Microsoft Build 2016 post-analysis (and why developers are happy again)

Last week Microsoft held their annual developer conference called Build out in San Francisco. Two high-profile keynote speeches flank the three-day event by various Microsoft executives detailing and demonstrating the vision for computing that Microsoft foresees. In between that are hundreds of mini-seminars on Windows development detailing what is new.

Before Build, I gave an outline to set expectations. I tried to drive home the point that Build's messaging is for developers and not consumers. Sure, if you are a consumer you could get a sneak peek of things to come, but this event was by no means a continuation of the hardware launch event held by Microsoft in New York City, which was 100 percent consumer facing.

After some recuperation time, I figured I would write up my thoughts about the event and a summary of announcements to put things into perspective.

What was the biggest announcements and why?

A lot (and I mean it) was announced over those two days of keynotes. Regardless, here are the things that I thought were the biggest and that had people talking. Due to the scope of the event I am likely leaving something off the list by accident.

  • BASH Shell – Long story short, many developers were using Max OS X or Linux machines to do Windows and cross-platform development on because Windows 10 had no decent solution. This disparity was recently revealed with the recent Stack Overflow survey that noted 26% of developers were now using OS X (up from 22% a year earlier) and that by next year developers who use Windows could drop for the first time to below 50%.Now, developers can live in Windows full-time while coding for all platforms. Needless to say, this is a huge win for developers and Microsoft in the long term.
  • Xamarin for free – Xamarin, recently acquired by Microsoft, makes developer tools that make it easy to port over apps written in C# to other platforms. It's not a 1:1 system meaning developers still have work to do with the port, but it does get a lot of the core stuff out of the way.Developers love Xamarin as the tools are highly respected. The issue is their expense. Xamarin started at $300 for a basic license but quickly jumps to a few thousand when you bump level and multiply that per developer. Many developers often had an 'Is it worth it?' discussion on the financial merits of investing in Xamarin. For large enterprises, it is a no brainer but for indie devs was a significant cost.Microsoft made Xamarin free and part of Visual Studio. Developers were thrilled. Not only are they getting these great tools for free, but Microsoft gets a lot of devs coding in C#. We call that a win-win.Combine free Xamarin with BASH and Microsoft just pulled off a massive coup. Get devs to use your platform and code in C# to port new UWP apps to iOS and Android. Oh, and you can still use Islandwood to port from iOS to UWP. Now that's a win-win-win.
  • Bots - Bots are like app snippets, and Microsoft thinks they are the future of computing. Why? Because there are thousands of one-off apps out there that are unnecessary and expensive to develop and maintain.Think of an app to buy tickets for a ferry. Convenient? Sure. But how often are you using it? Bots, when combined with something like Cortana (on all platforms) can jump in to do these (trans)actions without you needing a dedicated app. Apps are cool, but a hundred apps on your phone most of which only get used a few times a year? Microsoft thinks we can do better.
  • The rise of AI and 'intelligent' apps - For years, artificial intelligence, computational cog sci, computational linguistics, and more were stuck in academia. Everyone know they were the future, but not figured out how to mainstream it. The problem was cost. Any company could incorporate AI or 'intelligence' into an app as nothing stopped them from doing it. However, the company would have to hire a team of experts and code into their app a proprietary system to complete the job.At Build, Microsoft "solved" this by creating Microsoft Cognitive Services. They took the science and made it into a platform that any developer could buy into and incorporate into their app. Do You want some intelligence in your app? Just sign up and hook in Microsoft's prefabbed tools and you'll be on your way.Needless to say, Microsoft here pulled off a big advancement for computing by bringing very advanced research within the reach of a million developers if they want it.
  • Digital Ink - The Surface line has always been about the power of the pen, but Microsoft never gave it the OS support it needed. At Build, the company announced open developer plugins that will let any developer add inking capabilities to their apps with just a few lines of code. Think of this move as a doubling-down on digital ink as the move will let other OEMs quickly create hardware and apps that support the new interface option.Get ready, folks, as there should be a small explosion of digital inking built into your favorite apps later this year.
  • Windows 10 Anniversary Update - We all know about 'Redstone', but now it has a commercial name: Windows 10 Anniversary Update. Whether it is an updated Start Menu, chaseable Live Tiles, richer notifications, or more we now know the name of the update.The question is what do they call the next Redstone update due in early 2017?
  • HoloLens is here - Announced over just one year ago HoloLens is now actively shipping to developers in a slow rollout. What makes this exciting is frankly there seemed to be skepticism that Microsoft would ship any hardware because it was too good to be true. People are used to 'concept' devices, but HoloLens just did not seem like something that could be a reality, and yet here we are.We're still a few years out before a HoloLens consumer-edition is mainstream, but make no mistake that holographic computing is a reality as of March 30, 2016. Combined with the power of UWP and now developers can start creating apps and experience for the new genre.
  • Xbox apps - Starting this summer, consumers will begin to see universal Windows 10 apps on their Xbox One through the new Windows Store. Microsoft's inclusion of the Xbox One in the UWP model is very exciting.We've already heard that there are a lot of companies interested in targeting the Xbox One for apps with some big titles coming soon. Not only is that good for the Xbox it is good for Windows 10 as it is just some minor coding to get that Xbox One app onto Windows 10 for PC and Mobile.
  • Xbox Live for everyone - Did you know any developer can now target Xbox Live for their games too? They can as indie developers can openly apply to get their game Xbox Live certified including achievements and notifications. Right, you still need to be accepted, but Microsoft says the bar is very low, and they are merely trying to avoid a fart app with Xbox achievements hence the minor scrutiny in the application.Expect to see a lot of new Windows 10 and Mobile games with the Xbox Live certification this year.

