Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

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WWDC and Tech Ed: A Tale of Two DevCons

Next week marks the first full week of June. Summer will feel in full swing and it will be a pretty big season for technology. In seeming acknowledgement of that very fact, both Apple and Microsoft will be holding large developers conferences starting Monday. Apple will hold its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in lovely San Francisco and Microsoft will hold its Tech Ed conference in muggy, oil-laden yet soulful New Orleans. A brief survey of each show reveals much about the differences in each company's offerings, strategy and approach to customers and partners.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must explain that I will be speaking at Microsoft's Tech Ed show, and have done so, on and off, since 2003. I have never been to an Apple conference and, as readers of this blog may know, I acquired my first ever Apple product two months ago when I bought an iPad on the day of that product's launch. I think I have keen insights into Microsoft's conference. My ability to comment on Apple's event ranges somewhere between backseat driver and naive observer. Just so you know.

Although both shows cater to their respective company's developers, there are a number of differences in the events' purposes and content approaches. First off, let's consider each show as a news and PR vehicle. WWDC will feature Steve Jobs' keynote address and most likely will be where Apple officially reveals details of its 4th-generation iPhone. Jobs will likely also provide deep background information on the corresponding iPhone OS release. These presumed announcements will make the show a magnet for the tech press and tech blogger elite. Apple's customers will be interested too, especially since the iPhone OS release will likely be made available to owners of existing iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad devices.

Tech Ed, on the other hand, may not be especially newsworthy at all. The keynote address will be given by Bob Muglia, who is President of the company's Server and Tools Division, and he'll likely be reviewing things more than previewing them. That's because the company has, in the last six to eight months, already released new versions of a majority of its products, including Windows, Office, SharePoint, SQL Server, Exchange, its Azure cloud platform, its .NET software development layer, its Silverlight Rich Internet Application (RIA) technology and its Visual Studio developer suite. Redmond's product pipeline has functioned more like a firehose of late, and the company has a ton of work to do to get developers up to speed on everything that's new.

I know I keep saying "developers," but in Tech Ed's case, that's not really accurate. In North America, Tech Ed caters to both developers and IT pros (i.e. technologists who work with physical IT infrastructure, as well as security and administration of the server software that runs on it). This pairing has, since its inception, struck some as anomalous and others, including many exhibitors, as very smart. Certainly, it means Tech Ed ends up being a confab for virtually all professionals in Microsoft's ecosystem. And this year, Microsoft's Business Intelligence (BI) conference will be co-located with Tech Ed, further enhancing that fusion effect.

Clearly then, Microsoft's show will focus on education, as its name assures us. Apple's will serve as both a press event and an opportunity to get its own App Store developer channel synced up with its newest technology advances. For example, we already know that iPhone OS 4.0 will provide for a limited multitasking capability; that will only work well if people know how to code to it in a capable way. Apple also told us its iAd advertising platform will be part of the new OS, and Steve Jobs insists that's to provide a revenue opportunity for developers. This too, then, needs to be explicated and soaked up buy the faithful.

A look at each show's breakout session lineup provides some interesting takeaways. WWDC will have very few Mac-specific sessions on offer, and virtually no sessions that are related to either IT or the enterprise. It's all about the phone, music players and tablets. However, WWDC will have plenty of low-level, hardcore tech coverage of such things as Advanced Memory Analysis and Creating Secure Applications, as well as lots of rich media-related content like Core Animation and Game Design and Development. Beyond Apple's proprietary platform, WWDC will also feature an array of sessions on HTML 5 and other Web standards. In all, WWDC offers over 100 technical sessions and hands-on labs.

What about Tech Ed's editorial content? Like the target audience, it really runs the gamut. The show has 21 tracks (versus WWDC's five) and more than 745 "learning opportunities," which include breakout sessions, demo stations, hands-on labs and Birds of a Feather discussion sessions. Topics range from architecture talks like Patterns of Parallel Programming, to cloud computing talks like Building High Capacity Compute Applications with Windows Azure, to IT-focused topics like Virtualization of Microsoft SharePoint 2010 Farm Architecture. I also count 19 sessions on Windows Phone 7. Unfortunately, with regard to Web standards and HTML 5, only a few sessions are offered, all of them specific to Internet Explorer.

All-in-all, Apple's show looks more exciting and "sexier" than Tech Ed. Microsoft's show seems a lot more enterprise-focused than WWDC. This is, of course, well in sync with each company's approach and products. Microsoft's content is much wider ranging and bests WWDC in sheer volume of sessions and labs. I suppose some might argue that less is more; others that Apple's consumer-focused offerings simply don't provide for the same depth of coverage to a business audience. Microsoft has a serious focus on the cloud and a paucity of coverage on client-side Web standards; Apple has virtually no cloud offering at all. Again, this reflects each tech titan's go-to-market strategy.

My own take is that employees of each company should attend the other's event. The amount of mutual exclusivity in content may make sense in terms of corporate philosophy, but the reality is that each company could stand to diversify into the other's territory, at least somewhat.

My own talk at Tech Ed will focus on competitive analysis around Microsoft's BI products. Apple does not today figure into that analysis. Maybe one day it will.

Posted on 06/03/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Letter to Ballmer: Making Better Consumer Devices

Last year, I wrote Steve Ballmer an email, and he was kind enough to write me back. The email contained a scan of a column I wrote praising Microsoft's BI strategy. His reply contained three simple words: "Super nice thanks." Well, now I'd like to write to Steve again, in an open letter format, and this time the love may be a bit tougher. But I'm still super earnest.

