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To attract developers, Microsoft opens up Web-app technology

It may sound perverse, but releasing WinJS as open-source software that works on rival browsers could help Microsoft get more apps on Windows.

WinJS makes it easier for programmers to create Web apps using Windows 8 styling, but some of the features are useful more broadly.
WinJS makes it easier for programmers to create Web apps using Windows 8 styling, but some of the features are useful more broadly. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

With Windows 8, Microsoft introduced the idea of writing Web apps for its operating system, and central to this effort was a software foundation called WinJS that provided Web developers with a number of helpful programming features.

But WinJS, however useful it might have been, remained an illustration of the old-school Microsoft technology approach: proprietary software that worked only with Internet Explorer's browser technology and only on Windows. It let programmers more easily do things like animate the arrival of text as a person swiped through screens, but not if they were writing an app people would be accessing with Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera.

Now Microsoft -- having been taught by the Web, iOS, and Android that there's life beyond its own platforms -- is loosening up. An obvious example consumers could see was last week's release of Microsoft Office for iPad, but at its Build conference, Microsoft sent a message to developers, too, by releasing WinJS as open-source software.

One big reason for doing so was to make the WinJS library of software useful beyond just Windows and IE, Microsoft said in a blog post Thursday. That could increase its adoption and relevance -- and in the process carry the styling of Windows 8 apps to other parts of the computing world.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella James Martin/CNET

Microsoft's new chief executive, Satya Nadella, may be loosening up the company culture, but in a speech at Build, he left no doubt the ultimate strategy hasn't changed: attract programmers to Microsoft's platforms. We're just seeing new tactics for achieving that goal, such as becoming more relevant beyond Windows' walled garden.

There's a large and growing number of libraries that extend the Web's JavaScript programming language so it's easier for developers to do advanced Web programming, but a tool that works only on Internet Explorer is doomed: the primary reason programmers put up with the complication of Web programming is that they get software that works across the whole Web, not just one corner of it.

"The top feedback from developers who use HTML/CSS/JavaScript [the three foundational Web programming standards] for their app development is that they appreciate the reach it gives them across devices," Microsoft said. "Extending WinJS to other browsers and devices beyond Windows further extends their reach and allows them to bring the personality of Windows apps to the Web without rewriting code or learning new skills."

Cross-platform programming makes it easier for developers to write Windows apps that work elsewhere. But the advantage can flow back to Microsoft, too.

The company has been trying to encourage programmers to write apps that use the new-style Windows interface formerly called Metro. Web technologies boosted by WinJS are one way to get there, but as a ZDNet look at the top 25 Windows Store apps shows, programmers have preferred Microsoft's proprietary XAML. If Microsoft can spread WinJS use beyond Windows and attract a broader pool of Web developers, that could mean more Web-based apps for Windows, too.