REDMOND, Wash. -- Microsoft is all-in on the biggest gamble in its history.
That's the message to developers at Build 2012, the conference at the corporate campus this week where executives outlined what the company has done to make writing new Windows applications faster and simpler.
They also demonstrated new features developers can bring to apps they write for Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and for Microsoft's cloud service, Azure, all in the hopes of sparking inspiration that will result in applications business customers will want badly enough to buy into Windows.
The stakes are high. Microsoft has launched the new Windows 8 operating system designed heavily around touchscreens but also supporting mouse and keyboard. To complicate matters there are two versions, Windows 8 and Windows RT, only one of which -- Windows 8 -- supports traditional Windows applications. Windows RT supports only new touch-centric apps Microsoft calls Windows Store apps.
Toss in that Windows Phone 8 has just launched as well, sharing the same look and basic navigational scheme as Windows 8 and RT. The hope is that customers will want their phone, PC and tablet to have the same look and feel, share applications and share data across all devices, aided by Microsoft's cloud storage service known as SkyDrive.
That's a lot for a customer to take in, and Microsoft is counting on developers to show by example how this can all work through the applications they write.
Meanwhile the clock is ticking, says Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. Microsoft has about two years to prove itself successful, he says; not that it will be dead in the water if it doesn't reach all its goals, but it will miss the chance to dominate Apple and Google in mobile devices.
An essential element is applications -- table stakes apps, existing apps that perform better on Windows, and groundbreaking apps that are only available on and supportable by Windows, Golvin says.
"Were political adviser James Carville to assess this battle, he would likely say, 'It's the apps, stupid,'" he says in a research report.
With this backdrop, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer and his top executives delivered a slew of tools, perks and promises to energize the apps writers. Some highlights:
= A software developers kit for Windows Phone 8.
= Launch of a Windows Azure Store where developers can hawk applications to augment Azure cloud services.
= Closer integration between Windows operating systems and Azure to make it easier to write apps that rely on an Azure back end.
= Team Foundation Service, an Azure-based offering that is a tool for tracking software development projects and is free to teams of five or fewer.
To sweeten the pot, Ballmer gave attendees a free Surface tablet/laptop, 100GB of free cloud storage via SkyDrive, a free Nokia Lumia 920 Windows 8 phone and a discounted developers registration to the Windows store.
Ballmer asked that attendees go out and create lots of apps for the Microsoft environment, promising that Microsoft would follow through with advertising that should boost the market for those apps. "We will do more marketing for the Windows 8 system, for Windows phones and for Surfaces," he says. "You will see our best work, and you will not be able to go to a magazine, to the Internet or turn on the television set without seeing our ads frequently."
In response to a massive Microsoft effort, apps available in its Windows Store have grown from about 1,000 two months ago to more than 10,000 today, according to the website winupdate.com, the sole purpose of which is to analyze the store's inventory. Still more than 85% of the apps are free, the site says.
Whatever success Microsoft has with consumers, it has a more difficult time with businesses, Golvin says. "What we've seen in our data, the enthusiasm for adopting Windows 8 especially in the enterprise is much, much lower than it was for Windows 7," he says.
That doesn't mean enterprises aren't keeping an eye on what Microsoft is up to, judging from attendees at Build 2012.
Preston Doster, a consultant with Slalom Consulting in Dallas, attended seeking more detail on how the pieces of the Microsoft puzzle fit together. Clients say that they're interested in the possibility of slates that can join enterprise domains for work purposes, Doster says, something iPads cannot do. That potentially gives businesses more control over Windows 8 devices, he says.
With ability to insert entire blocks of code from other sources into new Windows Store applications, it should be possible to readily convert existing line-of-business applications written in .Net, enabling transition from Web apps to desktops. That means quicker adoption of touchscreen devices into businesses, he says. "Enterprise customers show lots of interest in applications for Windows 8," he says.
He says some clients are already porting some applications to Windows 8 as a proof of concept, but haven't committed to using them in production.
Ken Sutcliffe, a developer for Cancer Care Ontario, already uses Windows Phone applications to help in the treatment of cancer patients. Brock Dodgson, the development manager for the agency, says he is looking for what new technology could augment the existing application. For example, near field communication supported by Windows Phone 8 could be used to share drug information sheets between clinicians and patients. "I'm trying to see where it might fit in," Dodgson says.
He says his organization might write a prototype Windows 8 version of a head and neck radiology application already written for the iPad. That might be more attractive to hospital IT staffers because it would rely on a Windows back end that they are familiar with and rely on already, Dodgson says.
"We won't take a total left turn," says Sutcliffe. "We'll get a sense of how we can fit it in."