7 reasons

So Windows 7 is now winding its way through to be on the PCs your average users. It’s virtually impossible to know how they’ll like it.

windows-vista-error

Certainly the development community has been very impressed. A lot of my colleagues have been using it as their primary OS for many months. I’ve had it running since the first public beta. It was very good then, and it’s got better through the releases.

But, as everyone knows. Developers aren’t normal people! Their impressions of the software could prove to be the exception. Developers can see why things are screwy, and their conceptual models are far more developed, enabling them to much more quickly understand how something works functionally.

More importantly, developers are much more rarely out of their comfort zone. And, in my experience of user tests, most consumers are out of their comfort zone most of the time.

I recently spent a couple of hours watching a user who was setting up their (XP) machine. I asked him how he accessed the internet. He showed me that he would log into messenger (because it was set to pop up automatically), click on the ‘unread messages’ icon which would open Hotmail, and then he would enter ‘Google’ into the (Bing) search panel (in IE). He refered to the browser (IE) as ‘Google’. He was very annoyed that he had to keep seeing (optional) Windows Live Today. He was absolutely delighted when I set it so he could launch ‘Google’ directly from  a link on the desktop (and a change of homepage). The only ‘advanced’ feature he seemed to be aware of what ‘clear browsing history’ :-)

These tales are not exceptional. They are the norm.

So it’s remains a big question how Win7 will fare in the ‘my mum’ test.

I think it’s got several things going for it. All of which are testament to a strong focus by Microsoft on what actually matters to consumers, and – as I’ve said before – some very sophisticated research and evaluation techniques to back that focus up. For no reason at all, I’ve picked out 7 of them.

1. The number 1 element of user experience is performance

I sat in a Microsoft presentation a few weeks ago. The guy presenting was flipping between a number of decks. I remember thinking, ‘Windows 7′ certainly looks better than it’s predecessors. Then I realised he was using Vista. On the surface of it, Vista looked pretty good and had loads more features. But it was slow at some key things, and it was sort of randomly sluggish.

Everyone knows those pop-stats like ‘the average person spends three years of their life at traffic lights’. How long did we spend watching the blue hoop of maybe-death in Vista? Far too much.

Windows 7 is simply a lot faster than Vista (and even XP) at most common tasks

But this is not just about how long you actually wait.

I think the neatest bit of design I’ve seen in the last two years is the favourites screen (new tab page)  on Google Chrome browser. By loading instaneously, it makes you feel like the app is instantly ready to go, even though it could be another 30 seconds till you’ve got your first page loaded.

We know that the Windows 7 team spent a lot of time on this sort of thing, for example making sure the start menu would pop up quickly no matter what. I’m sure it’s faked some of the time. But it works. It makes you feel like you’ve got a snappier computer.

And then they’ve picked out the key performance things – that people actually notice – like sleeping and waking up, and  they’ve made sure Windows 7 is way ahead of the pack.

2. Less clutter works towards ‘ feeling of mastery’

For all UI issues, I think rule 1 is that users don’t customize. Remember that over-inflated services bar in XP (the one on the bottom right)? How many people (outside of developers) did you ever meet who had managed to reduce it down to  a manageable set?

So quite a lot of the UI in Windows 7 is about reducing clutter. And making things nice, big and clickable when appropriate. Simples!

There is a chance now that an average user might be able to look at their desktop, and scan the start menu, and have some reasonable idea what everything does. Again, this sounds obvious, but it’s been lacking in any other OS I’ve come across.

3. Copy

Windows has always had a fondness for incomprehensible text and excessive dialogue boxes. It’s a small tweak but the UI text in Windows 7 is easier to read and understand, and improved UAC gives you less you have to deal with.

All of these little ‘exceptions’, the times when the user leaves the ‘happy path’, are often paid too little attention in the design process. They are in fact the times of maximum stress for the user, as they stray the furthest from their comfort zone. How on earth do we expect a normal user to deal with ‘host process for windows has terminated unexpectedly’. I don’t even know what to do with that one and I know what it means.

