said of server PCs, right up until they overtook business workloads and cloud computing.
Steve Jobs, at the 2010 All Things Digital D8 conference, reminded the audience that the iPad was just getting started and added, “I think we’re just scratching the surface on the kind of apps we can build for it. I think one can create a lot of content on the tablet.” By 2011, Apple was demonstrating increasing confidence in the path they had created with iPad. The iPad was already the preferred tool for the road warrior, the boardroom, and the back seat. The iPad and iPhone combined with the developer platform had become the most formidable competition Microsoft ever faced. As much as Android unit volumes concerned the Windows Phone team, there was no ignoring Apple. Some were deeply concerned about the tsunami of small Android tablets. Given what we went through with Netbooks, low quality devices, even in high volumes, concerned me less.
The PC was moribund. The situation in Redmond became increasingly worrisome. This was despite our solid progress on Windows 8 and the interim Windows Phone release, Windows Phone 7.5.
The chicken and egg challenge of platforms is well known. How does a platform gain traction from a standing start? Every platform faces this, but it is unusual for the established world leader to be wrestling with this problem. When I think of how the computer world had literally revolved around every utterance about Windows, it was downright depressing if not scary.
The challenge the company faced was the dramatic loss of developer mindshare. Between web browsers, iPhone/iPad, and then Android, there was no room left for Microsoft. Win32 was legacy, a solid legacy, but a legacy. The latest efforts for Windows Phone seemed to have stalled at best. While there was a rhythm of press releases about app momentum for Windows Phone, the app numbers were tiny relative to Apple and Google and the app quality was low. Phone units were small too, meaning attracting developers was becoming more difficult not less.
Every leadership team meeting provided another opportunity to debate the merits of using financial incentives to lure developers to the platform. And at each meeting I raised the reality of adverse selection that every competitor to Windows had learned over the past two decades. The Xbox team loved to talk about how much they spent on exclusives, but that was a walled garden world of intellectual property. In an open platform, once you’re spending money to win over developers, the least motivated developers show up with the wrong apps creating an awful cycle where paying developers attracts more of the less desirable developers building even more of the wrong apps. But not spending money seems guaranteed to lose if there’s no organic interest. This debate would become front and center with Windows 8 as we faced the same challenge.