What was the overall vibe from developers?

Very positive. Unlike consumers, developers tend to understand all the subtle announcements and their importance to the platform. By far, the biggest announcements were about Windows 10 support for BASH and giving away those coveted Xamarin tools.

Sure, there is the usual grumbling about Microsoft needing to do this or that, but there was nothing too controversial announced that developers felt offended by this time (unlike Project Astoria from last year's Build).

Why no Windows 10 Mobile?

For some reason, people were disappointed that there was not more on Windows 10 Mobile. I and others found this complaint odd.

During Build, Microsoft rarely singled out Windows 10 PC versus other platforms. That's because it is just all Windows. Whatever was announced for bots, AI, new Tile support, positional audible, Xbox Live integration, etc. goes for PC as well as mobile. There is no difference.

Gone are the days of specific sessions on Windows phone. It is no longer needed. There were plenty of sessions at targeting your app for different screen sizes, which includes phone, but Microsoft's OneCore and Windows 10 vision is universal. They mean it.

Windows 10 is universal...it's all the same now for developers

I think many of you hear that Windows 10 is universal, but you are not listening. It's all the same now and for developers, there are only a handful of differences for each targeted platform.

Let it sink in: Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile are co-developed, share the same core, share the same app model, and share the same Store. Stop thinking they are different. Stop expecting the phone to be treated differently.

The 'mobile' part is mostly branding, but the UWP and Universal Windows Apps are one and the same across HoloLens, Xbox, PC, tablet, and yes, phone. There is no reason to expect the phone to have unique or special features over the desktop version besides telephony-related hardware.

Any disappointments?

Considering this was not a consumer-focused event it is hard to get too upset at what was announced. Still, who wouldn't love to see interactive Live Tiles, car support, or Microsoft Pay come to the platform? There is little doubt Microsoft is working on those things, but we have more time to wait until they are announced.

Who wouldn't love to see interactive Live Tiles, car support, or Microsoft Pay?

Speaking of phone, while I'd love to see things like double-tap to wake support or more prominent features, Build simply is not the venue for those kinds of things. If a developer can't touch, modify, or integrate it, the feature has no role at Build.

Finally, some features and advancements did not make the cut for Build 2016. Some features are still coming, but it is still too early to demonstrate or talk about openly just yet.

The takeaway

Overall, Build 2016 was a fascinating changeup for the mega software company.

Windows 10 at this point is not new, but it is evolving rapidly. What was revealed this year was a refinement and improvement of developer options and tools for the OS as Microsoft continues to fill in the gaps. There are still lots of things to do, but many of the announced improvements make developer lives easier.

With Microsoft focusing on bots, AI, app intelligence, HoloLens and their UWP Build felt more like a seminar in the future of computing. But like HoloLens, many of things announced are not things that are coming in a few years. What Microsoft announced is now a reality. Microsoft already built the foundation and they just announced their availability to developers. That build out of an infrastructure is super impressive.