4. A bit of taste

Obviously this one’s subjective, but certainly the backgrounds, themes and login screen in the release candidate are significantly more interesting and creative than anything we’ve seen before from Microsoft. It’s not trying to be too funky, but it feels for the first time in a long time that someone with a bit of taste has been involved in the visual (and interaction) design of the interface.

5. Dealing with third parties

Clearly integration with everyone and their aunt has long been both the key weakness, and key strength of PCs and Windows. The horror show of Vista driver compatibility was arguably its single biggest problem. Win 7 won’t repeat that, since we’ve been through it already (and there’s been a lot of advanced prep with partners). And, a real effort has also been made on the ‘device stage’ functionality to try and make the whole thing feel like one computer experience.

6. Integration of Office apps

I hope the European Commission aren’t listening, but some of the neatest features of Win7 are integration with the UI and features of the apps that run on top of it, and principally the Office suite. The ability to peak into subwindows with Aero Peak is brilliant. Part toy / part useful function, it is very compelling, again building the sense of mastery over everything runnning on the machine. For the first time, the search (from start bar) really works, indexing everything and presenting categorized lists (by source). There are about ten small features like this that add up to real feeling of integration and control. Very neat.

7. Never mind the hype

Arguably the most important distinction between the Vista launch and the Windows 7 launch has been the approach to hype.

What’s worse than suffering at the hands of a dysfunctional operating system? Being told how great it is while you do it.

The defining moments of any OS are not the big numbers, the length of the feature lists or the coolness of the loading animations (whilst important). They are the moments when the user feels ease or disease.

There are lots of parallels in the real world for this. But when a user can’t see how to do something, they feel stressed and they blame themselves. They feel stupid. Not being certain is as bad as not knowing at all. Will what I’m doing really erase all my files? Am I actually in the ladies’ section, because I quite like those trainers? When users are agitated or nervous, they are not building happy memories.

Incidentally, the most misjudged result of this misunderstanding came from a Microsoft marketing campaign, Project Mojave where Microsoft suggested that users were ‘wrong’ about Vista, which is essentially like telling your four-year old that he’s NOT afraid of the dentist.

Instead what we see in Win7 is an absolute acknowledgement that the consumer has the right to misunderstand and make snap and shallow judgements, a fact that many other industries have known for a while.

The story goes that Fiat has a design shop looking at door handles, stearing wheels and ignitions, because these are the only bits most punters will come into contact with in the showroom or on a test drive.

It appears that Win 7 designers and engineers are thinking the same way. They have smoothed the edges, and picked out the occassions when performance matters most, and tuned it up just a bit. Bugger what’s going to make the OS appeal more to devs, what does the consumer care about – a bit less gloss there, a bit more gloss there, a bit faster here, a bit less cluttered there, and the 100 things will make the user feel confident and in control. It may be on an industrial level but it is experience design of the highest order.

Certainly we won’t know until it’s had it’s mass market mauling at the hands of my mum and millions like her who don’t do this for a living. But if I had to bet, I’d say ‘average user’ will like it more than the beta audience. And even better, they won’t know why.

The numbers’ game

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Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps a conspiracy. Perhaps there’s something in the west-coast water supply but the last week or so has seen a pretty sophisticated debate break out on the use of facts and intuition in design.

  • Douglas Bowman is leaving Google, having been heralded as one of the best things to happen to the search giant when he arrived in 2006. To make matters more interesting, Bowman has blogged about his reason for leaving – an excessive Google reliance on data-driven design (well, data-driven everything)
  • Google themselves are flogging a new product to help everyone else become as data obsessed as they are, bringing reasonably complex multi-variant testing to a car dealership near you. This is in a market which is rapidly waking up to the user of performance tuning and management
  • Everyone (and especially the Twitterati who might be expected to love it) hates the new Facebook design. Unlike v2 which was introduced in a vaguely consultative way, v3 has been foisted on all users rather suddenly, seems most to be ‘inspired’ by Twitter (which is frankly a very different beast), and jettisons many of the best features of the site. This has raised a debate about how much companies should listen to users in design.
  • Apparently Steve Ballmer has been off telling people that Microsoft has a challenger advantage in search over Google, who are too set in their ways and conservative
  • At the other end of the spectrum, Apple has released the frankly insane zero-button iPod shuffle. Bizarre: yes. Bold: certainly. Tasteful: perhaps.

