Every developer attending Build will walk away from this year's conference with a 32GB Microsoft Surface RT tablet, 100GB of SkyDrive storage, and a Nokia Lumia 920 phone. The idea, of course, is to stimulate excitement and energy among developers for creating new apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.
Giving out new hardware to developers is common at developer-centric events like this: Google and RIM have done the same thing at their events. But this is a notable shift for Microsoft, and Ballmer's plea after announcing the Surface giveaway to "please go out and build lots of apps" underscores that the company recognizes it needs to generate enthusiasm in its developer community around making apps.
Contrast that with the mood at last year's Build conference in Anaheim. That's when Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky held their big Windows 8 unveiling, and developers were gaping open-mouthed at the implications of the vast software changes.
This year, Microsoft shifted its attention from simply introducing Windows 8 to focusing on getting developers to create apps for its new platforms across desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone. And this time, we had real, shipping hardware to spark app developers' creativity.
"I think the creativity of your app is not just a function of what we build in [the software] but also of the hardware it sits on," Ballmer told developers.
In the end, one of Ballmer's lines particularly underscored that Microsoft's success rides on more than what the company itself can control. "We need your support. Need your commitment [to building apps]," said Ballmer.
That right there sums up Microsoft's Windows 8 "if you build it they will come" gamble. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 are here. Now all Microsoft--and us consumers--need is for developers to come and build out the ecosystem.