Surface development: it’s just like software development

Surface is magic. Everyone using it seems to think that way. And I have to be honest, after working for almost 2 years with the platform I still get that special feeling the moment I turn on the unit to do some more work.

The whole user experience, the rich environment of the SDK, the touch, even the look and feel of the Surface environment is so much different from the stuff I’ve been working on all my career that I am still bewildered by it.

But… and this is a big but.. in the end we’re still talking about a computer and that needs software to become useful. Deep down the magic of the Surface unit there is a PC somewhere, running Windows Vista and the .net framework 3.5. When you write that magic software that makes the platform come alive you’re still working with .net, WPF/XNA, C#, VB.Net and all those other tools and technologies you know so well.

Sure, the whole user experience is different from what you’ve known. And the way of thinking about users, their interaction and the positioning of screen elements requires a whole new paradigm. And that takes time. It took me about half a year before I had the feeling I got it nailed down. But when that moment came (about 18 months ago…) I realized that everything I had learned so far on software development still is true when it comes to Surface.

The last 6 months I have been working with some people with a different background to start a new company. The idea was that the new company would be focussing on Surface and Surface only. These people come from a marketing background and had some good ideas for some applications. And I have to admit: their ideas were good. Very good. Where it all fell down of course is that these ideas need to be implemented in a piece of software. And creating great software takes skilled developers and a lot of time and money. That’s where things went wrong: the marketing guys didn’t realize and didn’t want to realize that software development is a job that takes skill. You can’t just hire a bunch of developers and expect them to deliver the best sort of software, especially not when it comes to Surface.

I tried to explain that yes, their User Interface in Photoshop looked great, but no: I couldn’t develop an application like that in a weeks time. Even worse: the while backend of the software (WCF for communications, SQL Server for the database, etc) would take a lot more time than the frontend.

They didn’t understand. It took them a couple of days to drawn the UI in Photoshop so in Blend I should be able to build the software in about the same amount of time.

Well, you and I know that it doesn’t work that way. Software is hard to write, and even harder to write well, and it takes skill and dedication. It’s not something you can do as fast as you can draw a mock up for a Surface application in Photohop.

The same holds true for web applications of course. A lot of designers there fail to appreciate the hard work that goes into writing the plumbing for a good web app that can handle thousands of users. Although the UI is very important, it’s not all there is to it.

And in Surface development this is the same. The UI should create the feeling of magic, but the software behind it is what makes it come alive. And that takes time. A lot of time.

So brush of you skills and don’t throw them away if you start developing for Surface. Because projects (and colaborations) can fail there as hard as they can in any other area of software development.

On a side note: we decided to stop the colaboration (something the other parties involved didn’t appreciate and were very angry about) and decided to hire a designer for the Surface projects. The focus is back where it belongs: on the software development we know so well and have been doing very well for 13 years. UI is just a part of the whole project and not the end product. So my company Detrio is still going strong when it comes to develivering Surface solutions but once again from a technological background, not a marketing background.

Print | posted @ Sunday, March 7, 2010 7:44 PM

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