I’ve posted the conclusion below in bullet point form. If you’re a dirty, filthy blog post skimmer, then head on down to the very bottom. I’ll see you there, fellow skimmer.

Microsoft has announced a great number of things at BUILD this week. First among them is the new tablet OS known as Windows 8. It happens to run on top of Windows 7 for now, but it’s clearly a tablet OS.

This is early, but it’s spinning around in my head, and I feel like I’ve got to write this somewhere. Consider this your warning.

I (and the rest of us as .NET developers) need to answer a question for ourselves, and soon:

The Big Question

As an enterprisey .NET developer with a day job doing non-WinRT-related work, is it worth my time to go out of my way to learn WinRT?

The Big Answer

I don’t know.

A Longer, More Rambling Answer

It’s complicated. On one side, Metro is slick and is clearly, obviously the better way to build apps in Windows going forward. On the other side, the 2005 version of me could have said the exact same thing about WPF, and a little before that, WinForms. Actually hey, let’s try doing a little Microsoft Framework Mad Libs and replace “WinRT” with older technologies. Here we go:

Microsoft UI Technologies mad libs

MAD LIBS 2002 edition: WinForms is slick and is clearly, obviously the better way to build apps in Windows going forward! And check out that designer!

MAD LIBS 2005 edition: WPF is slick and is clearly, obviously the better way to build apps in Windows going forward! It’s one of the unmovable, unshakeable, eternal pillars of Longhorn! And check out this cool designer called Sparkle! But don’t worry, graphic designers will do all the designing for us in Sparkle! It’s a new era! There’s also this sweet thing called “Windows Marketplace” where you can hock your apps! What’s that? WinForms? Well, it will still be supported, but you can mentally flush everything you know about WinForms down the drain. Unless you’re unlucky and stuck with a WinForms project, in which case…I guess it’s a good thing you know WinForms already.

MAD LIBS 2007-2008-2009-2010-ish edition: Silverlight is slick and is clearly, obviously the better way to build apps in Windows and the web going forward! WPF? Well, Silverlight uses XAML too! It’s like WPF, only less of it. Check out NetFlix! Oh, that isn’t really an application. Well, just trust me, it’s the future.

MAD LIBS 2011 edition: WinRT is slick and is clearly, obviously the better way to build apps in Windows going forward! Check out these sweet free tablets! There’s going to be an app store! Windows Marketplace? What? Oh, no one used that, it shipped with Vista. Don’t worry about it. This new app store is called, wait a minute, yeah. It’s still Windows Marketplace I think. Silverlight? Well, we’re not calling it that, no, but, there seems to be a lot of Silverlight here. But it’s not running on .NET, either the DLR or the CLR. We’re not sure yet*. But what’s clear is, WPF is no longer needed—remember how sluggish it was? Oh, are we not allowed to mention that yet? Ask me about performance next year. Maybe we’ll talk about performance then, if I can bend the messaging such that I am praising how good WinRT is in comparison to WPF. Designer?
*really, I’m not sure yet. WinRT most resembles Silverlight. Check out Rob (of Caliburn.Micro, and you should know what Caliburn.Micro is), he seems to be doing self-directed digging on WinRT and is on fire on the twitter.

Back on track

Ok. What I’m trying to say in the mad libs above is that you can’t trust Microsoft to stick with anything. You just can’t.

Everything sounds great right now, and yes, I do believe Metro is cool and slick and I could theoretically make sweet sweet tablet apps with it. Period. But. Comma.

But, I can’t trust them. The Longhorn demos were really, really good. I don’t remember reading anyone talking bad about WPF at the time. Sorry if I missed out, but I just don’t remember it. We all loved it. And what wasn’t to love? WPF is the future. Right?

Remember the three pillars of Longhorn?

As someone else pointed out on Twitter, remember the Office ribbon we were all going to put in all of our apps? Remember data access strategies? The Oslo hype? OSLO? OSLO!!!!!

Remember (dare I say it) app development in SharePoint? Disclaimer:I still like it as an intranet platform, a collaboration (power user) platform, and like it better than the more expensive/more enterprisey alternatives. Sorry guys.

And let’s focus on viability of the platform, not the viability of the tools

EDIT 2011-09-16: ninja edited this section to make complete sentences and generally wash away up-too-late-at-night-brain flavor.

And allow me to pre-emptively eliminate one common argument, since I’ve seen it crop up a lot in Windows Phone-land. Okay.

The Windows Phone has, by almost all accounts, a relatively good development platform. By mobile platform standards, it’s good. It’s probably* the easiest way to build simple apps for a phone.