The past two days have been eventful ones for Microsoft: The company announced the departure of company veterans Robbie Bach and J Allard and the market announced Apple is now besting Microsoft in market capitalization. Plus, announcements were made that make it plain that Ballmer will, in effect, be running Microsoft's Entertainment & Devices division himself. With that in mind, I'd like to offer my list of a dozen things I think Microsoft's CEO should do to improve that division's offerings and, hopefully, its bottom line.

So here goes:

1. On Windows Phone 7, Stay the Course
The press is teeming with headlines and reader comments proclaiming the death-before-arrival of Windows Phone 7. That's plain silly. You've got the makings of a great and unique SmartPhone platform, and you're the only company (even considering RIM) that can offer full fidelity Exchange integration, not to mention implementing Office on the device. Let the existing team finish this puppy and ship it. And then have them pump out a few updates, over-the-air, quickly. Show them that Google Android's not the only product that can do good, rapid dot releases.

And another thing: make sure your OEMs' devices have flawless touch screens. If they don't, then you shouldn't certify them for delivery to customers. Period.

Oh, and kill the Kin, quietly. It was DOA, and you know it.

2. Move Media Center to the Xbox Platform
Media Center is, at its core, a good product. But delivering a media distribution and DVR platform on a sophisticated PC operating system like Windows 7 just creates too many moving parts. Xbox already functions as the best Media Center extender device -- it should actually be the hub as well. Media Center is mostly based on .NET code, and XNA is a .NET environment for Xbox. Find a way to bridge that small gap and make Media Center a joy to work with instead of a frustration. Beating Apple TV out of this sub-market is the lowest hanging fruit on the tree (goofy pun, but it's true).

3. Integrate Media Center with Mediaroom, or Kill the Latter
You have two media products with almost identical names. One is for standalone DVRs and the other is for IPTV cable set tops with DVR capabilities. Can we merge these please? My previous request of putting Media Center on Xbox would seem to tie into this nicely, since you've announced plans to do that with Mediaroom already.

4. Fix the Red Ring of Death
People love the Xbox, but they really don't love sending their consoles back every 18-24 months, when they get a bunch of red lights flashing on power up. You've handled this defect about as gracefully as possible, but it's been around for a long time now and it doesn't seem to be fixed yet. You can do better. In fact, you must do better, or you insult your customers.

5. Add Blu Ray to Xbox
I know, streaming movies are the future; physical media is legacy technology. So if that's true, why did you back HD DVD so hard? You know why: for now, the film studios won't allow a large selection of new release, HD, surround sound content to be distributed on any medium other than Blu Ray or cable pay per view/on-demand. Don't you want home theater buffs to see the Xbox as a fantastic device for their rigs? Don't you want to put PlayStation 3 out of its misery?

And if you follow my suggestions above (move Media Center to the Xbox and fix the Red Ring problem), you'd have it all sewn up. Do I think Blu Ray functionality will move a lot of units? No. Do I think that it would move more units with desperately-needed, influential home theater consumers? You bet. And you might sell more ZunePass subscriptions in the process.

But while you're at it, make the fan quieter, please.

6. Make More of Windows Home Server
Home Server is a fantastic product. And for reasons unknown to me, it seems like you're letting it languish. Development of the add-in ecosystem seems underfunded. WHS' unparalleled ease of use and reliability for home PC backup (and emergency restores) goes unsung. Product cycles are slow. Support for your OEMs, who are doing great work, especially in the green space with Atom CPUs, seems lacking. You've married a trophy girl and you keep her cloistered at home! That's cruel, unusual and, um, incredibly ill-advised.

Make use of this ace card, and while you're at it, give it real integration with Media Center. The integration thus far is proof-of-concept quality. You should go way past that -- both products will benefit immeasurably.

7. Set Up a Partner Platform for Custom Installers
There's a whole sub-industry of companies that install, integrate and configure home theater, security and connected home products. They have an industry group. They are influential in the high-end of the consumer electronics industry, and so are their customers. They love Media Center and they love Windows Home Server. But I have talked to several of them at the Consumer Electronics Show and they tell me you don't love them. They find it very difficult to do business with Microsoft, even though they want nothing more than to sell and evangelize your platform.

This is a travesty. Please fix it. Get Allison Watson and the Microsoft Partner Network on board and have her hire someone who knows how to run a channel program for consumer electronics companies. Problem solved. Markets expanded.

8. Make Your Own Hardware
In other areas, I know you love your partners. I help run one, so I appreciate that. But when it came to Xbox and Zune you built them yourself (albeit on a contract basis, which is fine). Windows Phone 7 has a chance to work as an OEM play, but it would work better if you produced the devices. At least consider building a reference device that sells alongside your OEMs' offerings.

That's what Google did with the Nexxus One. And while that phone was not itself a big seller, it catalyzed two wonderful things: (1) a quality bar was set and (2) partners exceeded it. Before the Nexxus One, the best Android handset out there was the Motorola Droid. The Nexxus One was better, and the HTC Droid Incredible and Evo 4G are now even better than Google's phone, which is why Verizon and Sprint decided not to carry it. Imagine if all Windows Phone 6.x devices were on par with the HTC HD2. I tend to believe you'd have a lot bigger market share than you do now.

