Microsoft shows us it can listen, but is the BUILD developer audience listening?
Just a few weeks after Google’s I/O and Apple's WWDC conference in San Francisco’s Moscone Centre, Microsoft has taken to the stage to present to their developers.
As soon as you walk into the huge warehouse style hall, which has been decked out with screens and a huge sound system, it’s clear this is a very different kind of event from what the "other" two offered.
At an Apple event, the room is filled with an air of expectation, and you realise they people are real enthusiasts. At Google, there’s an air of excitement with nobody quite knowing what’s coming - and lots of people trying to see who is wearing Glass. At Build, people are here for work.
That’s not to say there isn’t a good atmosphere, and there is cheering and clapping, but it’s very subdued, at times almost verging on a golf clap. People know ahead of time that they’ll see Windows 8.1, and there’s little chance of a "one more thing" product announcement.
However, perhaps the relative quiet is simply a result of the audience being stunned by the shouting enthusiasm of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, who rushes on to the stage like a mountain gorilla who's just heard David Attenborough is filming nearby.
Possibly the only man who can present to a warehouse-sized venue without the need for a microphone, Ballmer is the ultimate hi-tech hype man, urging the crowd to shout and cheer.
Yet even Ballmer’s cries of "Windows, Windows, WINDOWS!" only just raise a cheer - and in fact, the biggest cheer by far is when it’s announced everyone gets a free Microsoft Surface Pro and Acer Iconia W3 just for turning up. However, that doesn’t mean the conference isn’t every bit as successful as the others'.
Microsoft’s Build conference is an unashamedly developer event, unlike the others which also try to pander to the invited consumer press. Here, it seems the keynote is almost a bit of a delay for people who really want to get to their technical sessions. Even as people enter the vast hall, it’s a slow, steady walk rather than the hilarious "running of the nerds" that marks the start of Apple’s keynotes when people are finally let in.
"There definitely isn’t the level of enthusiasm you’d see at Apple - for instance, when Apple announced auto updating apps, I thought the roof was going to come off," Carolina Milanesi of Gartner tells us. "Here, it’s far quieter, and there just isn’t the same energy in the room. It’s about work, and about developers learning new things in the sessions, and that’s why people come."
It’s also fascinating to see what gadget people are using - and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Microsoft Surface tablet is the big winner, with developers all joining the traditional hunt for a working Wi-Fi point.
For Microsoft, it’s a critical event.
The main attraction, Windows 8.1 Preview, is something of an embarrassment for the company. In a nutshell it’s attempting to fix the problems Microsoft created for itself in Windows 8.
As the keynote progresses, it does rather feel like going through the motions - with the most enthusiasm undoubtedly shown for Microsoft’s visual studio development environment, which is the most technical keynote presentation we’ve ever seen - even Zuckerburg's are lighter on info and that's saying something.
But there are some interesting and surprising announcements too. Microsoft added 3D printing native API to Windows 8.1, a new Bing API platform, and developers offered new Xbox One-style Kinect sensors for Windows for $399.
Being a developer is starting to get expensive.
Walking away afterwards the event feels a success, and undoubtedly hits the mark - and for Microsoft, it shows that while Windows 8 may not have been the success it hoped, it is able to listen to developers, and consumers, more than in the past - something its done a lot of this week (Xbox One we are looking at you).
Windows 8, and the Build conference, really does show just how much Microsoft is now willing to listen to others, and that it can run a developer conference that, uniquely in the tech world, does actually appeal to developers - even if it is really just a chance to hear Steve Ballmer bellow at them before they trundle off to the their in-depth sessions.