With the new Windows 11, Microsoft is all in on "Developers, developers, developers!"
There's a lot riding on the launch of Windows 11. It's not only that Microsoft is launching a major new release of Windows, but it's also a reaffirmation of the role of Windows in the Microsoft story. The last few years may have made it seem that it was Azure that was the future of Microsoft, with Windows destined to be only another client for a global, cross-platform cloud.
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While that was never really the case, there was a perception that Windows was something of an afterthought when it came to investment. Windows 11 aims to change that perception, with Kevin Gallo, the CVP of Windows Developer Platform leading the charge. We sat down with him last week to talk about what Windows 11 offers developers. "It's in our DNA," he said, "Our company was created by developers, it was created for developers." That's the history; now he's looking at the next step, "Microsoft is recommitting to making Windows the best platform to build for."
That's an important commitment to make, and one that's essential to deliver on. So, is Microsoft walking the walk as well as talking the talk? First there's the new, open Microsoft Store. If Windows 11 is to succeed as a platform it needs to be able to deliver software quickly to users and help them find the tools they need, while providing a way for developers to make a living from their work.
Making a living: Distribution
The Microsoft Store's own payment system takes a relatively low cut, but opening the store to any and all payment engines is a big move. It means that not only can you find software like Adobe's Creative Cloud there, you can also download other stores. Amazon and Epic Games have said they'll be adding theirs to Microsoft's, and more are likely to follow.
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You'll be able to find apps of all types in the Microsoft Store too, from modern apps built with the latest technologies, to older Win32 apps, with support for most common installers. There'll also be improved PWA support, with sites like Reddit available as PWAs in the Store. Microsoft will still curate its storefront, but it won't stop you uploading your code. Other restrictions, like browser engine requirements, are also being removed: Other browsers like Firefox can be in the Store for download. Instead of limiting what Store apps can do, Microsoft is relying on the reputation and rating for quality apps to bubble them to the top.
Delighting users: Design
Encouraging developers to build applications that take advantage of Windows 11's many new features is also important. That's where the Windows App SDK and the related WinUI 3 tooling are key, building on the existing Fluent Design model and adding a new Mica material to its controls. Both will also support older Windows releases, following the Windows support lifecycle, but when apps run on Windows 11 the new behaviour will light up without developers needing to manage multiple versions. As Gallo notes, "This isn't about just building little widgets, this is about launching large-scale platform capabilities."
Other new features are less obvious, but key to providing a consistent user experience. New WinUI controls provide their own, relatively subtle, animations (Microsoft reversed some of its early plans to animate when you hover over any icon, but it uses it to give the user subtle confirmation they've clicked on an icon). All you need to do is add the controls to your application. Microsoft is providing design guidance on how to use these new animation features, with Gallo telling us that the guidance builds on Microsoft's user research experiences, letting them tell developers, "Here's what most people feel comfortable with, and here's where you start to get discomfort."
Making it easier to get new design features should speed up adoption of WinUI 3, providing developers with controls that support Fluent and add support for Windows 11's rounded geometry. Windows 11's rounded corners aren't only for windows, the same rounding is used in controls, along with new variable-width fonts including a new version of the familiar Segoe UI icon font, Segoe UI Variable. All you need is to use WinUI 2.6 or later to take advantage of the new Fluent elements, upgrading to later versions as part of a migration to the Windows App SDK.
Building better code: Developers
It's not only the desktop that gets a revamp with Windows 11. It also introduces new technologies like Direct Storage for rapidly moving data from storage to GPUs. Intended to help game developers, it's showing promise for other technologies that use Direct X to work with GPUs, for example delivering training data to machine learning systems that use the Direct Compute APIs to work with GPU-hosted neural networks.
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Perhaps the most important aspect of the Windows 11 launch for developers is that Microsoft is reaffirming the place of Windows at the heart of an ecosystem. Gallo talked about Windows as an "Open platform for developers to build their business on." That's very much the original promise of the Windows platform, one where it was possible to build a billion-dollar business on top of its APIs and tooling.
Those APIs are key to the Windows 11 developer promise, as Gallo said, "On Windows, because we're open and you get access to all these APIs, you can do things that you can do nowhere else." The final part of the puzzle is an agnostic, open store, one that supports all development models, along with new ways of building better applications to give that platform the firm foundation it needs.
Gallo went further making a promise, for developers and for their future: "When they bet with Windows, they can trust us, they can trust we're not going to pull the carpet out and eat them or anything like that. They can go build a business with confidence that they have a long-term roadmap on top of Windows."
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