9. Continue with Your Retail Initiative From what I hear, it sounds like it's going well. And this goes right along with making your own hardware. When you build it, they will come. And then it makes the likes of Best Buy and Staples do better.

10. Make an Acquisition (or Two)
TiVo and/or Moxi look ripe for the picking. With their ability to build stuff people love and your ability to run a business, you might just have something. But do a better job than you did when you bought Danger. Buy the ideas, not just the customers, eh?

11. Make Beautiful Stuff
You've heard this one before, I know. But I have some head-shrinking advice on this one. You know that Apple obsesses over its industrial design. You know that appeals to consumers. But it seems you think doing so is Apple's game exclusively and so you shouldn't even try. Bull dinky. Come to New York and visit the Museum of Modern Art's Architecture and Design gallery. You'll see that lots of companies and product categories have had very high design value well before Apple existed.

You can do this, and the Zune HD was a great start. Now run with that. Find those negative voices in your head that are telling you that you can't, and shut them up. For good.

12. Burst the Bubble
Some of the products you've built seem like they were conceived in a bizarro world. That would appear to be the result of groupthink. You must do better. And there's lots of people willing to advise you. This includes just about everyone in the Regional Director program, and probably a bunch of MVPs. Heck, I bet the guys at Engadget could help out too. Imagine if you let them see the Kin before it shipped. Talk to high-end gear consumers. Talk to Best Buy and Costco customers too.

Signing Off
I hope this advice was of value to you. As I wrote this I kept telling myself how obvious, and even trite, some of these pieces of advice were. And because of that, I doubted that they'd really help. But I decided that some of this advice must not be obvious to Microsoft. Sometimes when you get wrapped up in stuff, it's hard to clear your head. I think my head's pretty clear here though (I'm wrapped up in other stuff), so maybe my perspective can help. If not, well, then, I guess all my commentary on Microsoft can't be super nice.

Posted on 05/27/2010 at 1:15 PM1 comments


Does HTML 5 Make "Rich vs. Reach" a False Choice?

The competition between the Web and proprietary rich platforms, including Windows, Mac OS, iPhone/iPad, Adobe Flash/AIR and Microsoft Silverlight, is not new. But with the emergence of HTML 5 and imminent support for it in the next release of the major Web browsers, the battle is heating up. And with the announcements made Wednesday at Google's I/O conference, it's getting kicked up yet another notch.

The impact of this platform battle on companies in the media and advertising world, and the developers who serve them, is significant. The most prominent question is whether video and rich media online will shift towards pure HTML and away from plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight. In fact, certain features in HTML 5 make it suitable for development for line of business applications as well, further threatening those plug-in technologies.

So what's the deal? Is this real or hype? To answer that question, I've done my own research into HTML 5's features and talked to several media-focused, New York-area developers to get their opinions. I present my findings to you in this post.

Getting the Picture
Before bearing down into HTML 5 specifics and practitioners' quotes, let's set the context. To understand what HTML 5 can do, take a look at this YouTube video of Sports Illustrated's HTML 5 prototype. This should start to get you bought into the idea that HTML 5 could be a game-changer.

Next, if you happen to have installed the beta version of Google's Chrome 5 browser, take a look at the following page link, and in that page click on any of the game thumbnails to see what's possible, without a plug-in, in this brave new world. (Note, although the instructions for each game tell you to press the A key to start, press the Z key instead.). Here's the link: http://www.kesiev.com/akihabara

As an adjunct to what's enabled by HTML 5, consider the various transforms that are part of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) 3. If you're running Safari as your browser, the following link will showcase this live; if not, you'll see a bitmap that will give you an idea of what's possible: http://webkit.org/blog/386/3d-transforms

Are you starting to get the picture (literally)? What has up until now required browser plug-ins and other patches to HTML, most typically Flash, will soon be renderable, natively, in all major browsers. Moreover, it's looking likely that developers will be able to deliver such content and experiences in these browsers using one base of markup and script code (using straight JavaScript and/or jQuery), without resorting to browser-specific code and workarounds. If you're skeptical of this, I wouldn't blame you, especially with respect to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. However, i can tell you with confidence that even Microsoft is dedicated to full-on HTML 5 support in version 9 of that browser, which is currently under development.

So what's new in HTML 5, specifically, that makes sites like this possible? The specification documents go into deep detail, and there's no sense in rehashing them here, but a summary is probably in order. Here is a non-authoritative, but useful, list of the major new feature areas in HTML 5.

* 2D drawing capabilities and 3D transforms: 2D drawing instructions can be embedded statically into a Web page; application interactivity and animation can be achieved through script. As mentioned above, 3D transforms are technically part of version 3 of the CSS spec, rather than HTML 5, but they can nonetheless be thought of as part of the bundle. They allow for rendering of 3D images and animations that, together with 2D drawing, make HTML-based games much more feasible than they are presently, as the links above demonstrate.

* Embedded audio and video: A media player can appear directly in a rendered Web page, using HTML markup and no plug-ins. Alternatively, player controls can be hidden and the content can play automatically.

* Major enhancements to form-based input: This includes such things as specification of required fields, embedding of text "hints" into a control, limiting valid input on a field to dates, email addresses or a list of values. There's more to this, but the gist is that line-of-business applications, with complicated input and data validation, are supported directly

* Offline caching, local storage and client-side SQL database: These facilities allow Web applications to function more like native apps, even if no Internet connection is available.

