Windows Phone 7: dropping a generation of developers

One of the less discussed aspects of the Nokia-MSFT deal is impact on developers. After all platforms stand or fall on the strength of their applications. (Steve Ballmer wanted every MSFT employee to take this message to heart.) Windows was able to leverage this virtuous cycle to deliver a stunning upset to Apple in the 1990s, by creating a very attractive environment for developers to enrich the platform one application at a time. Windows API was stable, through two decades as everything changed about the basic PC architecture. CPUs went from 16 to x64, multiple cores and SMP became common, GPUs gained a prominent role, the Network became a critical component of writing code. Windows programming still looked the same. In fact “app compat” became one of the major costs in operating system development– through heroic engineering effort, buggy applications relying undocumented APIs in some archaic version of the operating system were coaxed into working properly on the latest and greatest kernel, lest the incompatibility deter some customer from upgrading.

The same approach applied to mobile programming. Even before smartphones, MSFT pursued handhelds with PocketPC. A subset of the venerable windows API was still present, and later expanded into Windows Mobile. Any developer familiar with programming desktop applications could, with a little effort, write code for mobile devices. To a large extent Apple took the same approach to allow its developers to transition from writing Mac OS-X applications to targetting the iPhone/iPad.

So it came as a major surprise that WP7 dropped backwards compatibility. Native code is now verboten, only .NET applications can be written. In one bold stroke, MSFT may have lost a generation of developers who grew up scrutinizing the MSDN documentation for the subtleties of the classic Windows API. An even bigger question is whether they will be able to court new developers and gain mindshare among those contemplating a career in development. From the perspective of a newly minted computer science graduate trying to decide which programming language/environment to excel in, the options are:

  • Learn C/C++ and take up any systems programming task. (This includes traditional Windows applications, an admittedly endangered species.)
  • Learn Java and program either server applications, or dive into mobile development with Blackberry or Android– the new hotness.
  • Learn Objective C and write OS X or iPhone applications. Also known as “objectionable-C” this was an attempt (emphasis on attempt) to add object-oriented features to C before Stroustrup did it the right way with C++. Outside of Cupertino few people care about it.
  • Learn C# and .NET to program… what exactly? For all the work on promoting the idea that .NET is cross-platform and beats Java at its own game of write-once-run-everywhere, the technology remains very much tied to MSFT platforms. This used to be seen only for enterprise line-of-business applications, and web applications running on Windows server variants: before Windows Phone 7 came along and mandated managed code. The problem is these are highly specialized segment of the market. Much like learning Objective-C and Cocoa development, it is not a portable skill useful in any other context. Unlike OS-X/iPhone, WP7 does not have a commanding presence in the market and proven revenue model with an app store.

It is difficult to justify taking that last option, except as a way to capitalize on lack of competition. In other words, since every one else is writing for iPhone and Android, one viable strategy for ISVs may be churning out copy-cat WP7 applications styled after the popular ones on the leading platforms. But this is hardly a sustainable model, or an appealing proposition for a new developer seeking challenging work.


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