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Microsoft Highlights Windows 8 Opportunity at Build 2012

Microsoft's Build 2012 event, held on its Redmond campus this week, rolled out new Windows Phone 8 developer tools plus Windows 8 pep talks for developers.

In a Tuesday keynote talk, Microsoft executives pulled out all the stops to convince developers to get on-board with Windows 8, Surface RT and Windows Phone 8 development. Those products all recently had a debut prior to the Build event.

As expected, Microsoft finally launched the Windows Phone 8 developer platform, which includes the Windows Phone SDK 8.0, a revamped Dev Center and support for multiple open source frameworks, including Phone Gap (Apache Cordova) and SQLite. The SDK, which is free and up to now in limited release, includes Visual Studio Express 2012 for Windows Phone, Expression Blend for Windows Phone, Windows Phone emulators -- which require Windows 8 with SLAT enabled -- Microsoft Team Explorer and yes, XNA Game Studio.

"Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and Microsoft Surface are all now really here," said Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer during the opening keynote.

"The opportunity to transform the kinds of devices we build, the kinds of applications that we create, the way we use the cloud has never been better than it is today," he said. "So as we're sitting here reimagining what we do and our industry is rebuilding itself around new classes of devices and services, you, the developers in this room, are at the forefront of seizing that opportunity and being able to make it into something which is absolutely fantastic."

Microsoft rolled out its PC, tablet and mobile platforms only days before the company's premier developer conference. Ballmer spent Oct. 25th in New York at the Windows 8 launch, and Oct. 29th in San Francisco unveiling Windows Phone 8. Despite Hurricane Sandy, which has effectively shut down much of the Eastern Seaboard, including Microsoft Stores in the region, individual users have purchased four million Windows 8 upgrades in the last 3 days, according to Microsoft. That's in addition to tens of millions of units already sold to corporate customers, said Ballmer. Microsoft has opened 65 Microsoft Stores in the United States, which should help raise awareness among consumers.

Roughly half of the more than 2,000 developers who are attending Build 2012 this week, have never been to a Microsoft event, according to a company spokeswoman. The on-site conference sold out in 53 minutes, said Ballmer, who is promising a bigger venue for the event next year.

Windows 8 Systems on Display
During the opening keynote, Ballmer welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate Windows 8, which became widely available on Oct. 26th, on a range of Windows 8 systems and devices. He demoed the products himself, and showed off key features of the software on a prototype of an 82-inch Windows 8 slate, which was developed by Perceptive Pixel, a touchscreen manufacturer that Microsoft acquired in July. He also demonstrated Windows 8 on a Dell XPS One, which is a 27-inch all-in-one PC that's powered by an Intel Core i7 processor.

The tablets on display included the Microsoft Surface RT and the ASUS Vivo Tab RT, which is marketed as a device "for work and for play." Both devices are powered by Nvidia Tegra 3.

A Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2 with a built-in stylus offered developers a look at a touch-based Windows Pro system powered by an Intel Atom processor that will run Windows 8 Store Apps along with conventional Win32 programs. The Thinkpad Tablet 2 is expected to ship next month, according to Ballmer.

The final system Ballmer demonstrated was an Acer Aspire S7-191 notebook powered by an Intel Core i5/i7 processor. This lightweight, touch-based Windows 8 notebook from Acer could be optimal as a developer machine, according to Ballmer, who said that Microsoft had successfully installed Visual Studio on it.

Windows 8 offers an opportunity to build apps that personalize the user experience, and work across PC, tablet and mobile platforms. App developers can take advantage of Windows 8 features such as system-wide search and sharing capabilities in context, and user preference roaming, which is enabled by a Microsoft Accounts and SkyDrive online storage infrastructure. For example, Ballmer wrote annotations in OneNote in Office for RT on the 82-inch Windows 8 Slate and these annotations automatically appeared when the file was viewed on Windows Phone 8.

