Microsoft developer conference big on iPhones, Macs

You don’t have to think back very long ago to remember a time when there were Mac people and PC people and as with West Side Story‘s Jets and Sharks gangs there was little common ground between them. In the operating system wars however the weapon of choice has been flames rather than switchblades.

It seems however that traditional hostilities may have gone out the window as users and developers embrace a far more pragmatic philosophy. Just how dramatically the tech world seems to have changed once deep-seated biases became quite clear at the recent ReMix10 Microsoft’s annual developer love fest (their words not mine).

First of all it was interesting for the sellout crowd to have gathered to learn about and passionately discuss platforms such as Windows Phone 7 – a slick-looking mobile operating system that has never been touched by human hands in its final form. Developers are building for Windows Phone 7 using Microsoft’s phone-simulator applications which led to some funny scenes in which developers had to lean in to interact with a demonstration virtual phone that was dwarfed by the HP touchscreen on which it was running.

Indeed all the conference sessions were run using development tools with the requisite virtual emulator in the middle of the screen. This is how real developers do it in the early stages of course but they normally have an actual device to do final testing on. The lack of an actual physical phone on which to try out their applications lent the proceedings a certain otherworldly bizarreness – as when one presenter had to pull out a hacked Wii remote and driver to simulate input from the imaginary accelerometer in the imaginary Windows Phone 7 device in his demo.

Developers meet Windows Phone 7. Hopefully the real thing won’t require carrying around quite as large a screen. (Photos: David Braue)

Microsoft selling Windows Phone 7 to developers in this way is sort of like having an architect traipse through your house describing the soaring arches and decorative gables that will turn your mundane lounge room into a shining exemplar of interior-design beauty; you just have to stay with him and muster all your positive thinking. It’s like trying to train a dog to sit up and beg by showing him a picture of a Schmacko.

Then came time for attendees to look beneath their seats from where one lucky gent extricated a brand-new HTC Touch HD2. The HD2 of course is based on the soon-to-be-obsolete Windows Mobile 6.5; it was ironic that Microsoft would be delivering a phone that can’t actually be upgraded to run Windows Phone 7. I know Microsoft is taking cues from Apple for its marketing strategy but there really must be a limit to how many months you can expect people to wait between announcing a product and actually shipping it.

The other standout: what at first seemed to be an intentional if slightly joking effort on the part of speakers not to mention the iPhone and iPad by name. Instead the iPhone was repeatedly referenced as the phone “from a certain fruit-flavoured company” and it was clear they weren’t talking about Blackberries.

One speaker eventually forgot the need for coded speech and mentioned the device by name which got a shudder from his co-presenter and a snigger from the hundreds of audience members – about a quarter of whom were toting iPhones of their own.

Glancing around the lobby during the intermission iPhones were absolutely everywhere. A few developers were staying loyal and driving WinMo devices and I saw a few Android-powered smartphones but the iPhone’s presence was unavoidable. Compounded by the absolute lack of concrete Windows Phone 7 devices you’d think Microsoft was just building for the iPhone.

MacBooks were also seen here and there although the fact that these were in fact Windows developers meant there was a preponderance of Windows boxes. Yet that didn’t stop one of the presenters John Allsopp from quite openly using a Mac to deliver his presentation on Web standards.

From the ‘Safari’ on the title bar to the left-corner window controls and the massive task-switching icons Mac OS X was all over Allsopp’s presentation which did a nice job summarising the best aspects of the next-generation Web language.

Now Allsopp is an independent-type thinker and speaker so he’s
technically free to use whatever computer he wants. But the fact that he
wants to use a Mac at a Microsoft conference would have had
Microsoft’s PR minders in a tizzy not too long ago.

I laughed at the discovery but on reflection it seems that perhaps this sort of surprising juxtaposition reflects the softening of the once-feverish OS wars for something at once more pragmatic and effective. I don’t know whether Microsoft mandates that speakers use Windows machines in its conferences but you’d think that such an order wouldn’t be necessary for people that write Windows software for a living.

That’s a fist pump for open Web standards not just for the Mac. Well at least we think so.

There’s always the possibility that Allsopp was making a point to support one of the interesting things he said in his presentation. “It really is an incredibly limiting factor if we have these conflicting silos based on standards” he said.

“No one really cares what’s in the box anymore; on the whole computing hardware has vanished. And I think that in the next couple of years the operating system is going to vanish in the same way the hardware has. We’re not going to care anymore and the Web is going to become the new operating system.”

Was Allsopp calling a truce in the OS wars? Or was that truce already called long ago and the penetration of Apple into Microsoft’s development heartland just a symptom of it? I don’t know but it does seem fair to say that the times are definitely changing. At this rate the iPhone-toting Microsoft developers may even start using Windows Phone 7; all Microsoft has to do is deliver actual shipping product and they’re ready to go.

Are the OS wars oh so 2007? Or is this just the natural evolution of things?