The opening day of Microsoft’s Build 2013 conference featured a rousing keynote address by CEO Steve Ballmer and other executives, and the reception to the Windows 8.1 update was notably positive. But it is the products left unsaid that have developers here nervous. And notably absent from this year’s show is any new information about Windows Phone or Xbox One.
Microsoft’s next entertainment console factored into the keynote, but only as a throwaway, ancillary device that was relegated to a half-hidden corner at the back of the stage. Likewise, Ballmer briefly carted out a tiny podium with a handful of newish Windows Phone handsets, but they’re all running the current version of the OS, which shipped last October alongside Windows 8.
The questions here are simple: Why is Microsoft touting its ability to rapidly improve Windows 8 while the similar Windows Phone 8, released at the same time, has received no similar updates at all? And where is the hoped-for Xbox One developer platform for individuals and enthusiasts?
These questions are all the more relevant when you consider that the Windows Phone and Xbox logos and brands were as prominently displayed in pre-Build materials as were those for Windows, Office, Visual Studio and other Microsoft platforms that are a major focus of the show. But the Windows Phone sessions at Build all cover the 2012 release of the software, and Xbox One is nowhere to be seen.
My sources tell me that Windows Phone is on a slower schedule than Windows 8, which is ironic since it was Windows Phone that first pioneered the rapid release cycle now being used by the Windows team and most other major product groups at Microsoft. But then we were also told to expect news of a closer alignment of the two products, and while that’s certainly still the plan, the inability of the Windows Phone team to ship updates is hindering what is otherwise hardly a successful product.
Meanwhile, with the PR drama that the Xbox One launched into this month, one might think that Microsoft could have rallied one of its most dedicated audiences, developers, by at least promising to let them have a crack at the Windows-based console. But we’re in a weird place where a fairly minor update to the much-reviled Windows 8 is met by cheers while Microsoft simply ignores Xbox.
What Microsoft can and should offer developers is a unified development and design environment in which developers can target apps, games and services at Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox, using the languages of their choice, and the electronic distribution system its spent years developing. And who knows? Maybe they’ll surprise us today. But such an advance, one that none of its competitors could match, would surely have been the opening salvo of a developer show like Build. This is an opportunity missed.