Ballmer's Windows swagger includes touch of delusion

At Build, the CEO painted a picture of a revitalized Windows, though Apple and Google have stolen Microsoft's thunder

Serving as a cheerleader for the various Windows platforms, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Wednesday morning hailed Windows as the platform where software developers need to be. But Microsoft has an uphill battle to make Windows trendy again, now that Apple's iOS mobile devices and Google's Android devices have grabbed so much of the spotlight from the stalwart software giant.

Whether Windows 8 -- announced this week at Microsoft's Build conference for developers -- can do that is an open question, but it's enjoyed a strong positive reaction based on Microsoft's demos. Developers I talked to were all impressed with Windows 8, and many saw it as the key to pulling the company out of its doldrums, particularly in the tablet space.

Ballmer appeared briefly at Build as the final keynote act, and he was in full form, bullishly pacing the stage and exclaiming the virtues of the Windows ecosystem, while deftly positioning Apple and Google as irrelevant to developers' economic fortunes: "There is no OS on the planet that will ship 350 million units of anything other than Windows, and that creates opportunities for developers.... It's the day and age of the developer. It's the day and age of the Windows developer."

That swagger turned to defensiveness in the mobile realm, where Ballmer claimed the struggling Windows Phone platform was "not fully appreciated." He praised its people-centric approach, but said nothing about its lack of basic security features, such as on-device encryption or business-class password rules.

Ballmer also said Microsoft eagerly anticipates what Nokia will come out with this year ("stay tuned for news soon," read one of Ballmer's slides) as it bets the company will switch to Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango," due in products from HTC and others in the next few weeks.

A reality check amid the evangelizing

The marketplace obviously has pondered Windows Phone and doesn't like what it's seen so far, given its minuscule market share numbers (in the low single digits). But Ballmer shouted the praises of it and Windows 8, citing positive reviews from some blogs and suggesting the new pan-device approach to Windows 8 when coupled with Windows Phone 7 -- both use the same UI and share Visual Studio as their development tool -- would herald a new, stronger "age of Windows."

Ballmer did emphasize that more work needs to be done in getting Windows 8 to work, and he told developers to expect Windows to be equally optimized for both ARM and Intel chips: "It's not Intel or ARM, but Intel and ARM." Some developers feared that Microsoft's adoption of ARM processors in Windows 8 might orphan Intel-based PCs over the long term, a concern Ballmer sought to assuage.

Microsoft's ties to the cloud

In his address, Ballmer discussed "reimagining" the company around four themes: hardware form factors, the cloud, new application scenarios, and a new class and forms of developer opportunities. But he cautioned that the cloud is still in its "early days" and told developers it would take years for its use to be the norm. He contrasted that caution on adoption with Microsoft's strong commitment to the cloud, especially its Windows Live suite of consumer and developer services and its Windows Azure cloud, which Microsoft promoted to developers for use with its Team Foundation Server application lifecycle management system. Microsoft execs also presaged links between the cloud and software such as the company's SharePoint collaboration system.

Ballmer also touted the upcoming Windows Server 8 OS, which will provide various storage, networking, and virtualization improvements. In addition, Microsoft detailed the planned Visual Studio 11 IDE, featuring Windows 8 WinRT and HTML5/AJAX tools that developers reacted positively to in the demos this week.

At this year's Build conference, Microsoft really needed to make a positive impression with what it has in store, given the lingering reputational damage from Vista and the polite reception to Windows 7, in contrast to the renewed rise of Apple mania with the iPad and iPhone and the ascendancy of Google with Android. Among Windows developers, Microsoft seems to have succeeded. The audience was applauding vigorously throughout the demos -- and they were real live, honest-to-goodness developers.

This story, "Ballmer's Windows swagger includes touch of delusion," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.