Thursday, September 22, 2011

“Desktop” could be Win 8’s killer feature with consumers

Crazy? Or just counter intuitive? Give me a moment to explain.

The story everyone tells goes something like this: Microsoft is strongly entrenched on the PC and in the enterprise. But (XBox and Kinect aside) it’s lost touch with the consumer. Lose the consumer and you will lose the enterprise. It’s only a matter of time before iPads displace PCs just as PCs displaced IBM 3270 terminals. Microsoft must respond quickly with consumer-friendly mobile products.

I agree for the most part. And I feel terrific about the Windows 8 preview and tablet that Microsoft unveiled at //build/. Microsoft definitely got some of its mojo back. I’m not just on a “sugar high” as some would have it. Windows 8 is a giant step in the right direction. Regular folks really do like that Metro look. The “developers’ preview” is obviously not as polished as the iPad but there is time before release to perfect the fit and finish.

Unfortunately, it won’t be released until December 2012 (give or take). Fifteen months! In a few weeks, after we’ve sobered up, that’s going to feel like forever. Sure, when the grand day finally arrives, we’ll be cheering for the underdog, the version 1.0 Win 8 newbie against the heavyweight 3.0 iPad market leader.

Hmmm. Should we be worried about a replay of the Windows Phone adoption debacle?

Lessons from Windows Phone 7

There is nothing seriously wrong with the Windows Phone itself. It’s a joy to use, in some respects superior to the iPhone and in no material respects is it worse. It’s where Metro was born … the same Metro that’s going to wow the tablet market in 2012. Critics loved it … as they love the Windows 8 preview.

We can’t fault Microsoft for losing sight of the consumer. The Windows Phone is totally consumer-focused; two years in and we still lack an enterprise story. To make sure we get the point and avoid all possible confusion, Microsoft killed off WP7’s enterprisey predecessor.

How is that working out? Microsoft’s share of the phone market has declined steadily and is headed for 1%. Great phone, unwavering consumer focus, pitiful results.

But wait,” they say, “it will all get better with Mango!” Really? Mango is indeed a huge technical improvement. But I don’t understand why that will make a difference in the marketplace. It is not sufficiently different from the iPhone. Seriously, what will I be able to do with a Mango phone that I can’t do with the iPhone? I’m sure you have a list; will anything on that list be enough to change consumer behavior? Will any of it change the foot-dragging behavior of the sales channel? I don’t get it.

Look, I completely buy the consumer friendliness bit. The traditional desktop experience doesn’t fly on the phone and it won’t fly on the tablet. The way we write business apps today is totally alienating. So I’m down with the design vision: “Metro good, touch good, square windows bad, icon overload bad, mouse-and-keyboard bad.”

The Metro-ish design changes are absolutely necessary … but they aren’t sufficient … because the iPad (like the iPhone) has a commanding lead in these respects.

Windows 8 can be super great … and still bomb at the box office. “Great” isn’t good enough. If it were, Apple might have displaced Microsoft on the desktop long ago. The Mac was always prettier and easier to use. Didn’t matter; share never broke 10%. Twenty years and the Mac couldn’t knock Microsoft out of the ring. It was Microsoft’s ring.

If “great design” isn’t good enough, what is good enough? What does Microsoft have that Apple lacks? What would make someone choose a Microsoft tablet over an iPad tablet … maybe even put down the iPad and take up a Win 8 device.

Enterprise software

I argue that consumers – not all, but millions of them – would put down their iPads and buy Windows 8 tablets if they had the ability … nay, the ease … of running their existing enterprise applications on that same fun tablet.

We consumers aren’t just sitting around watching the Price is Right while stuffing Twinkies into our mouths. Most of us have jobs. Many of us use computers on the job. And while we may season our days with guilty pleasures (“hello, Twitter”), we occasionally get work done.

News flash: people take their work home! Americans especially. The work we take home is often written for and running on a Microsoft Windows machine.

Why does Microsoft appear to be running away from this obvious fact? Microsoft could … and should make work life – the life bound up in Microsoft-based business applications – a high-profile component of the Win 8 marketing plan.

Unfortunately, conventional wisdom says they shouldn’t do that. Conventional wisdom says that mobile devices must cater exclusively to an infantilized consumer.  Little baby consumer want pretty applications that are fast and fluid. Little baby consumer want an RSS reader with big pictures … like this one straight from the Jensen Harris Metro-style keynote:


Say what? Geez, who doesn’t need a little pizzaz in his life but call me different: my RSS reader is for reading. Jensen, dude, you’re showing me eight pointless photographs when I want a list of twenty titles and abstracts … you know, something I can use.