* User-defined data: Data (or metadata -- data about data) can easily be embedded statically and/or retrieved and updated with Javascript code. This avoids having to embed that data in a separate file, or within script code.

Taken together, these features position HTML to compete with, and perhaps overtake, Adobe's Flash/AIR (and Microsoft's Silverlight) as a viable Web platform for media, RIAs (rich internet applications -- apps that function more like desktop software than Web sites) and interactive Web content, including games.

Judging the Impact
What do players in the media world think about this? From the embedded video above, we know what Sports Illustrated (and, therefore, Time Warner) thinks. Hulu, the major Internet site for broadcast TV content, is on record as saying HTML5 video does not pass muster with them, at least not yet. YouTube, on the other hand, already has an experimental HTML 5-based version of their site. TechCrunch has reported that NetFlix is flirting with HTML 5, too, especially as it pertains to embedded browsers in TV-based devices. And the New York Times' Web site now embeds some video clips without resorting to Flash. They have to -- otherwise iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad users couldn't see them in the Mobile Safari browser.

Speaking of the iPad, MIchael Scafidi, Razorfish technology director and presentation layer technology practice lead, in the firm's New York City office, believes it to be a catalyst for HTML 5 adoption. When I asked him whether he thought Flash would lose share to the new open Web standard, he said, "For advertising on the iPad, yes, specifically due to the lack of support of Flash on the iPad." On the current state of the art in Web browsers, Scafidi commented, "IE 8 will not support HTML 5 in banners, so an alternative will need to be used until IE9. Outside of the iPad and iPhone, Flash will still be used for more immersive media and advertising."

What do other media-focused developers think about all this? I talked to several to get their opinions. Michael Pinto is CEO and founder of Very Memorable Design, whose primary focus has been to help marketing directors get traction online. The firm's client roster includes the likes of Time, Inc., Scholastic and PBS. He predicts that companies will stick with Flash where it makes sense.

"More and more microsites that were done entirely in Flash will be done more and more using jQuery," Pinto said. "I can also see slideshows and video now being done without Flash. However, if you needed to create a game or highly interactive activity, Flash would still be the way to go for the Web."

A dissenting view comes from Jesse Erlbaum, CEO of The Erlbaum Group, LLC, which serves numerous clients in the magazine publishing sector. When I asked Erlbaum whether he thought HTML 5 and jQuery/JavaScript would steal significant market share from Flash, he responded, "Not at all! In particular, not for media and advertising customers! These sectors are not generally in the business of making highly functional applications, which is the one place where HTML5, jQuery, etc. really shines."

Ironically, Pinto's firm is a heavy user of Flash for its projects and Erlbaum's firm develops atop the "LAMP" (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Perl) stack. For whatever reason, each firm seems to see the other's toolset as a more viable choice. But both agree that the developer tool story around HTML 5 is deficient.

Pinto explains: "What's lost with [HTML 5 and Javascript] techniques is that there isn't a single widely favored easy-to-use tool of choice for authoring. So with Flash you can get up and running right away and not worry about what is different from one browser to the next."

Erlbaum agrees. "HTML5/Javascript lacks a sophisticated integrated development environment (IDE) which is an essential part of Flash. If what someone is trying to make is primarily animation, it's a waste of time... to do this in Javascript," he said. "It can be done much more easily in Flash, and with greater cross-browser compatibility and consistency due to the ubiquity of Flash."

Philosophizing on Flash
Adobe (maker of Flash since its 2005 acquisition of Macromedia) likely agrees. And for better or worse, they've decided to address this shortcoming of HTML 5, even at risk of diminishing their Flash platform. Yesterday Adobe announced that their hugely popular Deamweaver Web design authoring tool would directly support HTML 5 and CSS 3 development. In fact, the Adobe Dreamweaver CS5 HTML5 Pack is downloadable now from Adobe Labs.

Maybe Adobe is bowing to pressure from ardent Web professionals like Scott Kellum, lead designer at Channel V Media, a digital and offline branding firm, serving the media and marketing sectors, among others. Kellum told me that HTML 5 "will definitely move people away from Flash."

"It has many of the same functionalities with faster load times and better accessibility. HTML5 will help Flash as well: with the new caching methods you can now even run Flash apps offline," Kellum said.

Razorfish's Scafidi, on the other hand, believes "on the platforms that support both [Flash and HTML 5], it will be the best technology that meets the business needs that will prevail."

Although all three Web developers I interviewed would agree that Flash is still required for more sophisticated applications, Kellum seems to have put his finger on why HTML 5 may nonetheless dominate. In his view, much of the Web development out there has little need for high-end capabilities.

"Most people want to add a little punch to a navigation bar or some video, and now you can get the biggest bang for your buck with HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript," Kellum said.

I've already mentioned that Google's ongoing I/O conference, at the Moscone West center in San Francisco, is driving the HTML 5 news cycle, big time. And Google made many announcements of their own, including the open sourcing of their VP8 video codec, new enterprise-oriented capabilities for its App Engine cloud offering, and the creation of the Chrome Web Store, which the company says will make it easier to find and "install" Web applications, in a fashion similar to the way users procure native apps on various mobile platforms.

