Microsoft Stumps for Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 at Build

Microsoft executives pulled out all the stops at Monday's Build 2012 conference kickoff in an effort to lure developers to Windows 8, Surface RT and Windows Phone 8.

"Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and Microsoft Surface are all now really here," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer during the opening keynote for the premier developer event.

"The opportunity to transform the kinds of devices we build, the kinds of applications that we create, the way we use the cloud has never been better than it is today," he said. "So as we're sitting here reimagining what we do and our industry is rebuilding itself around new classes of devices and services, you, the developers in this room, are at the forefront of seizing that opportunity and being able to make it into something which is absolutely fantastic."

Microsoft rolled out its PC, tablet and mobile platforms only days before. Ballmer spent Oct. 25 in New York at the Windows 8 launch, and Oct. 29 in San Francisco unveiling Windows Phone 8. Despite Hurricane Sandy, which has effectively shut down much of the eastern seaboard, including Microsoft Stores in the region, individual users have purchased 4 million Windows 8 upgrades in the last three days, according to Microsoft. That's in addition to tens of millions of units already sold to corporate customers, Ballmer said. Microsoft has opened 65 Microsoft Stores in the United States, which should help raise awareness among consumers.

Microsoft executives returned to the Redmond, Wash. corporate campus for this week's Build event to encourage thousands of developers on-site and online to build apps for Microsoft's mobile platforms. The conference kickoff marked the launch of the Windows Phone 8 developer platform, which includes the free Windows Phone SDK 8.0, in limited release until now.

Roughly half of the more than 2,000 developers who are attending Build this week have never been to a Microsoft event, according to a company spokeswoman. (The on-site conference sold out in 53 minutes, said Ballmer, who is promising a bigger venue for the event next year.)

'Windows 8 Generation Systems'
During the opening keynote, Ballmer welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate Windows 8, which became widely available on Oct. 26, on a range of Windows 8 systems and devices. He demoed the products himself, and showed off key features of the software on a prototype of an 82-inch Windows 8 slate, which was developed by Perceptive Pixel, a touchscreen manufacturer that Microsoft acquired in July. He also demonstrated Windows 8 on a Dell XPS One, a 27-inch all-in-one PC that's powered by an Intel Core i7 processor.

The tablets on display included the Microsoft Surface RT and the ASUS Vivo Tab RT, which is marketed as a device "for work and for play." Both devices are powered by Nvidia Tegra 3.

A Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2 with a built-in stylus offered developers a look at a touch-based Windows Pro system powered by an Intel Atom processor that will run Windows 8 Store Apps along with conventional Win32 programs. The Thinkpad Tablet 2 is expected to ship next month, according to Ballmer.

The final system Ballmer demonstrated was an Acer Aspire S7-191 notebook powered by an Intel core i5/i7 processor. This lightweight, touch-based Windows 8 notebook from Acer could be optimal as a developer machine, according to Ballmer, who said that Microsoft had successfully installed Visual Studio on it.

Windows 8 offers an opportunity to build apps that personalize the user experience, and work across PC, tablet and mobile platforms. App developers can take advantage of Windows 8 features such as system-wide search and sharing capabilities in context, and user preference roaming, which is enabled by a Microsoft Accounts and SkyDrive infrastructure. Ballmer's wrote annotations in OneNote in Office for RT on the 82-inch Windows 8 Slate, for example, that automatically appeared when the file was viewed on Windows Phone 8.

Steven Guggenheimer, the new corporate vice president of Developer & Platform Evangelism and previously the head of Microsoft's OEM division, talked about the developer opportunity provided by the integration of Windows 8 software, hardware and services.

"The thing about the hardware ecosystem is it doesn't come to life until the software is there," Guggenheimer said. "And the applications you build and what you do really brings the hardware to life -- that's the marriage of hardware and software."

Disney created the first in a series of Windows 8 Store apps by porting an existing Web-based title called "Agent P Strikes Back." The Windows game supports use of a wired Xbox 360 controller via the USB port on Microsoft Surface, and play on a TV screen using the tablet's HDMI connection. Users can also participate in game sharing via Skype.

Microsoft is also working on more ways for Windows 8 developers to monetize their apps. A PayPal Windows 8 API that can be used for in-app purchases will be released in a few weeks, said Guggenheimer.

Raising Windows Phone from a 'Small-Volume Player'
Kevin Gallo, director of program management in the Windows Phone division, said Microsoft has listened to feedback from developers and worked to address 90 percent of the issues and requests in Windows Phone 8. Additionally, as an incentive to build Windows Phone 8 apps, Microsoft is reducing the cost of individual registration for the Windows Phone Dev Center from $99 to $8 for the next 8 days. However, developers still have to pay upfront and then wait for a refund.

"[W]indows Phone today is a small-volume player," Ballmer acknowledged. "But we have the most differentiated approach to the market. We have absolutely killer hardware. There are just going to be a lot of those hundreds of millions of Windows users who really want a Windows Phone. And so I think the opportunity there is also excellent."

Meanwhile, Microsoft is continuing to build out its Windows 8 Store with a range of apps from major players. Michael Bayle, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN Mobile, joined Guggenheimer onstage to offer the first public preview of an ESPN app for Windows 8. The app enables users to personalize their Start Screen and consume a vast array of ESPN content. Developers can use the ESPN API to build apps that consume ESPN content and data.

Twitter, Dropbox, Expedia and SAP have also decided to move forward with Windows 8 Store apps, according to Microsoft. Despite obvious progress, however, consumers who are accustomed to the latest apps for their mobile devices may not be satisfied.

Freebies and Audience Reaction
Developers expect free products at Microsoft events, but the big reveal is still the high point of the keynote for many on-site attendees. People who made it to Build were not disappointed. Microsoft is giving eligible attendees a 32 GB Surface RT tablet with a Touch Cover keyboard, and 100 GB of SkyDrive storage. Conference attendees will also be among the first to get Nokia Lumia 920 devices. Windows Phone 8 devices are expected to become available in Europe later this week, according to Microsoft.

"You've got to make me two promises," Ballmer told the keynote audience when the cheering subsided. "Number one, please go out and write lots of applications. And number two, since you can't pick up [the Surface tablets] until 7:00 tonight, stay seated and don't run and start trying to pick them up now, OK?"

Developer reaction to the Day 1 keynote appeared mixed as the huge crowd funneled out of the keynote tent.

"I would have liked to see more code. I already have Windows 8 and I don't need a sales pitch," commented one attendee. "I'm a believer," said another when he was questioned about the keynote.

"It's all new stuff," someone else observed. "Microsoft has a habit of investing in technology and then just dropping it after 10 years but instead of saying they are dropping it, they just don't put anyone on the team, like XNA...and Windows Phone 7."

Several people were relieved that Microsoft was finally offering an alternative to Apple's iOS products, which may have been worth the wait.