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Nadella's pitch to Microsoft developers: Stick with us

The new CEO promises developers gathered for annual Build confab in San Francisco that Microsoft can offer them the tools they need to compete in increasingly cross-platform world.

Satya Nadella at Microsoft Build 2014. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Satya Nadella, Microsoft's new CEO, brought the battle for developers' hearts and minds here Wednesday, telling thousands of the company's applications creators that Microsoft can offer them the tools they need to compete in an increasingly cross-platform world.

"Why build for Windows? That's the question of the conference and the question this morning," Nadella said during a 22-minute address to developers gathered at Microsoft's annual Build conference. "You want to build for Windows because we're going to innovate...We are going to come at this by innovating in every dimension."

Unlike Steve Ballmer, his more flamboyant predecessor -- who was given to high-octane calls to arms on behalf of the greater good of the Microsoft software ecosystem -- Nadella offered a more restrained style. But his message was just as insistent: Stick with us.

"These are exciting times for us and exciting times for developers in terms of opportunity to take your creativity, your applications" to Microsoft's various platforms, Nadella said, arguing that the company offers the broadest range of "input devices" in the tech business.

This was a day of show-and-tell for Nadella and his lieutenants, who were on decidedly friendly territory and who were making the strong sell against the sobering backdrop of a lukewarm reception for the latest incarnation of Windows. It's also an era of slumping PC sales, when consumers are keener to spend their limited dollars on smartphones and tablets. Windows Phone, meanwhile, has made slow progress in the mobile world and remains a speck relative to the dominant twosome, Google's Android and Apple's iOS.

So it was that on Wednesday morning, a series of Microsoft executives preceded Nadella on stage to offer different examples of ways that the company is fostering cross-platform developer work while protecting their existing investments -- the idea being that when a Microsoft developer writes an app, it will run across multiple platforms.

"We know you've made huge investments in your existing apps" and need "bridges," said David Treadwell, a corporate vice president in Microsoft's operating systems group, who talked repeatedly about the need to share code across platforms. When Microsoft shipped Windows 8 in late 2012, it was the first step in getting Windows for the desktop and Windows Phone onto the same API. So coming into the conference, Microsoft was eager to talk up its commitment to code commonality, shared libraries, and more cohesion across the Windows and Windows Phone platforms, instead of treating these things as separate entities.

Among the announcement highlights from Build's first day:

Windows Phone 8.1: The update to the mobile OS is going to be available "in the next few months," said Microsoft VP Joe Belfiore, though new devices will launch with the software in April and May. The software will be ready for download on all Lumia phones in an update by the summer. Microsoft and Nokia also introduced three new Lumias: the 930, the 630, and the 635.

Cortana: Microsoft announced its long-rumored voice assistant service for Windows Phone, Cortana, a rival to Google Now and Apple's Siri that replaces the search function on Windows Phone.

Windows 8.1: The update to the desktop OS restores some of the features Windows users have clamored for since the Metro interface first launched. Microsoft plans to have the update available April 8.

Universal Windows apps: Developers will be able to use common code to produce apps across phones, tablets, and laptops, as well as the Xbox gaming and media console.

Nadella makes a point. James Martin/CNET

Since being appointed to replace Ballmer as CEO in early February, Nadella in his public comments has underscored the importance of developers in furthering Microsoft's transition to a mobile and cloud-centric future.

Last week, for instance, Nadella offered a hint of coming attractions, when Microsoft announced that Office 365 will be available on the iPad, with users' apps being stored in the cloud. That was a big bet, given that Office is the company's cash cow: In Microsoft's most recent full fiscal year, which ended in June, the Office-dominated business division accounted for more than $16 billion of Microsoft's nearly $27 billion in operating profits. But it fit with Nadella's vision for the company navigating through what he described as "this world of mobile-first/ cloud-first going forward."

Nadella predicted a world in which "there will be more new form factors because of the core evolution of silicon." In another nod to his audience, he added that Microsoft's goal is to make sure that developers have the best possible opportunity to flourish in that emerging world.

That's a change from the PC-centric era Microsoft dominated in the late 1990s, when neither Bill Gates nor Ballmer had to sweat to convince developers that it made sense to make Windows their top priority. Back then, technology for technology's sake was enough to get people energized.

"Today, because of the multiplatform world, developers pay more attention to the business and they read things they didn't used to read," said Tim O'Brien, the executive in charge of the Developer Platform Evangelism Group at Microsoft. "When it was a 96 percent Microsoft share world, there wasn't much question about what they would do."