Beyond The Desktop
Let’s look beyond the classic desktop-server world of Windows and consider Microsoft’s efforts to rally developers around its mobile technologies, rich Internet applications, and cloud computing platform. The Windows Phone Marketplace is a huge step forward in Microsoft’s support for the Windows Mobile ecosystem.
This is one area where Microsoft is far behind the competition, which many consider inexcusable given how long its mobile technologies have been in the market. As for limitations, application development is limited to Microsoft’s XNA or Silverlight 4 frameworks, while the development API still doesn’t provide access to all of the phone’s capabilities, such as Sockets.
To help drive its ecosystem in the face of stiff competition from Google, Apple, and RIM, Microsoft has made some of the development tools free, such as the integration of Expression Blend with Visual Studio 2010 Express. Developers can use the resulting toolset to design Windows Phone-friendly user interfaces, along with the code that makes them functional, that can be deployed as Windows Presentation Foundation or Silverlight applications.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month that there were 22,000 registered Windows Phone 7 developers, about 5,500 third-party applications, and around 100 new applications being launched each day. In terms of usage, customers are downloading a new Windows Phone 7 application each day, on average.
The door is open for third parties to create widgets, libraries, and data integration tools that make the environment even more powerful. And since Microsoft has made its portion of the tool chain free, it’s certain to get it into the hands of developers more quickly; this presents greater market opportunities for tool vendors.
Increasing this opportunity is the fact that Silverlight isn’t a platform-specific technology. In fact, it’s not even Windows specific. The Silverlight runtime, along with browser plug-ins, exist for Apple Mac OS X, Linux, and the Symbian mobile OS, in addition to Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Phone platforms. And since browser support includes Google’s Chrome OS, Silverlight should run on Google’s Linux-and-Chrome-based Chrome OS.
As a result, a heterogeneous third-party tools and developer ecosystem is popping up around Silverlight. Microsoft is embracing the fact that this ecosystem, for the first time, will extend beyond Windows and include tools and libraries for rival platforms, as well.
However, much like Apple’s iOS developer IDE, Xcode, runs only on Mac OS X, Microsoft’s revenue may be tied largely to the success of its Visual Studio line, which runs only on Windows.
In terms of cloud development, vendors such as Alpha Software, with its Alpha Five platform, are taking advantage of Microsoft’s relative openness for integration with tools and software from other vendors. Although not purely a tools play, the openness that Microsoft is supporting opens the door to the heterogeneous deployments that other vendors have been proclaiming for years. The bet is that this strategy will overcome the “one-stop-shop” approach of companies like Oracle and IBM. Both strategies have advantages for customers — one-stop typically offers better integration, deployment, and support, while a heterogeneous approach avoids lock-in — yet the single vendor approach offers clear advantages to the vendor selling the integrated solution. It’s yet to be seen how the open, heterogeneous strategy can be made into an advantage financially.
The market for tablet and slate devices is growing. In fact, it’s growing at the expense of netbooks and notebook class computers, which has the potential to further erode Windows’ market share. For the past two years, a bevy of tablet computers has been demonstrated at CES, some of which run Windows.
Unfortunately, Windows Tablet edition hasn’t progressed much since 2002, when Microsoft experimented with pen computing. Today’s Windows-based tablets are little more than the desktop version of Windows made to run on a touchscreen device, resulting in a less than optimal user experience.
However, Microsoft has introduced touch capabilities in all editions of Windows 7. The features included are based on the gestures API and touch UI enhancements introduced with Microsoft Surface, which are directly available to third-party developers, but is this enough?
Now if only Microsoft would tailor its Windows Phone platform for tablets, as opposed to shoehorning desktop Windows into these devices, it would potentially expand its ecosystem well beyond what it is today, as its tools and strategy would better address all markets — desktop, Web, cloud computing, netbooks, smartphones, and tablets. Time will tell if there’s any chance of that happening.
The opportunity is there for third-party vendors to find niches associated with Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, Silverlight RIA approach, and Windows Phone technologies. Microsoft has a track record of profiting from a thriving third-party ecosystem, and if anyone can find a way to achieve ROI from a heterogeneous platforms approach, Microsoft has the most potential. The road won’t be easy — after all, this strategy didn’t work out well for Sun Microsystems. But one thing is clear: The opportunities for third-party vendors around Windows-based technology are greater than ever.