inessential by Brent Simmons

Build 2014

Q Branch was at Microsoft’s Build 2014 conference in San Francisco. Build is very much a bizarro-world WWDC — it’s in Moscone West, and it’s full of programmers, but everything’s different.

I’ve never attended anything but Apple events in Moscone West, and I couldn’t help but think of it as an Apple outpost. But it’s not.

Other companies can do whatever they want. Who knew? They can have a DJ. They can rotate the keynote stage and seating 90 degrees — instead of a deep and narrow room, it’s a wide and shallow room where everybody’s closer to the stage.

Like Apple, Microsoft featured plenty of iPhones and iPads in their keynote. (At least the day two keynote, which was all about Azure and the cloud.)

While seeing iOS devices on a big screen in Moscone West was normal to us, we knew you’d never see Apple feature Android or Windows Mobile devices in their keynotes.

Nor should they. That’s not a criticism — that’s just not Apple’s thing. It’s the new Microsoft’s thing to be cosmopolitan.

I talked to a number of Microsoft employees — on the Azure side — and got the same sense from all of them. They’re excited. They know they’re underdogs; they know that Amazon Web Services is dominant.

They also know that the kind of dominance Microsoft once had — where just about everything that computed ran Windows — is gone and will never come back.

This new Microsoft didn’t launch from thin air the day Satya Nadella was made CEO. They’ve been working on their cloud services for years. (Example: Mobile Services, which I use, runs on Node.js and includes an open source iOS SDK on GitHub. This comes from the Ballmer era.)

But where the new CEO makes a difference is that leadership has caught up to where Microsoft employees already were. They can be honest, with themselves and others, about the company’s role in the world. They can stop wasting time trying to recapture those days of monopolistic dominance and instead concentrate on building great things for the future, for the many-platforms future.

That future, by the way, runs on http.

Consider the opportunity: many billions of smartphones and tablets and many apps on each device. Those apps need syncing and web services.

Though our tools and frameworks for creating apps for those devices are good, tools and frameworks for creating associated web services are still in the stone age.

They’re progressing quickly, but we’re nowhere near a web services framework that matches the spirit of Cocoa.

I don’t know anything about future Azure plans, or about how they talk about it internally — but that’s how I’d think about it. Make something as good as Cocoa is for creating iOS and Mac apps, build the services to support it, and then you’ll be the cloud supplier for all those billions of devices and apps.

Microsoft, more than Google and Amazon, knows what it means to support developers of native apps. Apple is never going to work on this — it’s not their thing, which is fine.

Microsoft has a shot at this. It’s not guaranteed. It means, though, that the company can go from protecting to building again. And that’s exciting and interesting.

PS I should also mention that, at a recent Seattle Xcoders after-meeting-at-the-Cyclops, my friend Olof Hellman was showing off Office for iPad. He’s proud of his team. They shipped — and it’s good work. iPad apps.