WIndows 8: Microsoft builds Surface tablet apps through student recruits
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Microsoft is forging a future in tablets with students like Joe Shapiro, a computer science major who had never crafted applications for the company’s Windows software until he won an internship to try it out.
Shapiro, a senior at Brown University, spent the summer in the Foundry paid internship program at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development Center, known as NERD. He helped build a commuter-transit app, Catch It, that should be available for download later this month in the online store for Windows 8, the new tablet-friendly version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system. And, crucial to Microsoft’s ambitions, he plans to make more apps.
Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker, designed Windows 8 for touch-screen technology included in the company’s first tablet, Surface, and other devices coming this year. To gain share in tablets, a market expected by DisplaySearch to reach $66.4 billion in 2012, Microsoft needs enough apps to challenge the more than 200,000 available for Apple’s iPad.
"The apps ecosystem is probably the single most important factor in a customer’s experience," said Al Hilwa, an analyst at market researcher IDC. "It dictates what books you read, what music you listen to, what movies you see, what social activities you take part in. Problem is, you can’t have half a million apps overnight." Interns, also deployed to write prototype apps for the Windows 8 preview last year, produced six apps through Foundry, generating enough interest among computer science students for the company to make the pilot program permanent.
Using student recruits is one way Microsoft can woo app developers who are used to building programs for mobile phones and tablets, where the company has little and no share, respectively.
"Microsoft has struggled to get college kids interested in developing for Windows," said Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, who is based in Kirkland, Wash.
Luring programmers before graduation is particularly critical for recruitment in the United States, which lags behind countries such as India and China in its ability to crank out qualified engineers. The U.S. ranks 23rd among developed nations in the percentage of students with undergraduate degrees in science or engineering who are employed in related fields, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported last year. The report analyzed employment trends for people age 25 to 34.
Like their counterparts already in the workforce, student developers have focused programming efforts on apps for Apple’s iOS software, which powers the iPad, and Google Inc.’s Android operating system, used in an array of handheld devices, including Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle.
Microsoft’s version of the Surface tablet that is most comparable to the iPad won’t be able to run older Windows apps, forcing developers to start from scratch.
Windows 8 is the first Microsoft operating system that will work on computers running chips based on ARM Holdings Plc technology. These chips are widely used in mobile devices, including the iPad. The ARM-based products will run only apps designed specifically for the new version of Windows — and none of the programs already available for Microsoft software on machines made for Intel Corp.’s chips.
"Microsoft is definitely playing catch-up with respect to the global app marketplace," said David Hilal, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, in an interview. "Their challenge is a chicken-and-egg problem. They need to get more users for their apps to entice developers, but they need better apps to attract more users." Enter NERD interns to help fill the void. This summer’s group of 21 interns produced three apps already in the Windows store, and two more that are expected to follow soon.
One of the intern-built apps is Trackage, which enables users to locate packages shipped by FedEx Corp., United Parcel Service Inc., the U.S. Postal Service and LaserShip Inc. using a single app rather than having to go to each service’s website separately. Another, Never Late, is an alarm clock app. Inkarus is a physics game in which users collect gears and feathers to help a chubby penguin build a flying machine that must steer clear of things like antigravity fields and rainstorms.
The NERD building, located in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, lets Microsoft maintain a base near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University as well as offices belonging to Google, VMware and other biotechnology and venture capital firms.
Parts of the facility, which also houses a research lab and some of Microsoft’s Office employees, was designed by Ray Ozzie, former chief technology officer at the company. Intern desks have stunning views of the Charles River. Walls are adorned with banners from an advertising campaign Microsoft ran in places such as Boston’s subway, with lines like "Softwayah" - or software pronounced with a Boston accent.
The app that Shapiro and two other students built for Boston public transit may be available in Microsoft’s online store by the end of the month. Shapiro, now well-versed in Microsoft’s C# programming language, wants to make more.
"I’m a completely C# convert now," Shapiro said. "I never want to go back." Another intern-made app, FaceReel, also awaits approval. It uses facial-recognition software to generate videos out of a set of images - think of it as a way to create a birthday or 50th- anniversary video without all the complicated editing or PowerPoint work.
FaceReel was made by a team that included Jancarlo Perez and Jasmine Huynh, students at MIT who, like Shapiro, hadn’t worked on apps for Windows prior to the internship. They, too, plan to develop Windows apps again.
Perez described the Windows 8 development environment as "fast and fluid," echoing the oft-repeated phrase Microsoft executives have used to describe the program.
NERD interns who later opt for a career making apps for Microsoft may find it’s easier to get exposure for their work because the field isn’t as crowded as it is for apps built for Apple or Google operating systems, said Hilal, the FBR analyst.
"As an app developer, you take a little bit of a leap of faith today with Microsoft," Hilal said. "You can get a lot of downloads with Apple, but there’s a lot of competition." Beyond fostering a desire to work at Microsoft, NERD aims to create a devoted group of Windows 8 converts who will spread their enthusiasm among fellow computer science majors and design students.
"Because Windows 8 is pre-release, it’s been so exciting to get my hands on it before other people have been able to," said Emily Lin, a media arts and sciences major at Wellesley College, who served as the designer on the Catch It team. "When I tell my friends, they say, ’That’s so cool that you are getting to develop on Windows 8.’ "