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Microsoft tries to meet IT demands for mobile PC apps

Some IT pros want PC-based apps ported to tablets and other mobile devices. But Microsoft needs to convince developers to get on board.

As the trickle of iPads leaking into enterprises turns into a fast-moving river, IT managers must consider their future compatibility with Windows applications that reside on thousands of desktop and laptops.

These IT pros might sleep easier if Microsoft crafted a strategy that convinces its enormous ecosystem of developers to port over their applications so they work seamlessly with this new category of mobile devices.

The company has already placed strategic bets on how it hopes to accomplish this -- namely porting its upcoming Windows 8 operating system over to the line of ARM processors, already powering the most popular tablet systems selling today, including Apple's iPad.

But successfully carrying out such a strategy, even among the most loyal of Windows developers, will be easier said than done. For one thing, Windows 7 and earlier versions of Windows are tied tightly to Intel's x86 chip architecture, so all these x86-based applications will have to take some advantage of the touch-centric capabilities built into Windows 8 and tablet devices. Without exploiting such capabilities, the prospect of these apps finding success is greatly diminished.

Divergent APIs for Windows 7 phones and tablets
A second complication is that Windows developers must adapt Windows 7 and Windows 8 applications to both tablets and smartphones, which have different sets of application programming interfaces (APIs).

"The fact you have different API sets for tablets and phones is a problem. Applications you write for a Windows media tablet won't run on a Windows 7 phone, so you lose the synergy with those applications that can't run on both," said Al Gillen, program vice president of system software at IDC who co-authored a recent report on the problems Microsoft faces in breaking into the media tablet business.

Microsoft's decision to leverage its PC-based ecosystem of applications for tablets -- and not its Windows 7 phone ecosystem -- is a wise one, Gillen said. It is also very different from Apple's approach, which was to use its iPhone ecosystem of applications for the iPad instead of its Mac OS desktop ecosystem.

"There is an awful lot of value the PC-based developer ecosystem can bring down to these new mobile devices, but there isn't much of an [developer] ecosystem surrounding Windows 7 phones," Gillen said. "It would be a mistake to leverage [Windows 7 phone applications] and to try to compete against Apple."

The momentum in getting developers to port existing Windows-based apps or to create new ones for these devices could be further bogged down by Microsoft's somewhat perplexing recommendations for which programming tools should be used.

Recently, some Microsoft executives have emphasized the use of HTML5 and JavaScript for creating applications for Windows 8, the operating system likely to drive future Microsoft-developed tablets and/or mobile devices. These officials made little or no mention of .Net, C++ and Silverlight, which Windows developers have used to create thousands of PC-based applications.

"Microsoft is giving out either confusing or incomplete information about what people should be focusing their development efforts on," Gillen said. "Frankly, right now, some developers are concerned."

Many IT professionals are still in the tire-kicking phase with HTML5 and have little real-world development experience. Some say they recognize that HTML5 offers the advantage of allowing the same application to run on multiple platforms, including the new generation of mobile devices. Others say they won't be ready to launch HTML5-based applications until their IT staffs are properly trained or they contract with outside experts.

"People here are trained up to work with .Net and some C++ for creating applications for our databases. As we do more Web-based development and integrate more mobile devices that will touch our back-end data, we'll have to get up to speed more on something like HTML5, but we aren't there yet," said Eugene Lee, an IT systems administrator at a large bank in Charlotte, N.C.

The impact of Windows 8
Another element weighing down interest among Windows developers is the lack of news about when Microsoft will make available the first beta of Windows 8. This extended radio silence about the next version of Windows or when the first Windows-based tablets might appear has caused some developers to wonder if Microsoft has encountered difficulties coming up with something competitive.

"It's unprecedented how tight Microsoft has been with information about all this, " said one analyst, who requested anonymity. "Some assume [Microsoft isn't] talking because it has nothing exciting to talk about, although I like to think that is not the case. But if they had something incredibly interesting, they would be telling us already."

Let us know what you think about this story; email Ed Scannell at

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