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WinRT is the elephant in the room at the Build conference

Wood Leonhard | March 29, 2016
Will WinRT thrive in the guise of UWP, or are we looking at a repeat of the demises of Silverlight and ActiveX?

With the start of the Build conference a day away and the official Microsoft Build app now available, we have a good idea about most of the sessions and the general Azure slant of the developer offerings. As befits the occasion, Microsoft is sure to whip the Windows faithful into a frenzy.

Andy Weir at Neowin provides a good look at the Windows 10 hyperbole already flying around: "You are all gonna FREAK OUT when you see this," tweeted senior PM Rich Turner. "These features... are going to CHANGE EVERYTHING. No joke," from Scott Hanselman, principal PM for Azure. Both tweets have since been deleted.

I've been looking at the schedule, the speakers, and the details, and wondering, "Where is WinRT?"

For those of you who haven't been at this game long enough, let me start with a quick history of modern Windows development.

Old-fashioned Windows programs -- the ones you likely use every day, such as Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office -- rely on the Win32 Application Programming Interface, the set of system calls that lets programs talk to the operating system. Charles Petzold wrote the first widely used book about the Win32 API in 1988. The Win32 API grew and morphed, reaching its pinnacle in Windows 7.

When Microsoft announced Windows 8, it also announced the new Windows Runtime, a set of APIs (commonly called WinRT that truly revolutionized Windows programming. The "Metro" apps you may recall from Windows 8 and 8.1 are based on WinRT. I'll gently sidestep the discussion of how Microsoft inexplicably built computers that would only run WinRT and instead move on to mobile.

WinRT was the great rallying cry for mobile computing -- the nexus, at the time, of the mobile-first Windows world. It has all sorts of mobile-friendly capabilities, but relatively few developers have chosen to use it. There's a reason why -- many reasons, actually.

Windows Phone 8 arrived in mid-2012, and Microsoft started touting how WinRT could run on both PCs and phones. In June 2012, research firm Gartner had this to say:

[Windows 8] provides a common interface and programming API set from phones to servers. It is also the beginning of the end of Win32 applications on the desktop. ... Microsoft will continue to support Win32, but it will encourage developers to write more manageable and engaging applications using WinRT.

This, of course, was rubbish -- WinRT running on a phone and on a Win8 PC were completely, torturously different, and server adds an entirely new can of worms.

Microsoft pressed Silverlight -- its version of Adobe Flash -- into service as a development platform for Windows Phone 8. There was a time after the release of Windows 8.1 when developers had to choose between Silverlight 8, Silverlight 8.1, and pure WinRT, and they could only get into the Windows Phone Store if they made the hop to WinRT. I started screeching about the lack of support for Silverlight developers back in June 2011. Although Microsoft still lists Silverlight -- and offers it as an Optional update -- it's been abandoned. Devs who devoted months and years to figuring it out were tossed under the WinRT train.


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