So the question is: just how innovative can a business be by relying on data about current user behavior, rather than using creativity and instinct to come up with new things that people don’t even know they want yet. Bowman’s disquiet about Google is that the company would (for example) statistically evaluate the colour of borders or the size of buttons, making his role as head of visual design somewhat redundant but also making his aspirations – as someone who is looking to lead the market through visual design – impossible.

I think this says more about Bowman’s expectations (quote: ‘change the world a few million users at a time’) than anything that surprising about what Google does. The experiences Google are trying to enable are all about using great technology to build perfect mousetraps. The core ideas can be expressed in just a few words (“get the correct results from any search”). And I think it’s true that usability has always been much more important than visual design for the business. And, Google has always known that the user experience is as much governed by performance and quality as interface. With the exception of Chrome, all of their products have been almost deliberately ugle, liberating them to focus on function.

I’m sure too that there’s immense chortling at Google HQ about the idea that this focus on statistical research is stifling the multi-billion pound Google business, and equally that Microsoft is likely to fly right past them in terms of search. Google  is synonymous with search, it is the generic, and that has everything to do with what goes in and what comes out, and very little to do with how it goes in and how it comes out.

A similar reality is starting to exist in every other area of utility-orientated computing.

Facebook has done the opposite. Zuckerberg-centred design pervades with – I presume – the rest of the user experience team bowing not to statistics but to the great one and his views. Of course, time – and numbers – will be the judge, but it seems odd that Facebook has thrown out many of its best features and endorsed the micro-blogging format, just as that market become more competitive and challenging.

What Facebook appears to have lost, is its principles. Google’s area is straight-forward: ability to find, or ubiquitous access. Facebook’s used to be about enabling connections in groups. What are they now?

Whilst Microsoft’s ambitions for search seem unrealistic, there is a strong case to make that this unlikely candidate has the best overall approach to design.

Creating some of the most complex products in digital (Windows and Office), Microsoft has found a way to combine imagination, principles, many types of user research and engineering to produces fantastic products. I’ve posted the Jensen Harris Mix presentation before but it remains well worth a watch. An understanding of the core user behaviors gave rise to an overall framework for the application, which then used ethnography, user research and the amazingly detailed data from the customer experience programme to really find out what people do. Do we need a ‘save’ button if everyone uses CTRL-S? In fact we do because many actual users don’t use quick keys. Customization may seem like a neat solution to a complex problem, but we actually learn that only a tiny proportion of users ever turn it on.

Similarly, the Windows 7 team has done a great job (yes, an overdue one), of informing their design decisions through detailed understanding of customer behavior, but without just asking users to do the design for them. The team’s detailed analysis of problems (and again, understanding of the role of performance) is rigorous and inspiring.

Should data be at the heart of your design strategy? Yes, but it shouldn’t be the heart of your design strategy. The heart has to be the principles, and the team must believe that inspired thinking can change the game about sticking with those principles and achieving objectives. The fact that Google’s inspired thinking has almost all been in technology and architecture is besides the point. The fact that Facebook’s solution is wrong is not because they’ve ignored users, it’s because they’ve ignored users’ motivations.

Fighting the blue monster

Whatever shape the buttons on your laptop, Microsoft has spent the last few days at PDC revealing some very interesting ideas about what the future of computing may hold.

Yet, with every news story – about the release of an abstracted operating system idea, about a new operating system with some nice looking UI elements, or about web-based office applications –  the great unwashed of the internet can do no more than revert to tedious Apple/Windows zealotry. The first comment will say ‘Why do you stick with Microsoft, Microsoft is shit, look at Vista’, the second will say ‘Give Microsoft a chance, they’ve done a lot of cool stuff’, the third will say, ‘My iPhone is very shiny’ etc etc.

It’s just not very interesting.

