Modern developer conferences have evolved from technical seminars into extravaganzas that are part homecoming, part revival. In doing so, they’ve become a touchstone of a technology ecosystem’s health and momentum. Microsoft’s Build–held last week at San Francisco’s Moscone Center–has become the company’s answer to Google’s I/O and Apple’s WWDC, which will be held in May and June, respectively, at Moscone.
With audiences packed with developers who have invested much in the success of these large company’s initiatives–and who have often been able to attend only because they won a lottery for the limited available seats–it’s not surprising that news of new products that may expand the reach of major platforms receives an enthusiastic response. But the news at Build, much of which involved Microsoft’s moves to bring more apps to Windows, especially on smartphones, was far from a panacea.
Despite a more touch-friendly Windows Phone reboot five years ago, the $7 billion acquisition of Nokia’s phone division, and the move to eliminate its licensing fees, Windows Phone has barely made a dent in the market share of its chief rivals, iOS and Android. Because of this, there are far fewer apps available and their features tend to lag behind those on the two big platforms.
Last year, Nokia briefly tried to tap into the Android app ecosystem with an inexpensive Frankenphone called the Nokia X. It actually ran Android but with a Windows-like interface and Microsoft services. However, apps that tapped into certain Android features had to be modified to run properly.
The Nokia X was killed shortly after Microsoft’s acquisition, but apparently Microsoft has realized that the Nokia team was onto something. At Build, it announced that Windows developers will be able to repurpose code they’ve written for Android and iOS apps, giving them a considerable head start on bringing their wares to Windows devices.
Alas, the move to piggyback on Android’s success has been the late act of desperate companies, and hasn’t paid off in game-changing dividends. These companies have included Barnes & Noble, which opened the Nook to Google Play just before killing its tablet line; and BlackBerry, which first supported an approach similar to Microsoft’s before bringing the Amazon Appstore to its phones.
While Microsoft’s new strategy will certainly make it technically easier for iOS and Android users to move apps to Windows, many of the ones that make the transition may be lowest-common-denominator apps, such as simple games or repackaged websites. Microsoft hopes that once developers are on the platform, they will take advantage of some of its core technologies and services such as Cortana and Xbox Live, but BlackBerry expressed a similar sentiment, and it didn’t pan out. Indeed, there’s also the risk that those who would have otherwise gone the extra mile to support Windows-native technology may decide that plain-vanilla apps repurposed from iOS or Android will be good enough–even though Microsoft is extending features like Cortana across phone and desktop.
Developers who don’t use Microsoft’s own native technologies don’t have their heart in the Windows ecosystem. More importantly, their wallets will still have to be swayed by evidence that Windows Phones are gaining a critical mass of users. Incremental sales on Windows may not offset the resources they take away from developing new features for the iPhone, iPad, and a slew of Android phones and tablets. In addition, Android and iOS developers may need to wait for Microsoft to update its tools to take into account new features offered by Apple and Google–and Windows isn’t supporting Swift, Apple’s next-generation programming language.
Had Microsoft offered cross-compiling or emulation of apps written for other platforms at the dawn of Windows Phone, when the operating system looked like a promising contender–albeit a bit of a long shot–it might have seen more success. Now, the move comes across as a last resort to attract developers from the greener fields of Android and iOS, which have only blossomed further in the past few years.