But I digress …

Where did we get this limiting caricature of the consumer? I think we bought it from Apple.

Where did Apple get it? Market research? I don’t believe it. I believe Apple made it up. It’s too convenient.

Apple has no enterprise play. They couldn’t promote enterprise applications on the iPad because they have no enterprise applications to promote. So they follow the Apple playbook: if we can’t do it, you shouldn’t want to do it. They pretend that mobile is some kind of other worldly, purely personal experience where work does not belong.

The sad thing is that Microsoft is falling for it. They fell for it with the phone. They’re poised to fall for it again on the tablet. By slavishly chanting Apple’s mantra, Microsoft effectively disarms itself.

Let me be crystal clear.  The tablet is not a PC. Mobile is not the office. Traditional business application UX is tired, clumsy, and unfriendly; todays business apps are as ill-suited for work as they are for play. WIndows 8 Metro is cool beans and a necessary way forward.

But its not all about fun and games. Apple owns that market anyway. Microsoft must wrest it away from them. Microsoft can’t win with great design. It can’t win share with advertising.

Let me channel today’s consumer for you. I …. don’t … care! Microsoft, I think you’re irrelevant. You’re going to have to rip that iPad out of my hands and compel me to use Windows 8.

Convince me, Microsoft, that I can play while I work on that one hot device that covers both my personal life and my job life. Convince my boss that the Windows 8 tablet is both a match for the iPad and a productivity platform for enterprise applications … at no additional cost.

Perfect execution of the perfect Windows 8 design won’t move the needle in 2013. By then it will be “me too, too late”. 

But enterprise software is the differentiator that Apple can’t match. Exploit that. Don’t let Apple fake you out. Leverage your strength. The enterprise angle must be a strategic element of your consumer play.

That’s why I think the Windows 8 “Desktop” stack is the killer feature in Windows 8. Ignore the voices that tell you otherwise. Is “Desktop” too confusing to some consumers? Work on making it less confusing. Don’t kill it; invigorate it.

Energize your enterprise developers – hundreds of thousands strong – who want to Metro-ize their business apps. Stop telling them what they can’t do in Metro. Inspire them to build great Metro business apps. Get moving on the roadmap for the enterprise store; get a proto-type out there. Reassure your corporate customers and developers that you mean business by investing meaningfully in the evolution and marketing of the mature technologies they use today. Praise Silverlight 5 and get hopping on Silverlight 6. We aren’t writing business applications in HTML and JavaScript today. We’re not going to have production ready HTML/JS apps in 2012. That’s just jerking us around. If you really don’t think Metro is the answer for all desktop application needs, then paint us a Windows future that is an answer and build us a bridge from here to there.

I realize I’m proposing an “and” strategy – consumer apps and business apps - not an “or” strategy. “And” strategies are dangerous because they tend to defocus. You have limited resources to be sure. But you can’t just go to market with a carbon copy of Apple’s strategy. They’ll kill you like they’re killing you on the phone. How many billions will you spend for a few points of share? Redirect a fraction of those billions to make enterprise software a first class, integrated pillar of your tablet … on day one. That’s a damn cheap hedge against a repeat of the Windows Phone launch if you ask me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Metro Business Apps

At //build/ we learned that Metro is for content-centric “immersive” apps and Desktop is for data-centric “enterprise” apps. Jensen Harris said it in his 8 traits of great Metro style apps. Joe Stegman repeated it in his talk, Metro style apps using XAML: what you need to know. That’s the Microsoft party line and outsiders have been repeating it.

Don’t believe it. The real world doesn’t honor marketing boundaries. Expect to see data-centric applications appear on Win 8 almost from the moment of release.

Why am I so sure? Because the same divide has been crossed elsewhere. You’ll find business applications on the iPad today. Is the iPad any friendlier to enterprise apps than Metro? Tell me how … because I don’t see it. I don’t see any way to keep business applications out of Metro.

They tell us “Metro is optimized for immersive content-centric apps”. Well Viagra was optimized to treat hypertension. What’s your point? What is more “immersive” than a business application that fills the users screen for hours at a time?