Build felt more like a seminar in the future of computing

For consumers, many of this year's announcements were over your heads, which is fine, after all virtually none of this was aimed at you. Still, if you can follow these advancements you would know that later this year you will see the fruits of the changes arrive on your PC, tablet, phone, and Xbox.

Assuming you read all of this hopefully, you now have a grasp on why Build is so important and why developers are pleased. If you felt disappointed as a consumer you shouldn't. If you are a Windows phone fan saddened, you were looking for the wrong things.

Microsoft developers get it as do hardware manufacturers. And what they know is that we're about to hit the next phase of Windows 10 and the Universal Windows Platform. Buckle up, because this is where things will get exciting.

Your Turn

Sound off in comments about what you thought was the biggest announcement and omission at Build 2016. How was our coverage? What do you expect next and do you think Microsoft did enough to woo developers back to the Universal Windows Platform? Go!

Daniel Rubino
Editor-in-chief

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

194 Comments
  • I'll believe developers are happy (again) when I see proof.
  • Right. Men lie, women lie. Numbers dont
  • From developers point of view, I think Build was a big disappointment. Microsoft has become a mediocre company with Nadella.
  • To actually contribute to the discussion can you add specific examples of why it was a disappointment and who you spoke with to reach that conclusion? Otherwise, this is a meaningless claim and/or opinion.
  • Apps developed with Xamarin are more resource intensive, have longer startup time and packages are bigger. The only way to reach the best user experience is using native tools. Xamarin targets the enterprise market (internal apps) and amateurs, not the mainstream mobile development. Bash is good, but it's ironic that porting Linux programs to Windows saved the Build conference. Besides this is a good indication of how Windows is losing relevance both in the server and client side. Bots and cognitive services are just the same basic AI stuff that everybody is doing. Microsoft is packaging these algorithms as services but that's good enough only for basic applications. Besides, Google has had these kind of services since some time, there is nothing new.
    ...
  • I don't agree that app development with Xamarin are more resource intensive etc. For cross platform development there is no better tool available today (at least for us). I think app performance is indistinguishable from "platform specific" development. Microsoft did show glimps of their Xamarin solution for Microsoft Health app (compaion to Microsoft Band). Now as part of Microsoft, Xamarin is no longer cost prohibitive. That alone is great news. I have been hearing about "Windows losing relevance" since the 90's and yet to see anyone give up on Windows.  
  • I honestly think you don't understand how Xamarin works. Yes there are overheads but so what? It helps us develop much faster and more conveniently with using VS. I mean from enterprise standpoint it means alot since time = money. Of course for consumer app you would think about how much storage + RAM that your app needs and so-on but that is still minor consideration since most "phones" already are with high storage spaces with at least 1G ram. Also, incase of iOS, it compiles to native. I think it will only get better with .net core as it will definitely reduce those .net overheads that goes into apps.  Talking about bash isn't all about porting linux based applications to Windows. That is just one benefit we get as a developer (for example we can now use Redis without using Windows ported version). It means now we can test app under Bash (or linux environment) without using VM which as a developer is a big plus. So I am super excited about those announcement MS has made. Trust me, I'm a software architect. :)
  • You said porting Linux tools to windows. That shows how well you followed the build.
  • Xamarin startup overhead is not a problem, the user does not close apps any more. As regards the 15MB for the runtine, nowadays an average iOS app is 50MB, so it passes too.
    Agree for the rest about Build.
  • Reading your comments I assume you are not a developer and don't understand any of the points you brought up fully.
  • It isnt that I disagre with you but I will say that for the first time in years I was happy with the direction I was getting from build. For example, I attended a service fabric demo where linux and AWS was used along side Azure. This goes a long way in my book to a new, better Microsoft. YMMV-
  • The Xamarin SDK will be open sourced, you can make improvements to it if you find it underwhelming
  • Daniel, I'm guilty of segregation, and your words have been noted.. You actually just permanently changed my perspective on Mobile, and windows.. I get it now.
    ...
    There's really no big point in saying "WP", or "WinMo"... It's just Windows.
    Nevertheless, this might be more clear to fans, and the average consumer, once the feature gap closes a bit between the difference form factors.. But, I could've enjoyed Build much more if I looked at it from this point of view... I have to admit it too you; thanks for the insight.