Steven Guggenheimer, the new corporate vice president of developer and platform evangelism, who previously headed the OEM Division at Microsoft, talked about the developer opportunity provided by the integration of Windows 8 software, hardware and services.

"The thing about the hardware ecosystem is it doesn't come to life until the software is there," said Guggenheimer. "And the applications you build and what you do really brings the hardware to life -- that's the marriage of hardware and software."

Disney created the first in a series of Windows 8 Store apps by porting an existing Web-based title called "Agent P Strikes Back." The Windows game supports use of a wired Xbox 360 controller via the USB port on Microsoft Surface, and is played on a TV screen using the tablet's HDMI connection. Users can also participate in game sharing via Skype, whose core has been completely rewritten by Microsoft in C++ with HTML on the front-end, according to Guggenheimer.

Microsoft is also working on more ways for Windows 8 developers to monetize their apps. A PayPal Windows 8 API that can be used for in-app purchases will be released in a few weeks, said Guggenheimer.

No More .NET Compact Framework
Kevin Gallo, Microsoft director of program management, Windows Phone said the company has listened to feedback from developers and worked to address 90 percent of the issues and requests in Windows Phone 8.

Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have a common core and API set, which enables developers to build shared C# and C++ components. Getting there was a lot of work. According to Gallo's blog, the development team moved from the .NET Compact Framework to the core CLR. As a result, the Windows Phone 8 Developer Platform supports C++ programming -- a long-time request of game developers -- and familiar APIs. Unity Technologies' flagship IDE will support Windows Phone 8 game development, the company announced on Tuesday.

As an incentive to build Windows Phone 8 apps, Microsoft is reducing the cost of individual registration for the Windows Phone Dev Center from $99 to $8 for the next eight days. However, developers still have to pay upfront and then wait for a refund.

"[W]indows phone today is a small volume player," acknowledged Ballmer. "But we have the most differentiated approach to the market. We have absolutely killer hardware. There are just going to be a lot of those hundreds of millions of Windows users who really want a Windows Phone. And so I think the opportunity there is also excellent."

Meanwhile, Microsoft is continuing to build out its Windows 8 Store with a range of apps from major players. Michael Bayle, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN Mobile, joined Microsoft's Guggenheimer onstage to offer the first public preview of an ESPN app for Windows 8. The app enables users to personalize their Start Screen and consume a vast array of ESPN content. Developers can use the ESPN API to build apps that consume ESPN content and data.

Twitter, Dropbox, Expedia and SAP have also decided to move forward with Windows 8 Store apps, according to Microsoft.

Despite obvious progress, consumers who are accustomed to the latest apps for their mobile devices may not be satisfied.

Free Mobile Devices
Developers expect free products at Microsoft events and the people who made it to Build 2012 were not disappointed. Microsoft is giving eligible attendees a 32-GB Surface RT tablet with a Touch Cover keyboard, and 100 GB of SkyDrive storage. Conference attendees will also be among the first to get Nokia Lumia 920 smartphones. Windows Phone 8 devices are expected to become available in Europe later this week, according to Microsoft.

"You've got to make me two promises," Ballmer told the keynote audience when the cheering subsided. "Number one, please go out and write lots of applications. And number two, since you can't pick up [the Surface tablets] until 7:00 tonight, stay seated and don't run and start trying to pick them up now, okay?"

Developer reaction to the Day 1 keynote appeared mixed as the huge crowd funneled out of the keynote tent.

"I would have liked to see more code. I already have Windows 8 and I don't need a sales pitch," commented one attendee.

"I'm a believer," said another when he was questioned about the keynote.

"It's all new stuff," someone else observed. "Microsoft has a habit of investing in technology and then just dropping it after 10 years but instead of saying they are dropping it, they just don't put anyone on the team, like XNA… and Windows Phone 7."

Several people were relieved that Microsoft was finally offering an alternative to Apple's iOS products, which may have been worth the wait.

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