I had lunch today with one of our long-time customers. They showed me their iPad port of their DevForce-based Windows Forms desktop application. It’s almost a complete port and they don’t foresee any barrier to finishing the job.

It looks remarkably like a typical Windows Forms app: the same gray background, same simple icons, same grids and forms over data, same tabbed interface. They made adjustments of course to accommodate touch and asynchronous server communications. There was no attempt to fancy it up; it doesn’t pretend to be a typical consumer facing iPad app.

Customer acceptance has been fantastic … because it does the job in a familiar way. We could talk about UX design all day and it wouldn’t change a thing. The UX app is exactly what users expect. And not just existing customers; the iPad version appears to be driving new sales.

What could keep them – or anyone – from porting to Metro WinRT? Three obstacles come to mind.

  1. Must deploy with the Windows Store
  2. Metro app certification
  3. Paucity of data-centric features

Our customer could leap these hurdles effortlessly.

Windows store deployment

I’m mildly concerned that there is no substantive enterprise deployment story. Ted Dworkin mentions it once in his talk, Introducing the Windows Store, before returning to the talk’s thesis:

We have an enterprise story that supports their unique needs … but fundamentally the Windows store is the only place that Metro-style apps can be acquired. (11:20)

I can hardly wait for that “enterprise story”. Big companies simply will not deploy their apps through a Microsoft store. I hope that Microsoft talks sensibly about an acceptable alternative – probably in the form of an enterprise store – within the next six months. I’ll take up this subject in a later post.

However, smaller companies may not be inhibited by the lack of private store. Our customer delivers its iPad client as a free app via the Apple store. Anyone could download it … but only their customers actually would. You can’t do anything with it unless you’ve first deployed the companion backend server; you acquire the server and pay for that server separately.

Metro app certification

Apple’s iOS interface guidelines run over 100 pages. Yet our customer passed Apple’s certification with a Windows Forms UI. Would it pass Win 8 Metro App certification?

It wouldn’t pass the Windows Phone certification which dictates fine points of UI style such as application navigation. We don’t have a software certification guide for Metro apps. But we have some clues sprinkled among the //build/ talks and we have the example of applications shipped in the preview.

My reading is that the Metro specs would not adversely constrain a business application experience – even if the application looked like a Windows Forms MDI application. I saw rules about screen and image resolutions requirements. I didn’t seen anything that dictated how I use the back button. I can’t have a child window; I can overlay the screen with some something that achieves a modal dialog effect. The keynote on Day 1 demonstrated conversion of Scott Guthrie’s Silverlight business app. I look at the Metro version of Internet Explorer and I know I can write a conforming business application.

Missing data-centric features

The Metro preview and sample applications emphasize content consumption. There are essential input controls such as textboxes, radio buttons, list boxes. But they appear to have forgotten about data grids.

if you follow this space, you remember that I dislike data grids; I think they’re a design cop out. That’s my opinion, shared by a tiny minority; the rest of you want your data grid … and you should have.

The Validation attributes in System.ComponentModel.DataAnnotations are missing as are related interfaces such as IDataErrorInfo and INotifyDataErrorInfo. Apparently, in it’s wisdom, Microsoft thinks that client-side validation of input is unnecessary even for consumer apps. I hope they reconsider before release but we’ve survived without them before and can do so again.

Why would you want to build a Metro Business App?

Metro apps will only run on Windows 8 (and later … if you’re the optimistic sort). I’m guessing Windows 8 won’t release until this summer of 2012. Most companies have not yet or have only recently adopted Windows 7; optimistically, a significant number get to Windows 8 late 2013. Most of us don’t write software today for first deployment in 2013.

The Windows 8 tablet is the wild card. If it has the hoped for reception in 2012 it could be a factor in driving Win 8 into the corporation … not as a replacement for existing desktops but as the viral alternative to the Apple iPad. We can dream, right?

If the Win 8 tablet is a hit, you’ll want to be on it … and not just in the blue “Desktop” stack. Some reasons:

  • ARM tablets, with their better battery life, could dominate. Metro apps will run on ARM. Desktop? They will probably only run on power hungry Intel tablets.
  • High performance Metro XAML in native code with GPU acceleration; Desktop XAML is managed code with more limited GPU support.
  • Ready-to-wear Metro Visual Studio templates.
  • Superior touch support and easier access to tablet hardware.
  • Win 8 “contracts” for integration with other Metro apps and cloud services
  • Better cloud integration facilitating “continuous applications” that move application state across devices as the user switches from phone to tablet to desktop.
  • Ride the software platform that Microsoft is promoting and evolving.
  • The “Hotness” factor … don’t discount it!

