2. Will Microsoft inspire developer enthusiasm for the Modern UI?
Whether the company can convince its massive foundation of .NET and Win32 programmers to embrace Live Tiles will be one of the biggest questions Microsoft must answer at Build. Redmond has been courting developers throughout the spring, and Windows Store submissions have gradually increased over time. But iOS and Android still boast around 10 times Win8's number of titles. In a market in which the "there's an app for that" attitude helped give rise to BYOD, the Modern UI still doesn't match up.
Ironically, Windows 8.1 could actually impede Redmond's efforts to unite developers. Thanks to the update, users who want to stay in the OS's desktop environment will be able to do so. Michael Cherry, a consultant with Directions on Microsoft, told ComputerWorld that the ability to omit Live Tiles from the Win8 experience could deter developers from writing for the Modern UI.
In an interview with the Seattle Times, Microsoft evangelist Steve Guggenheimer said Build presentations will explain how Microsoft's various platforms fit together. All the Windows 8 versions, from the variant that runs on the Xbox to the full version on the Surface Pro, share a common kernel. Theoretically, this should allow developers to write an app once and then deploy it through the entire ecosystem -- from smartphones to PCs -- without much revision.
Such an ecosystem could certainly appeal to consumers. If Microsoft can present a family of devices that seamlessly intermingle with and enhance one another, developers will sign up. Guggenheimer also said Build would address the gaps between various developer communities -- another good sign.
Still, Microsoft faces high stakes. David Johnson said that among Forrester clients, desktop users haven't perceived much benefit in the Modern UI. If that feeling is widespread, developers who write x86 applications don't have much reason to join the new wave.
Likewise, iOS- and Android-centric developers have surely noted the indifference consumers feel toward the Modern UI. Those who write for multiple mobile OSes generally make Win8 apps more expensive, a sign that they expect fewer sales from Microsoft's platform.
According to Johnson, ultimately the success of Windows 8 or Windows RT is less important than the success of the Modern UI. This, he said, means that apps matter more than most people realize.
3. What about those devices?
If Microsoft makes inroads in the mobility scene, Windows 8 and developer buy-in will be big factors. But Steve Ballmer sees "devices" as part of Redmond's new strategy. The company's ability to produce compelling hardware, and to inspire its OEMs to do likewise, will be central to its BYOD success.
Many expect Microsoft to debut at least one new Surface device at Build. Some rumors suggest Redmond will showcase a family of devices, while others imply that only one new machine -- likely a WinRT-based tablet -- is coming this week. Rumors also disagree regarding the alleged new Surface's availability, with some claiming the device won't be available until the back-to-school season or perhaps even sometime in 2014.
Two things are clear now, though: People are interested in the Surface RT only when Microsoft basically gives it away, and the Surface Pro is looking a lot less attractive now that Haswell-equipped Ultrabooks -- and their dramatically improved battery lives -- are hitting the market.
Most rumors indicate that Microsoft will release a 7- or 8-inch tablet. Some believe it will run on a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, suggesting robust LTE support, and that the device will boast a 1400 x 1050-pixel screen that handily outclasses the iPad Mini's.
An Xbox-themed Surface has also been mentioned, which could represent an additional way to target consumers and, indirectly, BYOD.
One big factor could be price. Windows RT has a growing number of apps, and it will soon have Outlook -- but it's also the most unpopular and least-used version of Windows 8. Some rumors have pegged the cost of a new Surface at $400, which is appreciably pricier than the iPad Mini, let alone low-cost Android tablets.
Will Microsoft price the Surface lower to drive adoption, or does it think its second generation will be compelling enough to demand a premium? At Build, many will be eager to find out.