The convergence of the "three screens" -- PC, TV and Phone -- and what it means for developers.
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Steve Ballmer debuted as the opening keynote speaker. Ballmer's contention was that "the three screens" that people use everyday -- their PC, phone and television -- must converge. The observation was spot on. How will Microsoft lead in this effort? And how will developers participate and benefit?
Demos of Windows 7 (the first beta of which was announced at the keynote), Windows Live, Windows Mobile and Xbox 360/Xbox Live were presented as the answer. But Microsoft needs to integrate these and other product lines -- and flesh out the developer hooks around them -- if the company hopes to deliver three-screen convergence.
Win7 offers the most hope: When Ballmer announced the Win7 beta release, it invoked spontaneous, enthusiastic applause from the entire audience. People want this operating system, and they want it now. Beyond Win7's reported stability, the ability of the OS to run on lower-powered machines, including a slew of netbooks on display at CES, will give Microsoft important positioning and credibility with the increasingly budget-minded consumer market. This obviously benefits .NET developers who wish to target the consumer space, and companies that serve it.
Windows Live and Xbox are impressive as well. The "What's New" feed in Windows Live integrates with numerous social networks, soon to include Facebook. Xbox 360 sales in 2008 were formidable and Xbox Live membership is growing at a healthy clip. The new Xbox Experience user interface, with its avatar-oriented features, promises to bring more social interactivity to Xbox games and Xbox Live.
The Windows Mobile discussion was much less impressive. With details around Windows Mobile 7 delayed and the skyrocketing popularity of the Apple iPhone, Microsoft is in trouble on this front. Over the last several months, there was speculation that a new mobile platform, based on Zune, would be announced at CES. That it wasn't means that, in Zune, Microsoft has a fourth screen it must successfully converge.
How Do I Program?
The developer question lingers. Is there an API for Windows Live, for the What's New feed or for applications that can run within the service? And while we have XNA as a platform for Xbox game development, how can developers hook into the Xbox Live and Xbox Experience UIs?
Next, what about integrating the television? The CES show floor was filled with consumer network-attached storage (NAS) devices and a slew of set-top devices that bring NAS content to the screen and integrate a variety of Web-based video content. Shouldn't Microsoft be making a showing here? The truth is Windows Media Center, which is itself built on .NET and into which .NET apps can be integrated, has provided Web video and television integration for years. And Windows Home Server, which is a brilliant product, with a .NET add-in model, runs circles around most NAS devices.
But keynote content on Windows Media Center and Windows Home Server was scarce, and their presence in exhibitor booths was subdued. Many of the competing solutions have tight integration between the NAS and set-top components; shouldn't Microsoft offer comparable integration between Home Server and Media Center? Many of the competing solutions are compatible with interoperability standards from the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA). While the Xbox 360 does function as a DLNA client, and Hewlett-Packard has extended its Windows Home Server product with DLNA capabilities, Media Center and Microsoft's core Home Server product continue to rely instead on Windows Media Connect technology. Shouldn't that change?
Microsoft's to Lose
If these anomalies were addressed, if Windows Mobile were revamped or replaced, if the media offerings on a more programmable Xbox Live were enhanced and if an API-laden Windows Live integrated better with each, then Microsoft could have the leadership position in consumer digital convergence that Ballmer adeptly called out in his CES keynote. More importantly, the Microsoft developer ecosystem would have a much richer set of opportunities as this convergence took place.
With the anticipation around Windows 7, with Media Center, Home Server, Xbox 360 and the potential for a revamped Zune-based mobile phone platform offering, Microsoft has excellent assets in place to be a leader in consumer digital convergence.
The problem is relatively easy to solve compared to the work Microsoft has already done in developing these assets. But the danger for Microsoft is that not solving the problem is even easier. Microsoft needs to focus now and execute well. They owe that to their developer ecosystem, the market and themselves. And if Ballmer believes this consumer digital convergence to be important, then the Microsoft enterprise "better together" platform play must be brought to bear in the consumer space as well.
Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!