Those are big draws. Why should I toe the “Desktop for LOB” Microsoft line when I can sneak into Metro and party with the cool kids?

Get ready for Metro

Whoa, cowboy. This is the time to pay attention to Metro … and little more. Right now I wouldn’t take my business application beyond exploratory stage in Metro or WinRT.

How would I build production applications? I’d write them in Silverlight until the fog clears. I’d write with a Metro mindset. I’d isolate anything in Silverlight that isn’t in Metro – hide it behind a service interface - so I’d be prepared to swap out the implementation later.

See Brian Noyes high-level discussion of what this entails in his post, “Silverlight Developers have the smoothest road to metro.

If I could I’d design all new screens to follow the Metro style guidelines. The Windows Phone 7 Metro style was crossing over to Silverlight design before Build; Win 8 should accelerate that trend.

If Metro is as successful in the consumer space as we hope, business applications will be written as Metro apps.

Fortuitously, I noticed that Rocky Lhotka agrees as he explains in "WinRT and business apps”.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The BUILD Report #1: Sinofsky keynote


Here’s my unedited feed/stream-of-consciousness from the cheap seats in the arena where Steven Sinofsky is giving his Win8 Keynote.

Build Keynote from cheap seats

Sinovsky opens touting WIn 7 and IE 9 market success to date.

Claims touch is so compelling that once you have it on your screen you’ll want on all screens; not my experience in the last year … and that’s not because it doesn’t work. Don’t like leaving the keyboard. As the demos proceed, I start to wonder if I’m going to have to use touch to use Win8. See below

Emphasizes that no matter how new Win8 is, everything running on Win7 will run on it. Reiterated throughout the keynote. That’s important to business which must migrate more slowly and a strong contrast with Apple. Means you can be sure the .NET apps you write today will have a good run on the next h/w and OS.

Win8 memory footprint and CPU efficiency improves on Win 7 … by a lot. That’s encouraging again for companies with tight capital budgeting.

Julie Larson-Green demos. Nice “picture password” = gesture login. No password … just gestures. Sweet. Audience applauds. Twitterverse agrees. Business should like too.

The demo is all touch. It’s a little balky but that’s not what concerns me. I’m not sure I want to interact this way. Great for casual user (consumer) but, when you live on a computer, do you want to touch? Maybe I’m freaking out prematurely. It’s not that much different from using a mouse. They recognize my anxiety and reassure us that keyboard and mouse are there for everything. Later, S “I’m a keyboard person” reiterates and demos later (although he does mouse in his demo).

The “chrome-free” browser gag went over well. But it really IS nice that the IE browser has no chrome. Very metro … and the cleanliness works (despite the onstage demo struggles).

The “fast and fluid” principle is more than fluff. It’s a design principle that makes a genuine difference in comfort. Shown effectively in Julie’s demo.

“How to build”

S: “You pick the language/platform you want to use”. Windows Runtime (WinRT) with client tech (HTML, C++, C#/VB) riding above without privileging any one of them. S. reiterates this point several times throughout, trying to drive that home.

The first development demo starts with JavaScript templates in VS. That might make a XAML worrier nervous. But I’m convinced that S means it and that XAML is first class. The port of the Silverlight 2 demo was effective (note to self: what am I to make of a port of Silverlight TWO). This is a big deal to “my people” so I’ll be talking more about that for sure.

Metro is the privileged design language … which is a good thing for business app devs as I’ve said elsewhere before.


“Windows” javascript api grants access to the OS somehow, as in “Windows.Storage.Pickers.FileOpen …”

Big cheers for Blend as an HTML/JS tool. Expected, sure, but it’s still important. The layout ease, the Metro-built-in is nice and productive. Some noise about how this isn’t new in the world. So what. The issues isn’t whether it breaks ground but whether it delivers on the productivity promise. Looks like it will.

The write-build-show cycle is crisp.

Windows App Store: Store menu in Visual Studio. Built-in licensing model includes trials (but can put your own in). That shows seriousness. They will have a certification process. What about bureaucracy (we know how ugly that is in WP7)? They hope they can allay with (a) a process queue and (b) automated compliance checking tools [big applause for that one]. Now making it easier to find s/w in categories (a problem in today’s WP7 marketplace).