  • Rodney, I'm interested in your response. One thing that hasn't gotten me about a lot of build coverage is that the tech journalist just haven't seemed to understand that windows 10 phone/mobile is in fact dead, because it's no longer separate. It's all just one windows moving forward. Now, I thought this was obvious from everything MS has been saying and doing, and I started to think it was just anti-Microsoft journalists, but your comment indicates that people really are legitimately not getting this. Now that you seem to have understood, are you able to provide some insight in to why people like yourselves haven't grasped this earlier? Has it just been a lack of interest/research on your part, so you haven't been following the story, or does Microsoft really need to do a better job of communicating this?
  • I think it's basically a case of repetition. The message needs to be hammered home... Each time they announce something (bots, Cortana improvements, chasable live tiles etc etc) they should spell out the platforms/form factors they apply to until it gets boring. Over time they should adjust the language to reflect "ALL universal Windows platforms", then "THE universal Windows platform", until eventually developing for "Windows" is synonymous with the entire ecosystem. I think that is where the disconnect is... "Windows" used to imply a desktop OS... Moving forward it's an entire ecosystem of platforms and form factors etc. The "universal platform" is overlooked or simply doesn't register. People don't like change on the whole. It takes time to win them around to a platform concept (UWP) that's never been achieved before.
  • First off, it's not that I, or others haven't grasped this concept before, and maybe I shouldn't have worded it that way... We all understand the common core, universal apps, and the literal fact that it's all Windows 10... Nevertheless, when we (and that goes for everyone, including yourself, and WC) think of W10M, and Phone in particular, there's a mental separation, and literally STILL a physical separation.. There literally is a natural separation between Desktop, Phone, Xbox, and so on. They are all different, but share a common core, on the software side.
    .....
    That's where I'm admitting to be short sighted. The fact that I dwell on the more apparent, functional, and definitive aspect of each specific device, and "version" of the OS... Daniel didn't tell me, or anyone else, anything we didn't already know, rather looking at the situation from a different angle, and focusing more on Windows 10. I mean, anyone who read the articles follow build could see exactly how MS wants Windows 10 to be viewed... During Build I was disappointed because there wasn't much specific Phone news, but following Build I realized that the W10 in general news applied to all the ecosystem once I understood that all the features applied to EVERYTHING. It wasn't a hidden message, and it was put right in front of us.. That was realized before Daniels article. It's really that Daniels article brought that further to light. Really, stubbornness about not having the expected blocked my focus, personally. But, not literally not grasping a concept. I don't think anyone here doesn't grasp the concept of the universal platform, rather a knock on the head might be necessary to change focus, which is what I accredit Daniel for doing... Nevertheless, I do see your condescendence in your comment.. Lol. Please don't feel to proud of yourself, or think you've got some devine perception over anyone else here... And, I'm not stupid. It's not your job to question others about why they perceive things the way they do unless you work in that department for MS.. Basically your comment reads "I understood this all this time, why haven't you, and the other idiots realized this"" lol. It's ok, and if that's not you're tone, and I'm wrong, them I apologize before hand.. But, yeah.☺☺☺ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    ROJO > ARLINGTON, TX > LUMIA 1520 ≥ 950... WAITING FOR 6.2" SURFACE PHONE
  • Yeah, sorry, didn't mean to come across that way! If anything your comment had the opposite effect. I have indeed been (and felt!) condenscending with several tech journalists on this. Your comment made me realise that it was actually me that had missed something here, and that it wasn't necessarily the tech journalists (or other commentators) fault, that this really was an issue that MS was responsible for addressing. Communication is a two-way process, and if lots of smart people aren't "getting" something, then it may be the sender that has the issue, not the receiver. Again, apologies if I came across condescending, wasn't my intention!
  • Okay so why all the jubilation during the keynote for developers? They really loved several announcement very much...
  • Did I watch the wrong conference? Microsoft paid $450 million for Xamarin. Then they give it away FREE even to VS Community Edition Users.  How boring is that? Oh and why are they making their AI platform available to developers?  Its not like you can just hop over to ComponentSource and buy the type of services offered.  How boring is that. Or maybe it was boring because they didn't announce the Lumia 950 SE.
  • They paid 8 Billions for Maincraft... 400m are just peanuts.
  • It was $2.5 billion for Minecraft. But making stuff up is much more fun.
  • How boring is that? They bought something we all needed and gave it to us for free and that's not even badass? Woah.