Over the decades, Microsoft’s developer conferences have provided the first glimpse of some of the company’s most important products, from Windows 95 and Internet Explorer 5.5 to the .NET framework and Azure cloud computing platform. But they have also been the launchpad for some of its biggest flops, like “Longhorn,” which morphed into the doomed Windows Vista after its coming out party at the 2003 Professional Developers Conference.
So how will Microsoft Build 2019 be remembered? First, for the fact that Microsoft was way ahead on this whole trust and privacy thing. But perhaps not for a whole lot else.
“A few years ago when we started talking about it, it felt a bit prosaic to talk about responsibility at tech conferences where it’s all about the glitz of technology, but it’s no longer the case,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, opening the developer conference in Seattle on Monday, before outlining the company’s agenda for privacy, cybersecurity and “responsible” artificial intelligence.
In fact, privacy and trust are the new hot thing in a tech industry facing a backlash over repeated leaks and revelations about online manipulation of elections and politics. And Microsoft was way ahead on this front, thanks in part to the privacy battles of it’s youth.
“We’ll talk a lot about this opportunity throughout this keynote and throughout this conference, but we also share a deep responsibility together,” Nadella said. “It starts with us as platform providers, but we have a collective responsibility. To us really thinking about trust in everything that we build, in the technology we build, is so core, and as engineers we need to truly incorporate this into the core design process.”
Nadella’s remarks stood out as a natural extension of a conversation Microsoft has been having for years, rather than what amounted to an abrupt change of direction from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the social network’s privacy-oriented F8 conference last week. Google, which holds its I/O developer event in California this week, has also been under the microscope for privacy issues.
Microsoft backed up its words with technologies, or at least with announcements, unveiling new tools for campaigns and elections officials to operate more securely, for example. The company returned to the theme of trust and privacy throughout the Build keynote address.
— Bloomberg TV (@BloombergTV) May 2, 2019
But even as the company is lauded for its turnaround under Nadella, it needs to maintain and drum up excitement among third-party developers, the independent and corporate developers and engineers whose cumulative decisions and loyalties can make or break technology platforms over time. With Windows settling into its role as a reliable utility on PCs and laptops, and no popular smartphone platform to call its own, Microsoft faces a significant challenge on that front.
A demo glitch to kick off the show didn’t help, as a re-enactment of the Apollo 11 moon landing on Hololens devices went bust due to an unspecified problem. The rest of the keynote focused heavily on mostly non-glitzy business technologies and applications, sticking to the area that has fueled Microsoft’s resurgence.
The company is looking to push the boundaries in the field of conversational artificial intelligence, showing an example of free-flowing interaction between a virtual agent and a person.
Microsoft also unveiled new integrations between Azure, Visual Studio and GitHub, the popular developer platform acquired by Microsoft last year. But many of the company’s initial announcements at Build were updates to existing technologies, not enough to give this developer conference a place in the history books. The company is bringing back Internet Explorer as a mode inside the Edge browser, and open-sourcing elements of its quantum computing programming language.
But for this highly technical audience, there wasn’t a buzzworthy attention-grabber on the level of the Azure Cosmos DB globally distributed database announcement at Build 2017, or the integration of Xamarin mobile development technologies into Visual Studio, announced at Build 2016.
As with many Microsoft developer conferences past, it may take more time for the real story of this Build to emerge. At the very end, Microsoft teased an upcoming augmented reality version of Minecraft, appearing to allow gamers to play Minecraft in the real world, a la Pokémon Go.
In the meantime, the company seems to be banking on incremental product and platform advancements, combined with Nadella’s best efforts to keep developers in the fold.
“It’s really exciting to see the developer opportunity in front of us,” the Microsoft CEO said to conclude his keynote address. He called the company’s platforms “a rich canvas for you in this era of the cloud and the edge, to enable you to turn the dreams that you all have into reality, not just imagine the future, but to create it, to build these magical experiences.”