You can’t boil down these million pound companies to ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And once again it’s easy to see echos of what Hugh McLeod started with the Blue Monster idea, encouraging Microsoft staff to feel empowered to represent themselves rather than being defined by the media and their detractors.

Apple clearly rules the art of the product announcement, although I have not seen that done well without the masterful Jobs. Microsoft – sometimes to their downfall – is better at speaking with the technical community, which can position technology prowess over usability  and delight in products, although they’ve started to address that with the excellent 0ffice 2007 and the new Surface offering, both of which put innovation in customer experience at the heart of the product.

What we see onstage at PDC, Mix etc is genuinely enthused Microsoft staff (in various degrees of chino and trainer-wearing geekiness), expressing their honest passion for the subject of technology and how it can be transformational. Amongst all that are some very interesting ideas:

1. Life in the datacentre – it’ll be hard for companies to get this but harder still for developers. The shift in programming paradigm is much more radical than required changes in governance (although potentially complex, espcially around jurisdiction) and user experience (often negligable)

(Also well worth looking at this week’s Economist special feature on Cloud computing, its effect on business models, its effect on innovation, and its potential transformative effect on emerging economies.)

2. Software AND Serivces – not Software OR services

3. The speed of touch (and multi-touch) adoption is accelerating rapidly

4. Performance at last identified as key ingredient of (Vista) ‘user experience’. Suggstions are not just what Windows 7 will run quickly, but that it could boot in a matter of seconds. These realities are a vital part of MS regaining the reputation it earned when NT4.0 made all other OSs on the market at the time look like they were from a different decade.

5. Many of the new UI features of Windows 7 were explained directly in terms of ethnographic research (e.g. users have multiple windows open but cycle between them), users need to search across multiple drives / devices / users want to be able to re-arrange task bar items, users need to be able to look inside tabs inside browsers for quick preview). It is great news that Microsoft has put research at the heart of design and innovation and it will be very exciting to see how these improve the overall usage experience, especially as we know that some relatively minor changes can have a dramatic impact.

 

Will Microsoft ever have an Apple-style unveiling: stage-managed and high-octane? I don’t think so, and in a way, I hope they don’t. As a company which necessarily has so many constituents they should define themselves by not just what they do directly for consumers, but how they support designers and developers in building better end solutions. And those answers simply aren’t simple.

And, whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can look as long as you like at events like PDC, and you won’t see anything but a desire to be doing stuff better. Unfortunately the pantomime villian tag just won’t fit.

Hostage for a fortune

'I'll execute every last one...'

More news from the department of ‘if Microsoft did it, they’d be strung up from a lamp post but if Apple does it, no one cares’ department.

It seems that you have to be so cool to be a member of the apple app creators’ club that you’re not allowed to even talk to the non-members about it.

Apple may be all nicey-nicey and ‘we love to share’ in their marketing, but it seems increasingly that their tyranical addiction to secrecy has gotten out of hand.

And it seems Apple is particularly keen to weild their control when potential revenue comes into play.

Perhaps no one really cared about the banning of stupid apps like ‘I am rich’ but the recent plight of the Podcaster application is as alarming as it is bizarre. The app, developed by Alex Sokirynsky, allowed users to download podcasts directly to iPhone or iPod Touch. It was banned by Apple for being ‘too similar’ to existing applications (meaning iTunes). The author then tried  to distribute it outside of the App store (using the beta testing channel), only to find his priveledges revoked, without explanation.

But the story gets more sinister still. In in fit of anger, Sokirynsky then wrote a blog post criticising Apple’s, decision and saying, amongst other things that he would port the app for Android.

And then, funnily enough the post was significantly softened, the next day. Do you know many bloggers who delete or substantially modify blog entries later? My experience is that people will follow up – maybe even apologize for overly energetic responses – but that it is very rare to remove post content.

The obvious explanation is that Apple, weilding the developer NDA (which currently even prohibits developers using public discussion forums and is now being prominently featured on app store rejection letters), asked Sokirynsky to remove the post. Who knows what really happened.

Now, how does that make you feel about the slightly vacant Gap-wearing characters of Apple marketing?

