Microsoft BUILD expectations running high

Microsoft has led us to believe that what's going to be introduced at BUILD will be nothing short of spectacular. Time will tell.

I'm writing this the day before the opening of the BUILD conference in Anaheim, a new event that replaces the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) of the past. There's quite a bit of excitement around the event, fueled at least in part by the secrecy still surrounding exactly what is going to be revealed there this week.

A quick look at the BUILD web site will show you what I mean, and the agenda is about as vague as it gets: Let's see. We have "Registration," "Keynotes," "Sessions" -- but no hard information about the titles of the presentations or even who the speakers will be. We did get a little info on who will be doing the keynotes (Sinofsky, Nadella, Zander -- no big surprises there) in an MSDN blog, but even that was left off the official BUILD site.

Normally I'd think most people would be reluctant to shell out $1,600 to attend something about which so little information is available, but this one sold out well over a month in advance. The aura of mystery that Microsoft has tried to create here can't help but remind us of that other tech company. Apple is notorious for its cult of secrecy and for building suspense prior to the public unveiling of its new products, although some have questioned whether their products sell well because of, or in spite of, this. But they say you can't argue with success, and the strategy seems to have worked for Microsoft, as well, in this case.

My kingdom for a tablet

One of the most persistent rumors around BUILD probably has something to do with that: the speculation that Microsoft will be handing out Windows 8 tablets to attendees, as they gave away laptops in 2009 and Windows Phone 7 devices last year. After building up expectations by doing it two years in a row, how could they not do a big giveaway this year? (Editor's note: They did give out Windows 8 tablets.)

I think there would be a lot of mightily disappointed developers if that happened, and Microsoft has been actively courting developers very heavily in the wake of the first public demos of Windows 8. They know that in today's app-centric world, and especially for mobile devices (the market in which they're trying so hard to gain market share), the success or failure of the new OS might very well hinge on the apps that are available for it.

How many apps out of the gate?

How many apps does Microsoft need to be able to deliver, upon release of their new Windows 8 tablets, for those devices to be considered viable options to the iPad and Android tablets? Apple boasts there are over 90,000 apps available in their App Store specifically for the iPad, which can also run apps written for the iPhone (Apple claims more than 425,000 of those). There are more than 200,000 apps in the Android Market, although most are not written specifically for tablets.

Numbers are good for marketing, but in practical usage mean less than having the right apps -- the ones people want. The majority of tablet users probably have fewer than a hundred apps installed, and they probably regularly use fewer than half that. The trick is to figure out which of those apps hold "can't-live-without-it" status with most tablet users.

There are a few givens: Facebook, Twitter, Kindle, and the like should probably be preinstalled. Of course, we'll expect to see standards such as a calculator, voice recorder, photo gallery, music player, and so forth.

And despite the current trends toward minimalism (which is also exemplified by the Metro interface design) and the removal of the mail app from Windows 7, just about all tablets these days come with an email client, and Microsoft needs to include a "tabletized" version of Outlook on their Windows 8 tablets.

I'd also like to see them treat the tablet more like a phone than like a laptop in terms of preinstalled apps and include (possibly slimmed-down) versions of the major Office applications (and not just viewers): Word, Excel, PowerPoint and -- with tablets being the ideal note-taking device -- OneNote.

Can a Windows 8 tablet do it all?

I wrote in a previous iteration of this column, which was in response to the first public demos of Windows 8, that when it comes to a tablet, I want one that will do it all. That means the ability to handle both consumption and creation of content equally well, with the full flexibility to switch from consumer/entertainment mode to "down-to-business" mode without a hiccup. The iPad doesn't do that for me. My Android tablets don't do that for me. I believe Windows has the potential to do it -- if they get both the hardware and the software right.

Of course, unlike Apple, Microsoft doesn't have total control over the hardware part of the equation, although one might assume their close partnership with Nokia might bring them closer to that than they've been before. However, at this point Nokia hasn't announced any plans for getting into the Windows 8 tablet market, and their partnership with Microsoft is focused on Windows-based phones.

Meanwhile, it's looking as if the first Windows 8 tablet might be made by Samsung. There are rumors swirling that just such a device will be demonstrated at BUILD. Assuming it happens, the big question is: Will it be able to live up to all the expectations?

I know quite a few people who have high hopes for Windows 8 on a tablet. But, like me, they demand a lot if they're going to give up their iPads and Androids. The Windows 8 tablet can't just be "as good as" -- it has to be substantially better than the competition in important ways. It has to fill in the gaps where the other tablets fall short: expandability (USB ports, full-sized SD card slots, removable batteries). It also has to give us everything we're already getting from other tablets: a smooth, intuitive, and beautiful user experience, fast performance, and a price point that's not hundreds of dollars higher.

That's asking a lot. But by building up all this suspense, Microsoft has led us to believe that what's going to be introduced at BUILD will be nothing short of spectacular. And everything points to something that's tablet-centric. When you create high expectations, you have to deliver. In the next few days, I guess we'll find out whether Microsoft did.

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By Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...