Microsoft Build: No Moscone mojo on Apple's and Google's turf

Other than a Bing surprise, the attempt to tweak major rivals where they fete programmers falls flat as Microsoft unveils little of consequence to Windows developers

San Francisco's Moscone Center has long been home to Apple's events, including its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). Google has its Google I/O developer event at the same cool-kids location for several years. This year, perhaps trying to show it's cool too, Microsoft brought its Build developer conference to Moscone.

But as it turns out, Build is no competitor to WWDC or even Google I/O, at least not in import. Microsoft's rollout of the questionable Windows 8.1 (aka "Blue") and a minor update to its Visual Studio development environment are underwhelming compared to what Google and Apple did at their developer galas. The human element shows it: The Build crowd is as large as the WWDC or I/O crowds, but more subdued.

The big news was a transformation of Bing to a platform for application and Web developers for much more than its traditional text search. New APIs allow analytics and parsing of images, geographic data, and natural language, with Siri-like voice recognition and Google-like human-language translation. The Bing platform should let apps become the eyes, ears, and even the mouth of apps, said Gurdeep Singh Pall, director of the Bing effort, in a way that could compete strongly with Google's similar technology vision and Apple's Siri-centric APIs. It will be interesting to see whether and how Siri uses the Bing APIs now that iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks will use Bing for Siri search.

Microsoft's underwhelming developer pitch
But in its two-hour keynote, Microsoft today focused mostly on old news, for example, unveiling the preview release of Windows 8.1, which it already detailed several weeks ago. Windows 8.1 is supposed to make unimpressed users more willing to buy and use Windows 8, and thus encourage developers to build apps for its Metro environment, which so far few have done given its low adoption.

Microsoft today rolled out a go-live preview of Visual Studio 2013 and Net Framework 4.5.1, along with unveiling Update 3 to its existing Visual Studio 2012 platform. As you'd expect, Microsoft's Visual Studio 2013 preview supports Windows 8.1-specific capabilities, such as its energy-profiling capabilities to optimize energy consumption.

Microsoft says the new Visual Studio will make it easier to stay connected to back-end services running on the Windows Azure cloud platform. New C++ capabilities include variadic template support, which supports a variable number of arguments and lets developers use less code in some situations. Developers working with C++ also can use the Microsoft Just My Code feature to debug just the code a particular developer is writing, rather than code by others in a team effort. (Just My Code has been available for C# programmers in earlier Visual Studio versions.) The preview also supports the Edit and Continue feature for debugging 64-bit applications; with it, developers can change source code while a program is in break mode.

Users of the Team Foundation Server behind-the-firewall application lifecycle management (ALM) server will get capabilities previously available to the Team Foundation Service cloud-based ALM server, including Git support, cloud-based load testing, and agile project management. Visual Studio 2012 Update 3 also includes ALM server build improvements as well as fixes to the debugger, IDE, Web tools, and F# functional programming language.

Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond says the improved Visual Studio capabilities will be especially valuable to development teams and therefore significant to much of the Microsoft developer community. By contrast, Apple and Google developers tend to be lone wolves and small groups, and changes to Apple's Xcode and the new Google Android Studio IDE remain focused on those small environments.

Microsoft also made available a preview version of Windows 2012 Server R2, the Windows 8.1 analog for the data center crowd.

Apple and Google had more to offer
Still, Microsoft's roster of improvements to Windows 8 and Visual Studio are simply not as exciting as what Google and Apple offered at their Moscone events this year. This year's edition of Visual Studio is being hurried out to market compared to Microsoft's usual two-year release cycles for the platform, and the changes are fairly small. There've been plenty of Visual Studio announcements in the past year -- maybe too many.

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