Stay quiet your ******, or we’re going to ex-communicate every last one of you.

Apples and not apples

I’ve commented before a couple of times that Microsoft could release the MacBook or iPod and everyone would declare it a dud. The products that the blue monster releases which are good (Messenger, Office, Visio, the server products etc) are ignored while the company’s detractors happily pick apart shortfalls of products like the Zune, or Windows Live Hotmail.

Possibly the best expression of this I’ve ever read is this article. Read the body first and then read comment 13!

So, it appears someone at Microsoft has had the same idea. Unfortunately they had it about Vista. Now the best I think I could say about Vista is that it has a couple of cool interface elements and features. Certainly it’s miles behind mac on ease of use, and considerably behind XP on stability etc. Is it a complete bag of spanners? Well of course not, most of the time…. But it needs to be amazing if it wants to be seen as amazing (like Office 2007 is).

Microsoft has been telling us a variation of that story for the last couple of years. I’d have a lot more faith in it if Gates himself hadn’t laughed at the product. In the Mojave Experiment, the team attempt to prove the product is actually pretty cool (it’s just had a pasting in the press) by running test user groups on Vista but telling the users it’s a new release (called Mojave).

Apart from sounding like a misunderstood teenager, what’s wrong with this picture?

  • We have no idea how the research was carried out
  • We have no idea what operating system the test users were currently using. 98 perhaps.
  • This is very cynical, but we don’t really know what the users were tested on (was it XP / Mac / Sugar?)
  • The worst parts of owning Vista are the bits that don’t happen in a lab (like it freaking out coming out of sleep) or being slow after the first hour or so, or taking hours to do certain random tasks
  • It seems the test was carried out on Cray super computer

The really careless thing about the marketing campaign (which appears to showcase about 55 users, although some of their contributions are only a few words):

  • No one dislikes Vista in the tests. Come on!! You could be road-testing free, unaddictive cocaine and you’d find someone who decided they didn’t like it for some reason. That’s what research is like. I bet even Apple gets the odd negative comment in groups. (Here we really see the marketing agency crumple to their old fashioned ways despite trying to harness genuine testimony)
  • How, on earth, did they get permission. By the structure of the ‘tests’ the users must have only given permission for this use after the test. Why would they do that.
  • The whole point is that when guided through the OS, customers find they like it – i.e. it’s not intuitive and features aren’t discoverable.
  • Doesn’t this stink of calling customers stupid

Ultimately, I bet the top three complaints about Vista are

  1. speed
  2. compatability
  3. stability

The user experience is not built out of a list of features. It’s a much more complex sum than that: everytime you can’t work out how to use it, or it jams, or it crashes, or it just goes off and does something weird, deduct one point. Everytime you find a new thing you love, or something is really obvious, or it confounds expecatations (like resuming quickly from sleep, leaving the USB powered even when switched off), add a point.

On that basis Vista simply doesn’t get far enough away from zero.

Is it just me?

Amid the phenomenal suprise of the new… 3G iphone, Jobs also slipped some other news into the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote. It seems Apple is re-releasing an old favourite from Microsoft: 

Yes, it’s the sick older sister of Windows ’98. The ill-fated ‘millennium edition’ of Windows which barely made it into the noughties.

This new platform,  (apple) mobile me is a ‘breakthrough web 2.0 app interface’ allowing the user to access their calendar and mail over the internet:

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And here once again, Apple shows it’s tremendous audacity:  re-inventing Outlook Web Access some five years after Microsoft built it, and declaring themselves ground breaking and market leading.

You’d be forgiven for thinking they were poking fun at their own addicted fanboys with the ridiculous ‘me’ reference.

Creating the ribbon

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I’ve talked here a few times (here and here) about how Microsoft doesn’t seem to be able to catch a break. Google or Apple get gushing reviews for living ‘in beta’, Microsoft gets slammed for getting stuff out too soon. Apple’s security is questionable, but we never hear about that. Nor it seems are we ever reminded of the potentially dangerous level of detail Google extracts from customers. Ballmer’s an egotistical wild man, while Jobs is a quirky eccentric genius. Making huge profits turns Microsoft into the evil empire, but is seen as a validation of Google’s all round wonderfulness.