With that out of the way, who’s buying Windows Phone apps from the app store today? And who’s paying you to develop a Windows Phone app? The vague, roughly accurate answer is no one.

So let’s not go and try to frame the entire discussion as a developer tool comparison. Tools matter, but a viable platform doesn’t necessarily have to have the best tools, and more importantly, good tools don’t guarantee a viable platform. A perfect case-in-point is WebOS.

I’ve heard good things about WebOS development. WebOS, for those of you not paying attention, is the platform that is now completely, 100% dead and represents a heavy loss of learning investment.

So to say this plainly, even if the tooling story is good, WinRT may already be circling the drain.

If you’re going to jump into Windows RT “whole hog”, the time is now

Let me try and focus this long, rambling answer into a focused discussion of cost (learning investment) versus reward.

If you learn WinRT now and it indeed turns out to be the future, you can end up like Josh Smith did with his WPF knowledge. Oops, wrong link, Josh Smith and WPF. Sorry about the confusion, I thought he had refocused on iPhone development there for a second. Must have been someone else.

Anyway, if you bet heavily on a platform, you’ll end up an expert, and hopefully that kind of early and deep expertise translates into more tangible rewards somehow.

As an additional bonus, outside of developing expertise for its own sake or for the sake of raising your value of your time to employers,  there may or may not be an early gold rush for WinRT tablet apps. You heard it here first: The WinRT app gold rush.


Now. If you wait, you are potentially missing out on your chance to make $2000 a month writing games for cats. That wasn’t in my original “gold rush” linkblog post, but I think it’s important enough to note that people are spending $2000 a month buying iPad apps for…cats. For cats! FOR CATS.

Time to wrap this up

I still don’t have the answer, but I feel better. If you tl;dr skimmed my entire post, let me summarize it as follows:

  • BUILD announced the Windows tablet developer framework called WinRT. There is a whiff of a hint (though I may be way off, someone confirm this) that WinRT may eventually be the development platform for Windows Phone. Unconfirmed.
  • I am deciding whether to go above and beyond and try and really get into this whole Windows tablet thing. At this time I don’t know.
  • The tablet has a lot of nice features and from all appearances, looks like it will be a success.
    • But so did WPF back in 2005-ish.
  • If I’m going to get into really learning tablet development as a sort of expertise, I should do it now, as there are both “gold rush” benefits and “deep expert” benefits.
    • But if it dies altogether, I will have essentially wasted any effort learning it.
  • Let’s talk about how this can end up:
    • Worst case: WinRT limps along for a few years and I am never able to a) use it on a work project, b) create a successful app with it. Hundreds (or maybe thousands) of hours are wasted learning WinRT minutia.
    • Best case: I elevate myself above commodity .NET developer. There is an almost unlimited best case. Bill Gates shows up on my doorstep to personally deliver a bag of money (though it’s certainly not all about money).
    • More reasonable best case: I have a lot of fun building tablet apps, get paid, and only enhance my .NET/Microsoft-guy skillset in the process.
    • Worst case 2: I blog about “The Decision” deciding to go “whole hog”, then get lazy and do nothing. See you next year. Currently at laziness DEFCON 4. Or laziness threat level orange. This means you’re going to have to go through the full body scanner to detect hidden laziness about your person whenever you’re at the airport now. I’m already on “the list” for known potential threats of laziness.

And let me be clear, I’m not choosing whether to read a blog post here and there, maybe watch a screencast, buy a book and not read it (most of my tech book reviews are as follows: Minty smell! Excellent binding. Looks and feels heavy.) I’m not deciding whether to dip my toe in to test the water, I’m choosing whether to jetpack cannonball jump off a cliff/dedicate most of my available “non-work dev time” to this. So it’s one of those “The Decision” moments, albeit no one cares about my decision. You get the idea.

And it’s only been a few days since the announcement. I don’t have to make the decision today. I can let the marketing funk that is BUILD (that has permeated every nook and cranny of the .NET community) wash out of my stinky, marketing-funk-permeated clothes. Maybe give them a double-wash, hang ‘em up and let ‘em flap in the breeze for a while. But maybe, I’ll discover a faint discoloration on the sleeve. Maybe I’ll discover that after the marketing funk has washed away, a metaphorical grape juice stain of opportunity remains.

As a final note, I will only say you can be thankful I wrote this so you can enjoy twitter again. I apologize for the last few days of nonstop #Win8 tweets, and you’re welcome.