High expectations pressure Microsoft to deliver at BUILD

Today's keynote will show whether the software maker can rebound from sluggish start to Windows 8

Microsoft today must deliver on expectations that have been mounting since the sluggish start of Windows 8 eight months ago, analysts said.

"This is an important turning point, this is about keeping the energy in Windows 8 and keeping the OS moving," said Frank Gillett of Forrester Research. "It's still not clear whether Windows 8 will 'take,' so BUILD will be about re-energizing the platform and continuing to message about developer engagement."

Microsoft will open its BUILD developers conference today with a publicly broadcast keynote starting at 9 a.m. PT, noon ET. BUILD runs through Friday in San Francisco.

Although the Redmond, Wash., software maker has teased some of the changes in Windows 8.1, and more were revealed after the company released a preview of Windows Server 2012 R2 late Monday, analysts weren't as interested in the details of the free upgrade as in setting expectations of what Microsoft needs to do this week to convince everyone, not just developers, that Windows 8 is no flop, but instead a long-term player that will keep the company relevant.

"Microsoft must focus on consumers, and the importance of the things that consumers care about," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner. "They need that focus on the consumer not only because Windows 8 is aimed at consumers, but because of the consumers within enterprises."

BYOD, for bring-your-own-device, is crucial to a platform's success within corporations, Milanesi argued, because employees have increasing control over what devices are used for and at work, often buying those devices themselves.

For Milanesi, a consumer-focused BUILD will mean Microsoft's talking up developer opportunities on 8-in. and smaller tablets -- the year's hottest part of the tablet market -- Windows Phone 8-powered smartphones, and new hybrid designs that combine traits of tablets and laptops.

By laying the foundation with developers now, Microsoft can set the stage for a solid fourth quarter in Windows device sales, in Milanesi's view the critical part of 2013 if the company wants to make a comeback next year with stronger tablet, phone and hybrid sales. Increased sales of those devices are required, Gartner said this week, to make up for the shortfalls caused by shrinking PC shipments.

Meanwhile, Forrester's Gillett said Microsoft will answer his biggest question simply by releasing a nearly-done Windows 8.1, proving that it can do what it promised -- deliver upgrades at a faster pace.

"They need to show that they're able to update Windows frequently, like mobile operating systems do, with improvements that aren't giant leaps, that are more incremental," Gillett said. "Just having the event [now] lets them say, 'Look, it's eight months later, and we have the next version of Windows ready.' "

That will be a huge win for Microsoft, which has never pushed Windows development at this tempo. The rapid cadence is the norm for consumer technology platforms, and if Microsoft wants to be a player in the space, it has to keep up with the Joneses.

Not surprisingly, analysts who spend their days analyzing corporate technology argued that Microsoft must document how Windows 8.1 will overcome enterprise objections to the original Windows 8.

"The world is watching how Microsoft will bring back the things that enterprises need," said David Johnson of Forrester, ticking off the pseudo-Start button -- called "Start tip" by Microsoft -- and an expected reduction in the jarring switches between the "Modern" user interface and the old-school desktop.

Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, concurred. "How will Windows 8.1 work with the other pieces?" he asked, referring to the other portfolios Microsoft will upgrade this year, including Windows Server 2012 R2, SQL Server 2014, Visual Studio 2013 and System Center 2012 R2. Several of those were made available to Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) subscribers on Monday.

Johnson hoped Microsoft can make good on earlier promises. "They have to convince developers that [Windows] apps are quick and easy to develop, that all the necessary services are going to be accessible and that there will be strong demand for apps," Johnson said.

He admitted Microsoft has made those promises at previous BUILDs, with mixed results, but hoped this time the company would be more convincing. "Microsoft is in a unique position to create consistency across platforms," he said, and with new services, such as Azure Active Authentication, which Microsoft announced earlier this month, he said the company's pitch might be more effective.

Milanesi also had a wish list of what she wants to see and hear aimed at developers. "Microsoft should show developers how they can create apps across different devices," she said. "They talk about 'one kernel,' but what does that mean?"

Gillett saw clues to Microsoft's seriousness in its selection of San Francisco as the venue. "It's a symbolic statement holding it in downtown San Francisco," Gillett said of the first Microsoft-hosted developers meeting in the city since 1996. "The kind of developers they want are in the San Francisco area and significantly influenced by the technology companies there. Microsoft really wants to connect with them."

Both Apple and Google are in the neighborhood, the former in Cupertino, the latter in Mountain View. Both held their most recent developers conferences at the Moscone Center, BUILD's home this week.

If the location helps Microsoft flesh out its Windows ecosystem, which critics have hammered for having an app gap, that too will be tagged as a win for the company and evidence it can recover from a sluggish start.

One thing that won't happen at BUILD, said Gillett, is a rollout of new hardware. While most expect Microsoft to unveil a smaller Surface RT tablet, pegged the "Surface Mini" by wags, he figured Microsoft wouldn't trot it out today.

"It would just be a distraction," Gillett said. "It deserves its own event."

Today's BUILD keynote can be viewed from Microsoft's news home page and the BUILD website.

This article, High expectations pressure Microsoft to deliver at BUILD, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "High expectations pressure Microsoft to deliver at BUILD" was originally published by Computerworld.

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