Microsoft sponsors a hacking contest - the coding kind

REDMOND, Wash. -- In a dimly lit function room on the Microsoft campus 40 teams of coders are spending the week writing modern applications that run on Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices, all of them assured of winning a prize.

Officially, the winners take home $2,500 for the best application in three categories, but the real goal is learning to write the applications under the watchful eyes of Microsoft mentors who are guiding them through the subtleties of producing apps that look good, run well on the new operating systems and that take advantage of the touch features the operating systems cater to.

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The hackathon is also geared toward writing apps for Azure, Microsoft's cloud-based platform service. All of the applications are being written with the help of Visual Studio development platform.

"How do I get unstuck?" is the question contestants are trying to get answered as they meet with their mentors, Microsoft employees who have been working with the platform for months, says Dan Fernancez, senior director of development and platform evangelism.

For Vesa Vainio of Finland, that means learning how to store photos in Azure for access by members of Facebook. The app he's working on, called Share My Photos, will let Facebook users share photos. That's something Facebook supports, but the app has a twist.

"They can easily share photos with friends of their choosing and not give ownership of the photos to Facebook itself," says Vainio, who works for a joint venture of IT services firm Tieto and the Finnish government writing software for the Finnish tax service.

During the second day of the competition, he was still working on the design of the application, but plans to start coding today with the intent to meet the deadline tomorrow night.

Participants aren't just hacking all week; they're attending Microsoft's Build 2012 conference for developers. So they have to find a balance between attending educational sessions they choose from among the hundreds available and competing in the hackathon.

The focus of the event is to bring developers up to speed writing apps for Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and Azure. The big perceived shortcoming of the new platforms and devices that support them is there aren't enough applications in the new Windows store to make buying them a compelling choice for consumers.

Over the past two months the number of apps in the store has grown from about 1,000 to about 10,000, according to the Web site, which has written code to count them. And still more than 85% of the apps are free, which doesn't give developers much payback.

That doesn't deter Erik Zettersten, a freelance coder from Reston, Va., who has done work for the Food Network. He calls the coding super easy compared to writing for Linux and Unix, mainly because the development tools and the coding languages have been written to complement each other better than tools he's worked with for other languages. Windows 8 and Phone 8 coding can be done in JavaScript, HTML5, C++, C# and Visual Basic.

His application is called Channels and is written for developers. It's a realtime Internet chat application that can be snapped to one side of a Windows 8 screen and where users can post programming questions to other developers worldwide. Anyone with the app can post answers.

So far he's picked his mentor's brain for information about Web sockets, something he needs for the app but hasn't worked with much before in Microsoft applications. He's also hoping there's an application template that is part of Visual Studio that he doesn't know about but can tap to make the project go faster.

Regardless of whether he finishes in the money for the hackathon, he regards the competition as time well spent. "Just for the atmosphere alone - it's full of smart people so I can get answers real quickly," Zettersten says.

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter!/Tim_Greene.)

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