Microsoft Windows 8 demos spur developer worry

While Microsoft embraces HTML5 and JavaScript for Windows 8, developers wonder about Silverlight and .Net

Thanks to two brief demonstrations of Microsoft's next-generation operating system, third-party Microsoft Windows developers are expressing frustration over what they consider a lack of clear direction on how to develop applications for Windows 8.

Their concern centers on a new Web standards-based development platform that Microsoft may be deploying for the Windows 8 live tile touch-based interface. While promoting this platform in various demonstrations last week, the company said little about the role that its other widely used Windows development platforms, Silverlight and .Net, would play in the new operating system, which is widely expected to be released next year.

As a result, many Silverlight and .Net developers fear their skill sets may become legacy ones.

Microsoft officials "have not clarified where .Net fits in the Windows 8 world," said Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC. "I think developers are justified in feeling that there needs to be more clear strategic guidance on this."

Last week, at the Wall Street Journal's D8 conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft's corporate vice president of the Windows experience, demonstrated Windows 8.

She showed how the live tiles, a concept borrowed from Windows Phone 7, would be used in Windows 8 to allow users to easily call up and switch applications. At one point during the demonstration, Larson-Green showed off a weather application built for the new interface. "This application was written in our new development platform, based on HTML5 and JavaScript," she said. "People can write new applications for Windows, using the things they are already doing on the Internet."

That week, the company also released its first Windows 8 introductory video, narrated by Jensen Harris, director of program management for the Windows User Experience. Like Larson-Green, Harris alluded to a "new platform based on standard Web technologies, HTML5 and Javascript."

While Microsoft officials have stated that the new Windows would also support applications written for older icon-driven versions of Windows, some developers have wondered if their desktop applications will still get the same support from Microsoft in the years to come.

As first pointed out by tech journalist Tim Anderson, users on Microsoft's own Silverlight forum posted a large number of entries fretting over the demonstrations. Channel 9, another Microsoft developer forum, saw a similar heated reaction.

One participant wrote that the demos were "potentially terrible news. It almost puts me in a state of shock. My biggest fear coming into Windows 8 ... was that they would shift everything to Silverlight and leave the full platform ... in the dust. To my utter shock, they did something much, much, much worse."

Microsoft said it would reveal more details at the Microsoft Build developer conference, to be held in Anaheim, California, in September. For many developers, however, that date is too far off. "It is doubtful that they can stave off developer anxiety until the Build conference in the fall," Hilwa said.

"It is too soon to draw any conclusions," said Rob Sanfilippo, an analyst with the firm Directions on Microsoft. Thanks to Microsoft's late entry into the growing tablet market, Microsoft is under a lot of pressure to get news about Windows 8 out quickly. As a result, the company may not have had the chance to fully coordinate all the messages it needs to deliver about the new operating system. Such mixed messages have led to a lot of "fear and knee-jerk responses," he said.

Sanfilippo doubts that Microsoft would abandon either .Net or Silverlight, though. The Windows development community is a "huge ecosystem," he said, made up of 600,000 developers. "They won't just orphan code with Windows 8," he said.

"As best I can tell, .Net continues to be a strategic approach to build apps, but clearly for Windows 8, they are also building on HTML5," Hilwa said.

Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Pete Brown, a Microsoft community program manager for the Microsoft Silverlight forum, responded in the forum that, "We're all being quiet right now because we can't comment on this. It's not because we don't care, aren't listening, have given up, or are agreeing or disagreeing with you on something."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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