This year’s Mix event, which finished yesterday has been a strong reminder that in fact, there is a good deal of great stuff going on at the software giant, and that developers in particular are delighted with much of the company’s output.

Friday’s presentation on the design of Office 2007 provides a fascinating insight into the sheer scale of the software and interface engineering challenged the team faced, their tenacity in dealing with it, and the powerful role place on the needs of the end user.

Including early prototypes showing hugely varied ideas which the team went through to get to the version that has been released, the presentation is rich with insights into the internal battles that had to be fought throughout the process and some amusing asides to previous mistakes, the presentation (75m) is well worth a watch.

Jensen Harris looks all the way to Office 1, documenting the slow decent into the chaos of Office 2003 which boasted 31 menus and 19 taskpanes. The impetus to redesign the interface from the ground up for Office 2007 rather than more menus, wizzards and taskpanes, was an understanding that the user must feel in control of their document and that – while all the features should stay, the ‘perception of bloatedness’ had to be removed.

We see some of the stats from the customer improvement programme (collecting millions of anonymous customer usage patterns). This information was a key part of understand the sequence of actions that real customers actually take, and reveals – perhaps unsurprisingly – how erratic their actions actually are. There is also some amusing eye tracking against the 2003 site, some interesting insights into the challenges of creating a taxonomy of the 1500 functions, and some more unkind words about the demise of clippy, the automated assistant which was just one way to get around the almost impossible interface that existed until recently.

During the Q&A at the end of the session, Harris is asked about the extent to which customisation was considered. Whilst not against customisation per se, Harris argues that it mustn’t be used as a ‘crutch’, avoiding usability problems by allowing the user to remove them, and explains that only 2% of users ever used the customisation features of 2003, and then only for one or two buttons.

In the money

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Yesterday’s Mix Session ‘Web 2.0 and Beyond: What Is the Business Reality?’ would more accurately have been called ‘how are we going to make money out of this stuff?: no new information here’.

Panelists were Bryan Biniak of Jacked, Tim Kendall of Facebook, the ever charming Loic Le Meur, now of Seesmic, and brainiac Chris Saad of the data portability project. The host was Frank Arrigo of Microsoft (his write-up here).

All very promising, but unfortunately it was all over almost before it began as TechCrunch (see their article) asked the first question: ‘Are any of you planning on getting a business model anytime soon?’. A simple enough question you might think, but one that was met with… well… nothing. Loic Le Meur opined that not wanting to know where the revenues were coming from was the hall mark of an enlightened investor these days – palpably a ridiculous comment anywhere but in our current 1999-deja-vu-fest.

Tim Kendall suggested brands should get the audience first and think about money later. Well OK, but how much later? Given that Facebook now definitely has the audience. This is, bear in mind, coming from someone who’s job is to look after monetisation of Facebook.

Loic did add that the options are advertising, ‘pro-‘ versions, and creating a resalable platform. Of course the number one ‘monetisation’ strategy of .coms always has been and always will be to sell themselves to someone else.

Biniak was unique amongst those on stage for having a business that you could sort of see where the money might come from – creating a sort of TV ‘plus’ space for advertising, although that doesn’t take account of how much might have to be paid out to legitimise the content in the first place.

The main reason most people were at the event – I’m sure – was to hear if Facebook does indeed have a secret plan to make money, especially after the bizarrely revealed company’s earnings. Kendall warmed a little in the middle with a couple of interesting ideas, saying the site’s goal was for the ads not to feel like ads because they were so tailored. especially where friends preferences could be re-cycled to encourage word of mouth. There is, he tells us, great click through rates on their ‘social ads’, although he then suggested these rates were ‘almost double’ normal ads – so therefore twice virtually nothing.

I find a great deal of fault with this formula. Social ads might sell me an iPod or the latest marketing text book, but it will not sell me heamorraoid cream. And if I’m buying a car, I will ask my friends myself for recommendations – so how will Facebook get to charge for that? selling is simply NOT all about targetting, and – this is a well rehearsed argument – timeliness is the most important factor in relevance, and when I’m on Facebook, I don’t want to buy cornflakes or whatever someone is trying to sell me (this is why, of course, ad words are so valuable).