The Win App Store is written in HTML/JS. They ballyhooed as a vote-of-confidence in that app technology. Is there a reason it should be HTML/JS? It could only host apps for Windows platform so no x-plat justification. Could have been … should have been? … in Silverlight.

So what about deployment of LOB apps in the metro/immersive app environment.

XAML segment

Sinofsky cheer leads. That’s important to dispelling the belief/suspicion that S hates .NET.

Nice job of taking an old SL2 Gu app and migrating to Win8 w/o changing the app itself.

Then metro-izes by swapping one XAML control for a new Win8 grid control + 2 lines of code-behind + manifest tweak to make it searchable in Win8 => looks metro. Nice. Search and runnable from the dekstop.

This deployment is to the NEW Win8 look. In the prior Win8 show, they created fear that would only run in the old Win7 shell. This time, not seeing an old shell. Only showing one shell. AND XAML apps run in it. I couldn’t see any distinction between HTML and XAML app in the shell.

Another tweak and it runs in the phone. Very nice. Ok, demo alert, right? It won’t be that easy in reality. That doesn’t diminish the direction; they are putting their back into making XAML apps metro and their deployment easy with tooling.

S emphasizes again that Win8 is supportive of your technology choice.

The sensor fusion stuff could get you thinking about how tilting the tablet could be used in a bus app UX. It’s easy enough to justify exploring it and using it without fear that you’ve saddled the non-geek dev with incomprehensible, maintenance problem. NFC (near field communication) support makes it easier to write apps that interact with the physical world. POS and field inspection apps come to mind.

Renovated OS tools

Control Panel, Task Manager, PC Reset … just plain nice for developers. Hyper-V in the Windows client.ISO mounting built-in.

“Ease of Access” support could matter to those of you who have regulatory requirements affecting your app’s UX.

Ink / Touch disambiguation revives pen and the accuracy that comes with it. Take that, Steven Jobs.

Windows Live is the backbone of the roaming features with which you propagate settings across devices.

Cloud Integration

Chris Jones talking about Cloud Services. The mail client is HTML/JS … as it should be as it must be x-plat. The app metro design is straight out of WP7 mail app. It certainly is responsive. But have to say that some of the views are clunky.

The WP7 hub paradigm is now on Windows Live. People, Photos, Mail. The hub paradigm works; this is a great move.

“Every Win8 user has a SkyDrive”. Of course that is great for consumers. But this could be a terrific guarantee for bus. app developers too … assuming that business allows that kind of personalization in the app. When you know that SkyDrive is there, the integration is there, and it’s easy to reach … you can consider making that integral to the app w/o worrying if the user is configured for it … because she always is.

I don’t think it’s Drop Box (no auto synchronization), but its great ‘cause it’s in there. Now what about security? I haven’t been that careful with my Live password. Time to get serious. Would need to work on that if I was building Windows Live into my application assumptions.

Not available today? The APIs are there today but we’ll have to wait a little for the releases in the cloud … and that’s ok.

The Big Giveaway

Hard to deny the enthusiasm for the Samsung tablet – an Opra moment.

The Mom Factor

Dan Wahlin told me (I paraphrase) “My mom would love Windows 8 – she would get it – and that’s important to the Microsoft business application developer. The Microsoft platform has to succeed broadly; if the consumer deserts Microsoft, so … ultimately … would business apps.”

I agree strongly.

Release Schedule

The “Preview” looks impressive… for a preview. S says “No release date because driven by quality, not the date”. Sure … but I get the feeling it won’t be far off. They’re going wide tonight (8 pm PST) at No activation. That’s a strong statement because you know how many people are going to write apps on that preview in volume.

The BUILD Report: get it while it’s hot

The Microsoft BUILD conference starts tomorrow. My IdeaBlade buddies will be there. I will be there. In a flurry of small posts over the next four days I’ll be reporting on what’s being said officially and unofficially, on stage and in the hallways. I’ll give you immediate reactions and instant analysis from the perspective of the business application developer.

I’ll be interviewing many fascinating folks and passing along their insights …I hope with attribution.

Clearly I can’t cover everything. And “instant analysis” is … well it’s instant. Enough said?

When I get back, catch my breath, and have time to reflect, I’ll try to make sense of it all.

Meanwhile,  ride with me, send in your comments and questions, and enjoy.

Posts in this series:

The BUILD Report #1: Sinofsky keynote