High expectations pressure Microsoft to deliver at BUILD

Today's keynote will show whether the software maker can rebound from sluggish start to Windows 8

Microsoft today must deliver on expectations that have been mounting since the sluggish start of Windows 8 eight months ago, analysts said.

"This is an important turning point; this is about keeping the energy in Windows 8 and keeping the OS moving," said Frank Gillett, an analyst at Forrester Research. "It's still not clear whether Windows 8 will 'take,' so BUILD will be about re-energizing the platform and continuing to message about developer engagement."

Microsoft will open its BUILD developers conference today with a publicly broadcast keynote starting at 9 a.m. Pacific time, noon Eastern time. BUILD runs through Friday in San Francisco.

Although the Redmond, Wash.-based software maker has teased some of the changes in Windows 8.1, and more were revealed after the company released a preview of Windows Server 2012 R2 late Monday, analysts weren't as interested in the details of the free upgrade as in setting expectations of what Microsoft needs to do this week to convince everyone, not just developers, that Windows 8 is no flop, but instead a long-term player that will keep the company relevant.

"Microsoft must focus on consumers, and the importance of the things that consumers care about," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner. "They need that focus on the consumer not only because Windows 8 is aimed at consumers, but because of the consumers within enterprises."

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend plays a crucial role in determining whether any platform will succeed in a corporate setting these days, Milanesi argued, because individual employees have increasing control over what devices are used for and at work, often buying those devices themselves.

For Milanesi, a consumer-focused BUILD will mean Microsoft talking up developer opportunities on 8-in. and smaller tablets -- the year's hottest part of the tablet market -- Windows Phone 8 smartphones, and new hybrid designs that combine traits of tablets and laptops.

By laying the foundation with developers now, Microsoft can set the stage for a solid fourth quarter in Windows device sales, said Milanesi. In her view, it's critical for the company to have a strong fourth quarter if it wants to make a comeback next year with stronger tablet, phone and hybrid sales. Increased sales of those devices are necessary, Gartner said this week, to make up for the shortfalls caused by shrinking PC shipments.

Meanwhile, Forrester's Gillett said Microsoft will answer his biggest question simply by releasing a nearly-done Windows 8.1 and thereby proving that it can do what it has promised: deliver upgrades at a faster pace.

"They need to show that they're able to update Windows frequently, like mobile operating systems [are], with improvements that aren't giant leaps, that are more incremental," Gillett said. "Just having the event [now] lets them say, 'Look, it's eight months later, and we have the next version of Windows ready.'"

That will be a huge win for Microsoft, which has never pushed Windows development at this tempo. A rapid cadence is the norm for consumer technology platforms, and if Microsoft wants to be a player in the consumer market, it has to keep up with the Joneses.

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