HTML 5 looks to be disruptive, especially to the media world. And even if the technology ends up disappointing, the chatter around it alone is causing big changes in the technology world. If the richness it promises delivers, then magazine publishers and non-text digital advertisers may indeed have a platform for creating compelling content that loads quickly, is standards-based and will render identically in (the newest versions of) all major Web browsers.

Can this development in the digital arena save the titans of the print world? I can't predict, but it's going to be fun to watch, and the competitive innovation from all players in both industries will likely be immense.

Posted on 05/20/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments


SAP to Sybase: In-Memory Databases are Hot

If you're left scratching your head over SAP's intention to acquire Sybase for almost $6 billion, you're not alone. Despite Sybase's 1990s reign as the supreme database standard in certain sectors (including Wall Street), the company's flagship product has certainly fallen from grace. Why would SAP pay a greater than 50 percent premium over the Sybase closing price on the day of the announcement, just to acquire a relational database that is firmly stuck in maintenance mode?

Well there's more to Sybase than the relational database product. Take, for example, its mobile application platform. Sybase hit Gartner's "Leaders' Quadrant" in January of last year, and SAP needs a good mobile play. Beyond the platform itself, Sybase has a slew of mobile services; click this link to look them over.

There's a second major asset that Sybase has, though, and I wonder if it figured prominently into SAP's bid: Sybase IQ. Sybase IQ is a columnar database. Columnar databases place values from a given database column contiguously, unlike conventional relational databases, which store all of a row's data in close proximity.

Storing column values together works well in aggregation reporting scenarios, because the figures to be aggregated can be scanned in one efficient step. It also makes for high rates of compression because values from a single column tend to be close to each other in magnitude and may contain long sequences of repeating values. Highly compressible databases use much less disk storage and can be largely or wholly loaded into memory, resulting in lighting-fast query performance. For an ERP company like SAP, with its own legacy BI platform (SAP BW) and the entire range of Business Objects and Crystal Reports BI products (which it acquired in 2007), query performance is extremely important.

And it's a competitive necessity too. QlikTech has built an entire company on a columnar, in-memory BI product (QlikView). So too has startup company Vertica Vertica. IBM's TM1 has been doing in-memory OLAP for years. And guess who else has the in-memory religion? Microsoft does, in the form of its new PowerPivot product. I expect the technology in PowerPivot to become strategic to the full-blown SQL Server Analysis Services product and the entire Microsoft BI stack.

I sure don't blame SAP for jumping on the in-memory bandwagon, if indeed the Sybase acquisition is, at least in part, motivated by that. It will be interesting to watch and see what SAP does with the Sybase product line-up (assuming the acquisition closes), including the core database, the mobile platform, IQ, and even tools like PowerBuilder. It is also fascinating to watch columnar's encroachment on relational. Perhaps this acquisition will be columnar's tipping point and people will no longer see it as a fad. Are you listening Larry Ellison?

Posted on 05/18/2010 at 1:15 PM1 comments


A Visual Studio Release Grows in Brooklyn

Yesterday, Microsoft held its flagship launch event for Office 2010 in Manhattan. Today, the Redmond software company is holding a local launch event for Visual Studio (VS) 2010, in Brooklyn. How come information workers get the 212 treatment and developers are relegated to 718? Well, here's the thing: the Brooklyn Marriott is actually a great place for an event, but you need some intimate knowledge of New York City to know that. NBC's Studio 8H, where the Office launch was held yesterday (and from where SNL is broadcast) is a pretty small venue, but you'd need some inside knowledge to recognize that. Likewise, while Office 2010 is a product whose value is apparent, appreciating VS 2010's value takes a bit more savvy.

Setting aside its year-based designation, this release of VS, counting the old Visual Basic releases, is the 10th version of the product. How can a developer audience get excited about an integrated development environment when it reaches double-digit version numbers? Well, it can be tough. Luckily, Microsoft sent Jay Schmelzer, a Group Program Manager from the Visual Studio team in Redmond, to come tell the Brooklyn audience why they should be excited.

Turns out there's a lot of reasons. Support for SharePoint development is a big one. In previous versions of VS, that support has been anemic, at best. Shortage of SharePoint developers is a huge issue in the industry, and this should help. There's also built in support for Windows Azure (Microsoft's cloud platform) and, through a download, support for the forthcoming Windows Phone 7 platform. ASP.NET MVC, a "close-to-the-metal" Web development option that does away with the Web Forms abstraction layer, has a first-class presence in VS. So too does jQuery, the open source environment that makes JavaScript development a breeze. The jQuery support is so good that Microsoft now contributes to the jQuery project and offers IntelliSense support for it in the code editor.

Speaking of the VS code editor, it now supports multi-monitor setups, zoom-in and block selection. If you're not a developer, this may sound confusing and minute. I'll just say that for people who are developers, these are little things that really contribute to productivity, and that translates into lower development costs.

The really cool demo, though, was around Visual Studio 2010's new debugging features. This stuff is hard to showcase, but I believe it's truly breakthrough technology: imagine being able to step backwards in time to see what might have caused a bug. Cool? Now imagine being able to do that, even if you weren't the tester and weren't present while the testing was being done. Then imagine being able to see a video screen capture of what the tester was doing with your app when the bug occurred. VS 2010 allows all that. This could be the demise of the IWOMM ("it works on my machine") syndrome.

