Forrester: Microsoft takes new approach to Windows app development

Windows 8 signals a huge change, which will require a major effort in rewriting existing applications

The days of Microsoft attempting to dominate client PCs with Silverlight and Internet Explorer (IE) are over.

Windows 8 is a huge change for Microsoft – as big as Windows 3.1 or Windows XP.

If the software maker gets it right, Windows 8 apps will become ubiquitous on desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets.

The opportunity, and consequences of failure, are so big that Microsoft decided to develop its own tablet, called Surface, ending a long-standing exclusive reliance on partners to provide primary computer hardware.

Windows 8 strategy

Windows 8 runs on computers based on Intel chips and the ARM chips commonly used in smartphones and tablets. It incorporates a new style of user interface – dubbed Windows 8 UX (the UX stands for user experience) – which seeks to combine the best of keyboards, mice, stylus and touch user interfaces (UIs) in a single model.

Windows 8 aims to restore Microsoft’s former domination of client-side application programming interfaces (APIs), this time with an interface that supports applications for Windows 8 desktops and tablets and, to some degree, smartphones.

There is a new, broader Windows platform, and it is based on Windows 8 clients, the Windows Runtime (WinRT ) API, and the Windows Azure cloud environment. Microsoft has endeavoured to make the introduction of its new platform technologies evolutionary, and application design and development (AD&D) professionals will not face a forced march to the new technologies. But few AD&D leaders yet see the big picture of the new Windows platform, much less understand its implications for their .Net strategies.

End of .Net

One Microsoft platform era is ending and another is beginning. The .Net era, as we have known it, is winding down. .Net will not go away, however – it becomes Microsoft’s preferred server environment for the broader platform.

The .Net platform will change dramatically during the next year. The future of Microsoft’s platforms is on mobile devices and in cloud computing services, not confined to PC desktops and Intel servers alone. Keying this change are innovations to both the clients and servers in Microsoft’s platform.

Silverlight will live on in IE, but WinRT is the future, and it is proprietary to Microsoft-based hardware. The new cloud-inspired .Net framework is the strategic server framework. To many developers, .Net is a combined client and server-side framework. In the new Windows platform, .Net Framework 4.5 is Microsoft’s preferred server-side environment.

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend has a negative effect on client-side .Net development. The vast majority of phones and tablets that employees are bringing to work do not run Windows and so do not support native .Net clients. Microsoft hopes to attract developers who do not identify with .Net today, converting them to the new Windows platform – and possibly even .Net – in the future. So Microsoft-centric developers have a choice. They can support native platforms and write in Objective-C and Java, or concentrate on supporting web applications by using the ASP.Net framework. Another option is to use jQuery and jQuery Mobile with ASP.Net, but we have yet to see significant uptake for that approach. Why? Because most development shops currently prefer to write mobile clients as native applications, even though the development and maintenance costs are higher.

Windows application development

The future of Microsoft’s platforms is on mobile devices and in cloud computing services

For businesses with big commitments to .Net, Microsoft’s platform shift raises two general questions: What does the new Windows platform mean to your organisation in the future, and what should you do about your current .Net investments?

First, evaluate the platform as a whole, not just its individual pieces. At this early stage, this exercise will equip you either to shift the emphasis of your platform strategy to a different technology set or supplier, or choose to stick with Microsoft and track the new platform’s progress. Next, examine each tier of your application platform  and weigh the relative merits of using the new Windows platform components at each level.

As you move forwards, keep your client options open. Forrester recommends against building Windows-only clients for consumer-facing systems of engagement or for business-to-business applications unless your company can dictate what technologies business partners must use. For employee apps, check with your infrastructure and operations peers to see if they are planning a BYOD initiative. If so, calculate when you should expect to see non-Windows devices showing up.

Building new native .Net clients using Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML) and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) will limit you to Windows and Windows Phone clients; WinRT clients will be limited to Windows 8. Native .Net clients may still make sense for applications that require immersive, high-performance experiences, such as charting,  graphics and real-time data visualisation; apps used by dedicated task workers where you control what devices they use; and multichannel apps where it is worth investing in native UIs for each client you support.

The Windows 8 UX introduces a visual design style and touch interfaces required on smartphones and tablets. But the new style takes away the multi-document interfaces and drop-down menus users are accustomed to using. Developers are actively debating the best design practices for applications that mix a keyboard, a mouse, a stylus and gestures. Everyone has lots to learn, requiring investment in training, learning and prototyping.

Microsoft’s business

Forrester expects Microsoft to combat the threat of consumer technology populism to its enterprise franchise with an effort to introduce mobile phones and tablets running Windows that are just as appealing to consumers as iPads and Android phones are today. Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone 8 and the recent introduction of the Microsoft Surface tablets based on Windows 8 are examples of this effort.

If Windows 8 succeeds, Microsoft’s Windows client franchise will be preserved and extended first to tablets and then, possibly, to smartphones. If not, the value of the Windows client franchise will be severely curtailed. Microsoft’s goal must be to win market share equal to or greater than the Apple and Google mobile platforms. Microsoft’s best hope to win this battle rests on the preferences of fickle consumers. Only some consumers are strongly loyal to smartphone brands, and tablets may follow the same pattern. If Microsoft and its partners can create amazing new offerings at attractive prices, enough consumers may switch back.

Windows 7 will not get Microsoft to its goal – it is only a first step. Windows 8 might, if Microsoft can successfully bridge its technology to smartphones and create an ecosystem for building great devices and providing amazing apps and experiences. The Windows 8 UX is bound to help once enough developers master its use. Microsoft also needs to get its full complement of app stores in place fast.

This article is an extract from Forrester report, “The future of Microsoft .Net: New options, new choices, new risks (August, 2012)” by John R Rymer and Jeffrey S Hammond. Both analysts write research for, and contribute to, the Forrester blog for application development and delivery professionals.

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