Straight talking 57

by Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson argues that Windows 8 is a lot more than ‘business as usual’.

HardCopy Issue: 57 | Published: September 1, 2012

2012 is proving a busy year for Microsoft. New releases include Windows 8, Windows Server 2012, a transformed Windows Azure, Office and SharePoint 2013, and Windows Phone 8, now built on the same kernel as Windows 8 and with a similar development platform.

What next for Emarcadero and Delphi?

Embarcadero’s Delphi has been the Windows developer’s best kept secret ever since its first release back in 1995 (though of course it was Borland Delphi then), and the fact that it is still around and under active development today shows how capable and productive it is. Of course the company would like Delphi, and its cousin C++Builder, to be less of a secret, but it has struggled to build the market beyond the relatively small but loyal group of developers that have discovered the strength of the VCL (Visual Component Library).

The challenges are easy to see. On Windows, no third-party can hope to keep pace with the resources and inside knowledge that make Visual Studio what it is. Delphi and C++Builder survive only because Microsoft has yet to create a native code framework that is as productive as Delphi’s VCL. When the Delphi team has tried to branch out into other areas, such as versions which compile for the .NET Framework, that benefit no longer applies and it has been harder to win developers over.

Since the XE2 release of Delphi and C++Builder last year, Embarcadero has been able to offer another strong feature. Provided you use the FireMonkey framework and not the VCL, you can build cross-platform applications for Windows, Mac and iOS. Android and Linux will follow.

News is now coming out about RAD Studio XE3, expected in the Autumn. This will include a new tool called HTML 5 Builder, for building both web apps and mobile apps for iOS and Android, and also some measure of support for Windows 8 “styling and functionality”, though it seems that only Prism, the .NET tool, will be able to compile for the Windows Runtime.

There is a lot that is right about the direction of Embarcadero’s tools. Developers do want to move beyond Windows into mobile apps. In the C++ world, though it is sad to see the end of the Borland compiler, it makes sense for the company to embrace Clang and LLVM in order to get support for 64-bit, C++ 11, and a head start on cross-platform code.

At the same time, this is a company that has not learned the mantra of “under promise and over deliver.” Technical evangelist David Intersimone talked to me about plans to rationalise the various IDEs into one common, cross-platform code base, but these goal seems far off. Currently there are several IDEs most of which run only on Windows, so that to develop for the Mac you need at least a Windows virtual machine. I doubt Embarcadero will make big inroads into Mac or Android development while this is the case. Why not focus on this, and on improving the quality of the tools, frameworks and documentation, which often seem to need updates and patches very soon after the release of each new edition, rather than attempting new products like HTML5 Builder?

Keeping up with Embarcadero and its occasional roadmaps can be frustrating and it would be good to see sharper focus from the company. Nevertheless, Delphi and C++Builder are excellent tools and well worth a look, particularly if you develop for Windows.

The most visible and controversial of these is Windows 8, for which the final release code is now available to MSDN and TechNet subscribers, along with Visual Studio 2012. The quality of Windows releases has varied over the years, with Microsoft successfully managing transitions from 16-bit to 32-bit and then 64-bit, as well as the move from DOS to pre-emptive multitasking and the Windows NT kernel, and user interface changes such as the disappearance of Program Manager and the introduction of the Start menu and taskbar in Windows 95. Despite the magnitude of these changes, I cannot think of a release as controversial or as radical as Windows 8. “From the user’s standpoint, Windows 8 is a failure – an awkward mishmash that pulls the user in two directions at once,” says Windows stalwart Woody Leonhard at InfoWorld. “Anyone who defines ‘real work’ as typing and mousing won’t like Windows 8 one little bit.” While I do not agree with Leonhard – I have done almost all my work on Windows 8 since installing the Release Preview and do not encounter the issues he describes – his comments do show the risk Microsoft is taking, and the strength of reaction from some who would prefer Windows to remain the way it is with only minor changes. It is not just business as usual; and the reason for this is not so much Microsoft’s desire to shake things up, but rather the pressure from competition. Two words sum it up. iOS and Android. Microsoft’s problem is not so much its failure to compete effectively in mobile devices. Rather, it is the way these alternative platforms are eating into its core market of Windows and Office. An iPad or Android tablet is less powerful than a Windows PC but wins on portability, ease of use, security and battery life. There is a huge range of apps available, with no setup routines or uninstallers to worry about – just search in the store and tap to install. Users love these devices, and while you still need a PC or Mac for some kinds of work, it is surprising what you can achieve with the right app, or through a Web browser, or if necessary through remote desktop. There are also areas of work where a tablet is simply better: reading and following a meeting agenda and briefing documents, for example.

Put this together with pressure from Mac OS X at the high end, and you can see that Windows is set on a slow but sure path of decline. While it would have been easier for Microsoft-platform professionals if Windows 8 had merely been an improved and refined version of Windows 7, that would have changed nothing. Microsoft instead chose to create the Windows Runtime platform, and if you look beyond the unfamiliar Start screen and the frustration of full-screen apps on a desktop, you can see how Windows 8 does fit better with today’s IT trends. Here is a quick recap:

1. A user interface that works properly with touch, something that the old Windows UI could never achieve. Microsoft claimed when Windows 7 was released that it would work better with touch, but in fact the improvement over Vista in this respect was marginal. Even if Microsoft had fixed the operating system UI somehow, third-party applications would still have been horrible to use without keyboard or mouse. 2. Easy and safe installation and removal of apps. This is not a trivial feature. If you have ever installed apps on iOS or Android, coming back to Windows and installing an application with its own setup routine feels like going back in time. Even today, I regularly see issues like unsigned installers, or downloads that install other unwanted stuff if you forget to uncheck the ‘also install the XYZ toolbar’ option. 3. Safe interoperation between apps, and between apps and the operating system, via contracts. This is one feature in Windows 8 that makes Android and iOS look dated. In Windows 8 for example, one app can register with the system that it provides images, and another app that it consumes images, and the two can interact under user control.

Windows 8 Store screenshot

The Windows 8 Store is key to the success of the new operating system.

Another factor is that Windows Phone 8, which will follow on from Windows 8, uses the same core platform. Microsoft is finally unifying its device and desktop platforms. Note that all of these features depend on adoption of the Windows Runtime, rather than the classic desktop, which is why Microsoft has performed contortions in order to try and satisfy those who simply want to keep working with their existing Windows desktop apps, while also ensuring that the Windows Runtime, or Modern UI, is in your face and cannot be missed. The result is rather odd for sure, but it does work, and I have seen both expert and non-technical users get on fine with Windows 8 after a day or two learning the new system. It is worth the effort, since once you have come to terms with the new Start screen and discovered the Windows key, the faster performance along with features like Hyper-V virtualisation and Storage Spaces mean that you will not want to go back to Windows 7. That said, the success of Windows 8 will not be judged by how well it runs desktop apps. Its success will be judged by whether it establishes a strong market for Windows Runtime apps. That will not be easy, but the potential is there for a new generation of Windows that users will enjoy more than the last one. Otherwise, it is back to long, slow decline for Microsoft’s platform.