After a bit of prodding Kendall started talking turkey. While saying it wasn’t what was happening on Facebook (and a somewhat bizarre  dig at Microsoft which sells display advertising on the site), he suggested that 10c might not be an unreasonable CPM rate for what display was currently selling at on the site. Search by contrast is more like $60. If Facebook could get it up to $1 he argues, that would be a very big business.

The sheer vagueness of this claim seems to me to be quite outstanding. Even if that is is the end game, the sums don’t appear to add up, and in any case, and it is essentially a goal of increasing selling price 10 fold without any visible corresponding strategy.

Chris ended the session on an interesting note talking about ‘VRM’ – vendor relationship management, which is essentially the idea that consumers could get paid to get advertised to. Clearly the detail of getting that to work is incredibly difficult but it remains a lot more plausible than some of tonight’s more whimsical musings.

Monkeying around

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If yesterday’s Mix keynote was all about products and developers, today’s was all about Ballmer himself, who was interviewed on stage by Guy Kawasaki.

Kawasaki, an ex-apple evangalist,  pulled no punches – poking Ballmer on Vista, Google,  Yahoo and Apple, as well as some pretty suprising jokes about chair throwing, anti-trust hearings and Ballmer’s infamous monkey boy dance.

All of these were met with surprising good grace (although his less calm side never seemed too far from the surface). At one point, Ballmer even performed a brief  minor variation of his dance on the request of one of the audience members, changing it to ‘I love web developers’. And, at one point we saw Ballmer goofing around and pretending he couldn’t carry Kawasaki’s MacBook Air because it was too heavy, and offering to get him ‘a proper machine’.

The strategy position in general was pretty clear. On the subject of Yahoo, the reason for the purchase it that Microsoft sees search as the killer app of online advertising, and it sees (as we heard yesterday) online advertising as its key monetisation strategy. The greatest ‘synergy’ is pure scale. Does winning mean beating Google? Is it a zero sum game? Yes.

However, whilst Google was the enemy in Microsoft’s online ambitions, Ballmer made it clear that there were other competitors in the other major markets they operate in: desktop, server and enterprise, entertainment and devices. The competitors ranging from IBM to Linux.

One of the overriding messages of Mix08 however, has been that the other fights aren’t necessarily zero sum games, with Microsoft showing a genuine drive to interoperability in many spaces. Are they serious about this? Well AOL and DoubleClick were on stage at the key note, showing how their technologies fit with various Microsoft platforms. It all seems pretty genuine and various people have commented in a palpable change in the way Microsoft is now dealing with the outside world.

Interesting to hear Ballmer describe Microsoft’s Search offering as the ‘little engine that could’, and to point out that the giant was very much the underdog both here and in the personal devices market.

What about Facebook? He made it pretty clear the 2% stake in Facebook was a relatively small deal for Microsoft and that he cared more about their advertising ‘partnership’ with the social network than their stake in it; validating the view that the shareholding is a purely defensive manoeuvre.

The question and answer session came to a close with a very bizarre and slightly uncomfortable question from an employee at Avenue A Razorfish, part of aQuantive which Microsoft bought last year to get their hands on Atlas.

As a lot of people have noted, Microsoft is in a difficult position with Avenue A because of their relationship with other agencies. It’s been assumed it will be run independently or sold off. But the question from one of its staff in such a public forum: ‘What are your plans for us, we hear a lot of rumours’, must still have come as a bit of a surprise.

Ballmer seemed unphased, and said the business would be left to run independently so long as it remained profitable but I wonder if any chairs went flying after he exited the stage.

(More here)

Heads in the clouds

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I’m at the Microsoft Mix08 show in Las Vegas with Conchango this week.

There were some interesting thoughts in the keynote presentations that kick off the conference. Apart from some pretty unveiled comments about Yahoo, Chief Software Architect, Ray Ozzie very explicitly talked about the challenges which he sees facing Microsoft in the next few years.