After the keynote, I asked Schmelzer if any of Microsoft's competitors have debugging tools that come close to VS 2010's. His answer was an earnest, "We don't think so." If that's true, that's a big deal, and a huge advantage for developer teams that adopt it. It will make software development much cheaper and more efficient. Kind of like holding a launch event at the Brooklyn Marriott instead of 30 Rock in Manhattan!

VS 2010 (version 10) and Office 2010 (version 14) aren't the only new product versions Microsoft is releasing right now. There's also SQL Server 2008 R2 (version 10.5), Exchange 2010 (version 8, I believe), SharePoint 2010 (version 4) and, of course, Windows 7. With so many new versions at such levels of maturity, I think it's fair to say Microsoft has reached middle-age. How does a company stave off a potential mid-life crisis, especially with young Turks like Google coming along and competing so fiercely? Hard to say. But if focusing on core value, including value that's hard to play into a sexy demo, is part of the answer, then Microsoft's doing OK. And if some new tricks, like Windows Phone 7, can gain some traction, that might round things out nicely.

Are the legacy products old tricks, or are they revised classics? I honestly don't know, because it's the market's prerogative to pass that judgment. I can say this, though: based on today's show, I think Microsoft's been doing its homework.

Posted on 05/13/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Responsible BI for Excel (Even for Older Versions)

On Wednesday, I will have the honor of co-presenting, for both The Data Warehouse Institute (TDWI) and the New York Technology Council, on the subject of Excel and business intelligence (BI). My co-presenter will be none other than Bill Baker, who was a Microsoft Distinguished Engineer and, essentially, the father of BI at that company. Details on the events are here and here.

We'll be talking about PowerPivot, of course, but that's not all. Probably even more important than any one product, will be our discussion of whether the usual characterization of Excel as the nemesis of IT, the guilty pleasure of business users and the antithesis of formal BI is really valid and/or hopelessly intractable. Without giving away our punch line, I'll tell you that we are much more optimistic than that.

There are huge upsides to Excel. And while there are real dangers to using it in the BI space, there are standards and practices you can employ to ensure Excel is used responsibly. And when those practices are followed, Excel becomes quite powerful indeed. One of the keys to this is using Excel as a data consumer rather than data storage mechanism. Caching data in Excel is OK, but only if that data is (a) not modified and (b) configured for automated periodic refresh.

PowerPivot meets both criteria -- it stores a read-only copy of your data in the form of a model, and once a workbook containing a PowerPivot model is published to SharePoint, it can be configured for scheduled data refresh, on the server, requiring no user intervention whatsoever. Data refresh is a bit like hard drive backup: it will only happen reliably if it's automated and super-easy to configure. PowerPivot hits a real home run here (as does Windows Home Server for PC backup, but I digress).

The thing about PowerPivot is that it's an add-in for Excel 2010. What if you're not planning to go to that new version for quite a while? What if you've just deployed Office 2007 in your organization? What if you're still on Office 2003, or an even earlier version? What can you do immediately to share data responsibly and easily?

As it turns out, there's a feature in Excel that's been around for quite a while, that can help: Web Queries. The Web Query feature was introduced, ostensibly, to allow Excel to pull data in from Internet Web pages... for example, data in a stock quote history table will come in nicely, as will any data in a Web page that is displayed in an HTML table. To use the feature In Excel 2007 or 2010, click the Data Tab or the ribbon and click the "From Web" button towards the left; in older versions use the corresponding option in the menu or toolbars. Next, paste a URL into the resulting dialog box and tap Enter or click the Go button. A preview of the Web page will come up, and the dialog will allow you to select the specific table within the page whose data you'd like to import. Here's an example:


[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1.

Now just click the table, click the Import button, and the Import Data dialog appears. You can simply click OK to bring in your data or you can first click the Properties... button and configure the data import to be refreshed at an interval in minutes that you select. Now your data's in the spreadsheet and ready to worked with:


[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 2.

Your data may be vulnerable to modification, but if you've set up the data refresh, any accidental or malicious changes will be corrected in time anyway.

The thing about this feature is that it's most useful not for public Web pages, but for pages behind the firewall. In effect, the Web Query feature provides an incredibly easy way to consume data in Excel that's "published" from an application. Users just need a URL. They don't need to know server and database names and since the data is read-only, providing credentials may be unnecessary, or can be handled using integrated security. If that's not good enough, the Web Query can be saved to a special .iqy file, which can be edited to provide POST parameter data.

The only requirement is that the data must be provided in an HTML table, with the first row providing the column names. From an ASP.NET project, it couldn't be easier: a simple bound GridView control is totally compatible. Use a data source control with it, and you don't even have to write any code. Users can link to pages that are part of an application's UI, or developers can create pages that are specially designed for the purpose of providing an interface to the Web Query import feature. And none of this is Microsoft- or .NET-specific. You can create pages in any language you want (PHP comes to mind) that output the result set of a query in HTML table format, and then consume that data in a Web Query. Then build PivotTables and charts on the data, and in Excel 2007 or 2010 you can use conditional formatting to create scorecards and dashboards.

This strategy allows you to create pages that function quite similarly to the OData XML feeds rendered when .NET developers create an "Astoria" WCF Data Service. And while it's cool that PowerPivot and Excel 2010 can import such OData feeds, it's good to know that older versions of Excel can function in a similar fashion, and can consume data produced by virtually any Web development platform.

