Heads in the clouds


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.