They basically come in just two categories:

The role of advertising

An expectation that advertising revenues online will grow from $40bn to $80bn in the next three years, Microsoft clearly wants to be part of that. That means both creating advertising models of their own and creating tools that enable developers to use Microsoft technologies to monetise their output.

The role of the web

A fairly open nod to the threat/opportunity that ‘cloud’ thinking presents for Microsoft’s traditional software, and increasingly, devices and content marketplace.

He walked through the practical implications of this for Microsoft’s key business areas

1. For personal

The development of connect frameworks (over the net) for keeping devices (‘device mesh’) synched and updated (side loading), and from there, enabling social connections / self expression, from the basis of either entertainment or gaming (‘social mesh’).

2. For business

The drive is from the basic data centre approach, through ‘utility computing’ using virtualisation to distribute and enable services away from the single ‘application’ server approach, and finally to move on to cloud computing.

3. For Developers and designers

Of course the paradigms above – cloud computing from a consumer point of view, cloud computing from an enterprise deployment point of view and developing for a range of different, interlinked devices, will have significant impacts on how developers will have work, how they will learn to design architectures and software.

Ozzie then went through Microsoft’s offering’s across these five areas, although at this point, Vista decided to do a number on me so you’ll have to watch the video for that I’m afraid.

  1. Connected business
  2. Connected entertainment
  3. Connected productivity
  4. Connected devices
  5. Connected development

The remainder of the presentation was led by Scott Guthrie who ran through the features of today’s key releases: IE 8, Silverlight, and some new features and performance improvements to be added to Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) later in the year.

Dean Hachamovitch (top) came on to present IE. The headlines are that IE8 will make a serious attempt to realign with core interoperability standards, and a step towards HTML 5, as well as incorporating some very interesting atomisation features. Even to the extent that it will render some pages which work well in IE7, IE8 will behave like Firefox and Safari(although a sort of IE7 quirks mode can be forced with a meta tag). This, unsurprisingly was very popular with today’s primarily developer audience who currently have to create various hacks or multiple style sheets to achieve consistent output. Promises of performance improvements (in page rendering etc) also went down well.

The nods to HTML 5 are better handling of the back button for Ajax style interfaces, connection awareness in the DOM (so different action can be taken for offline pages), and DOM storage (the ability to store data locally). All looking good. Also good, although not ground breaking were built-in developer tools.

The next two items however (about 45 minutes into the key note), were more interesting. They’re interesting in part because they provide rich frameworks for ‘atomising’ content and function; and in part because they are very serious efforts by the software giant to create new but open standards (and have been licensed as such).

The first is Activities – the ability for developers to create custom in page functions for acting on in-page content, for example, by looking up a location on website, finding a product on Ebay, searching for terms in Google.

The second piece is ‘Webslices’, a simple mark-up framework for developers to syndicate page areas which then appears in small pop up windows in IE. Nice stuff, and it will be fascinating to see if Mozilla takes it on board or tries to make their own. 

For Silverlight we got a raft of improvements:

  • Adaptive streaming
  • Flexible settings for progressive download
  • Integration with CDN and Server 2008
  • New, skinnable controls
  • Fully working CLR
  • Databinding
  • Unit testing framework
  • Cross-domain capabilities
  • Strong networking features
  • Integration of Seadragon (a powerful image zoom and progressive loading technology – see http://memorabilia.hardrock.com)

We also saw a number of sites who’ve already adopted the technology, most notably a very compelling demo of what NBC is planning for the Olympic Games coverage this year.

The Olympics section is (about 1h20m in) well worth a watch. The new site is set to include picture in picture, live and on-demand across 22,000 hours and 25 sports, visual search and browse, pre-roll ads.

A number of the other features and applications are demonstrated too, mostly in a pretty convincing way.

The last piece was Silverlight on mobile. The announcement being that Nokia will include it on some symbian phones – and it is already part of the mobile platform.

As it always seems to be it’s early days for mobile, but it’s true to say that they have made it work, although details were a little scarce, as were any features of the demo that really added value which couldn’t have been done in HTML.

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