As a final matter, instead of just telling you that "older versions" of Excel support this feature, I'll be more specific. To discover what the first version of Excel was to support Web queries, read Microsoft's documentation, titled XL97: How to Create Web Query (.iqy) Files.

Posted on 05/11/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments


In the Mobile and Tablet World, How Much is Too Much?

The week of April 26th was a huge one in the world of mobile and tablet devices. There were so many individual developments, announcements and solidifications of strategy, it's almost impossible to believe they occurred in the same month, let alone the same week.

Things started with Apple and Gizmodo having a Law and Order moment over the latter's procurement of what appears to be the former's 4th gen iPhone prototype. We found out on the 26th that Gizmodo blogger Jason Chen's apartment was raided by police and, honestly, that was a bit much.

But Apple didn't stop there. They also published Steve Job's critique of Adobe Flash and his explanation of Cupertino's embargo of Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads. If you ask me, this too was a bit much.

Apple finished up the week by releasing the 3G version of its iPad product to the US market. I like (iLike?) my WiFi iPad. The idea of getting a version of it that required a second 3G service monthly subscription, is, well, a bit much.

Microsoft was in the news too. It killed a project it hadn't even acknowledged the existence of: the Courier tablet. That's a bit much too. If a tree falls in the woods, and Microsoft says they can't hear it anyway, could they really have chopped it down?

Maybe Microsoft Research should have licensed some of Courier's technology from other parts of Microsoft. Then maybe they could have kept the product alive. Ask HTC: they're going to be licensing technology from Microsoft because Redmond insists that Google's Android operating system infringes on certain of their patents. And since HTC now builds a number of handsets on Android, instead of being beholden, as they once were, to Windows Mobile, that means they can keep making their products. Why does HTC have to pay the royalties, and not Google? Maybe Microsoft decided that going after GOOG would have been a bit much, even for them.

The agreement came not a moment too soon: HTC released their "Droid Incredible" (that name's a bit much), an Android 2.1 handset with amazing hardware and HTC's own Sense UI, on April 30th (this past Friday). This phone is very well-reviewed. Maybe that's why Google basically decided to beg off introducing a version of its Nexus One phone (also manufactured by HTC) on the Verizon Wireless network. Google backing down? That's incredible, if not also a bit much.

And that brings us to HP. Which this week announced its acquisition of Palm and its webOS mobile phone touch-oriented operating system. HP also killed its own Slate initiative. Apparently HP realized that Windows 7, even with a proprietary HP touch UI added on top, is no match for the iPad. I'm guessing they think webOS might work a bit better, And I'm wondering if HP even wants to use webOS for phone handsets, beyond the Pre and Pixi. Using it just for slate devices would be a bit extreme, but maybe not too much.

Honestly, this was not Microsoft's best week. It killed a project and a close partner did likewise. Then that same partner bought a competing OS product, while another partner released their new product that uses yet another competing OS platform.

What did Microsoft actually produce this past week? An update to its Windows Phone 7 developer tools that actually works with the version of Visual Studio 2010 released on April 12th. That took a couple of weeks to get synced up, and that's a bit much too.

But at least it happened. Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft's best hope for a comeback in the SmartPhone market and to offer a credible touch-based tablet device. This week, two of Microsoft's slate initiatives died, and its only mobile phone victory was around its competitor's operating system. I hope the new platform gets Redmond out of the PC ghetto and into the classes of device that get people really excited today. If it can't, that would be a bit much; probably too much. And, as the signs at the Lonestar Cafe in NYC used to say, too much ain't enough

.

Posted on 05/03/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Office 2010: It's not just DOC(X) and XLS(X)

The newest version of Office is officially numbered 14, a designation that correlates with the various releases, through the years, of Microsoft Word. There were six major versions of Word for DOS, during whose release cycles came three 16-bit Windows versions. Then, starting with Word 95 and counting through Word 2007, there have been six more versions -- all for the 32-bit Windows platform. Skip version 13 to ward off folksy bad luck (and, perhaps, the bugs that could come with it) and that brings us to version 14, which includes implementations for both 32- and 64-bit Windows platforms. We've come a long way baby. Or have we?

As it does every three years or so, debate will now start to rage on over whether we need a "14th" version of the PC platform's standard word processor, or a "13th" version of the spreadsheet. If you accept the premise of that question, then you may be on a slippery slope toward answering it in the negative. Thing is, that premise is valid for certain customers and not others.

The Microsoft Office product has morphed from one that offered core word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and email functionality into a suite of applications that provides unique, new value-added features, and even whole applications, in the context of those core services. The core apps thus grow in mission: Excel is a BI tool. Word is a collaborative editorial system for the production of publications. PowerPoint is a media production platform for live presentations and, increasingly, for delivering more effective presentations online. Outlook is a time and task management system. Access is a rich client front-end for data-driven, self-service SharePoint applications. OneNote helps you capture ideas, corral random thoughts in a semi-structured way, and then tie them back to other, more rigidly structured, Office documents.

Google Docs and other cloud productivity platforms like Zoho don't really do these things. And there is a growing chorus of voices who say that they shouldn't, because those ancillary capabilities are over-engineered, over-produced and "under-necessary." They might say Microsoft is layering on superfluous capabilities to avoid admitting that Office's core capabilities, the ones people really need, have become commoditized.

