In a keynote speech at his company’s Build 2013 developer conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled Windows 8.1 and discussed transformations at the software giant that will place a greater emphasis on providing a compelling application experience. While Windows 8 is nearing 100,000 apps in its ecosystem, it still trails Apple iOS’s and Google Android’s tallies of millions of apps. With new changes to the operating system, however, a more user-friendly experience and some unique features could invite additional development interest.
“The future of Windows is very, very bright,” Ballmer said. “The opportunity as an application developer to use Windows to build next generation mobile connected experiences has never been better than it is today.”
A wide range of new offerings and improvements is being made available to developers, and more information will be released during the conference’s approximately 100 sessions. However, developers can now access features in a new version of Visual Studio 2013 that include the ability to measure power, help with asynchronous debugging of code and send notifications via Windows Azure. The pace of updates to Visual Studio 2013 and the entire Microsoft product line is expected to increase as well. The introduction of tiled resources will help provide a more detailed graphics experience.
Updates in Windows 8.1
Almost all the apps in Windows 8.1 have been updated to take advantage of new features in the operating system, according to Julie Larson-Green, head of Microsoft’s Windows division. The operating system itself has been modified to improve the blend between the Start page and the Desktop, with new options that include the ability to boot to Desktop and a portrait mode-optimized Start screen for smaller form factor devices.
New applications include Microsoft’s Mail and Xbox Music streaming service, as well as the first releases of Flipboard, NFL Fantasy Football and Facebook apps for Windows 8.
“It’s gratifying to me that developers are doing really great work for Windows 8,” Ballmer said.
One niche feature for developers includes the ability to build apps for designing physical objects and send the data to a 3D printer with a single button, an important endorsement of the emerging technology, the Wall Street Journal noted.
While changes such as the improved blend of the Desktop and Start modes are likely to make the operating system more inviting to developers, who, the Wall Street Journal noted, have been asking for such modifications, some have expressed skepticism over the way Microsoft has chosen to integrate touch so far.
“The tweaks to allow the desktop background underneath the Start Screen and the return of the Start button make it feel a little less like I’m running two PCs in one, but the difference is still jarring,” Forrester analyst Frank Gillett told the Wall Street Journal.
Computerworld blogger Preston Gralla similarly lamented the way that Microsoft’s insistence on blending touch and a traditional desktop experience has been holding back the quality of applications for the platform so far. While the desktop versions of applications like Internet Explorer are still feature-rich, the touch versions are often stripped down to the point of uselessness in the name of simplicity.
“The problem here really isn’t touch,” Gralla wrote. “The problem is the way that Microsoft has deployed touch — dumbing down apps so that they can be touch-only. Imagine an app with the ease of touch and the power of the keyboard and mouse, depending how you’re using it at any particular moment. That would truly unlock the power of Windows 8 and the underlying hardware.”
He suggested that Microsoft should modify its current design guidelines to incorporate such possibilities as it works to strengthen its support for developers. Regardless of the approach the company takes, however, developers are likely to keep watching closely while the operating system evolves to strengthen its application environment.
As developers move to embrace the new Windows platform, ensuring bug-free application deployments will be critical for building enthusiasm for the operating system. With tools such as static analysis software, developers can catch errors before they are released and further improve the Windows 8.1 application offerings.
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