OPINION: A tale of two Microsoft development teams

Covering Microsoft Corp.’s MIX10 developer conference this week has led me to this conclusion: Microsoft’s Windows Phone team needs to go back to the drawing board, while its Internet Explorer 9 team needs a raise.


Leading up to the Day 1 keynote, the word got out that Microsoft would be unveiling its Windows Phone 7 Series developer toolkit. This is big deal for an audience of programming experts.


For a good 20 minutes before the opening ceremonies kicked off, the audience was treated to a 16 year-old yo-yo champion named Sterling Quinn. As the yo-yo superstar left the stage, everyone would soon realize the most exciting part of the keynote was over.


Microsoft execs Scott Guthrie and Joe Belfiore focused on how developers can create Silverlight- or XNA-coded apps for its new mobile OS.


Tools like the Silverlight 4 beta, Expression Blend 4, and Visual Studio 2010 were all shown off in live demos. The tutorials actually convinced a non-developer like me that creating apps for Windows Phone 7 would be quick and easy.


I’m sure some developers were temporarily excited about this, but many of them probably realized development tools mean little without end users. The problem wasn’t with the back-end coding screens and developer tools, but rather with the front-end display of the Windows Phone 7 OS.


Projected for the world to see, Microsoft’s mobile platform basically shows itself to be an iPhone imitator. The “live tiles” interface is remarkably similar to what consumers saw years ago upon the iPhone’s release.


Also, Microsoft made a huge deal over its “panoramic interface,” which allows users to flick the screen to the left or right to navigate and read Web pages. This isn’t earth-shattering stuff and I suspect if you were to tell any of this to the average person on the street, they’re still going to respond with: “Microsoft makes phones now?”


With Day 2, the focus shifted to the company’s upcoming IE9 browser.


This could have been a disaster, as Microsoft has been feeling the heat from Google Inc., Apple Inc., and Mozilla in the browser war. But instead of showing off a copycat mobile OS, Microsoft demonstrated a bunch of really impressive HTML5 performance tests and a new JavaScript Engine.


The company also wisely committed to other standards, including CSS 3, in an effort to make developer markup code more consistent across browsers.


While Microsoft didn’t show off the browser’s interface or security functions, the capabilities on display in the “platform preview” have already got me very excited. The company’s commitment to HTML5 video also shows that they are looking to the future.


Microsoft finally realized that they no longer have a stranglehold on the Web browser market. If they continue to build capabilities that anticipate future technologies such as HTML5 and branch out to open and non-Microsoft standards, they will be in good shape.


In the browser market, Microsoft is still leading the pack in terms of usage, so the strategy to commit to industry standards and improve performance is a wise one. All the analysts I’ve talked to over the past few days agree that the browser war is back on.


But the same isn’t true in the mobile space.


Microsoft is not playing with the lead in that world. In fact, they might not even be in the game anymore.

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