It's hard to take sides in that argument, because different people, and the different companies that employ them, have different needs. For my own needs, it all comes down to three basic questions: will the new version of Office save me time, will it make the mundane parts of my job easier, and will it augment my services to customers? I need my time back. I need to spend more of it with my family, and more of it focusing on my own core capabilities rather than the administrative tasks around them. And I also need my customers to be able to get more value out of the services I provide.

Help me triage my inbox. Help me get proposals done more quickly and make them easier to read. Let me get my presentations done faster, make them more effective and make it easier for me to reuse materials from other presentations. And, since I'm in the BI and data business, help me and my customers manage data and analytics more easily, both on the desktop and online.

Those are my criteria. And, with those in mind, Office 2010 is looking like a worthwhile upgrade. Perhaps it's not earth-shattering, but it offers a combination of incremental improvements and a few new major capabilities that I think are quite compelling. I provide a brief roundup of them here. It's admittedly arbitrary and not comprehensive, but I think it tells the Office 2010 story effectively.

Across the Suite
More than any other, this release of Office aims to give collaboration a real workout. In certain apps, for the first time, documents can be opened simultaneously by multiple users, with colleagues' changes appearing in near real-time. Web browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote will be available to extend collaboration to contributors who are off the corporate network.

The ribbon user interface is now more pervasive (for example, it appears in OneNote and in Outlook's main window). It's also customizable, allowing users to add, easily, buttons and options of their choosing, into new tabs, or into new groups within existing tabs.

Microsoft has also taken the File menu (which was the "Office Button" menu in the 2007 release) and made it into a full-screen "Backstage" view where document-wide operations, like saving, printing and online publishing are performed.

And because, more and more, heavily formatted content is cut and pasted between documents and applications, Office 2010 makes it easier to manage the retention or jettisoning of that formatting right as the paste operation is performed. That's much nicer than stripping it off, or adding it back, afterwards.

And, speaking of pasting, a number of Office apps now make it especially easy to insert screenshots within their documents. I know that's useful to me, because I often document or critique applications and need to show them in action. For the vast majority of users, I expect that this feature will be more useful for capturing snapshots of Web pages, but we'll have to see whether this feature becomes popular.

Excel
At first glance, Excel 2010 looks and acts nearly identically to the 2007 version. But additional glances are necessary. It's important to understand that lots of people in the working world use Excel as more of a database, analytics and mathematical modeling tool than merely as a spreadsheet. And it's also important to understand that Excel wasn't designed to handle such workloads past a certain scale. That all changes with this release.

The first reason things change is that Excel has been tuned for performance. It's been optimized for multi-threaded operation; previously lengthy processes have been shortened, especially for large data sets; more rows and columns are allowed and, for the first time, Excel (and the rest of Office) is available in a 64-bit version. For Excel, this means users can take advantage of more than the 2GB of memory that the 32-bit version is limited to.

On the analysis side, Excel 2010 adds Sparklines (tiny charts that fit into a single cell and can therefore be presented down an entire column or across a row) and Slicers (a more user-friendly filter mechanism for PivotTables and charts, which visually indicates what the filtered state of a given data member is). But most important, Excel 2010 supports the new PowerPIvot add-in which brings true self-service BI to Office. PowerPivot allows users to import data from almost anywhere, model it, and then analyze it. Rather than forcing users to build "spreadmarts" or use corporate-built data warehouses, PowerPivot models function as true columnar, in-memory OLAP cubes that can accommodate millions of rows of data and deliver fast drill-down performance.

And speaking of OLAP, Excel 2010 now supports an important Analysis Services OLAP feature called write-back. Write-back is especially useful in financial forecasting scenarios for which Excel is the natural home. Support for write-back is long overdue, but I'm still glad it's there, because I had almost given up on it.

PowerPoint
The 2010 version of PowerPoint marks its progression from a presentation tool to a video and photo editing and production tool. Whether or not it's successful in this pursuit, and if offering this is even a sensible goal, is another question.

Regardless, the new capabilities are kind of interesting. A greatly enhanced set of slide transitions with 3D effects; in-product photo and video editing; accommodation of embedded videos from services such as YouTube; and the ability to save a presentation as a video each give testimony to PowerPoint's transformation into a media tool and away from a pure presentation tool.

These capabilities also recognize the importance of the Web as both a source for materials and a channel for disseminating PowerPoint output. Congruent with that is PowerPoint's new ability to broadcast a slide presentation, using a quickly-generated public URL, without involving the hassle or expense of a Web meeting service like GoToMeeting or Microsoft's own LiveMeeting. Slides presented through this broadcast feature retain full color fidelity and transitions and animations are preserved as well.

Outlook
Microsoft's ubiquitous email/calendar/contact/task management tool gains long overdue speed improvements, especially against POP3 email accounts. Outlook 2010 also supports multiple Exchange accounts, rather than just one; tighter integration with OneNote; and a new Social Connector providing integration with, and presence information from, online social network services like LinkedIn and Facebook (not to mention Windows Live). A revamped conversation view now includes messages that are part of a given thread regardless of which folder they may be stored in.

I don't know yet how well the Social Connector will work or whether it will keep Outlook relevant to those who live on Facebook and LinkedIn. But among the other features, there's very little not to like.

OneNote
To me, OneNote is the part of Office that just keeps getting better. There is one major caveat to this, which I'll cover in a moment, but let's first catalog what new stuff OneNote 2010 brings. The best part of OneNote is the way each of its versions have managed hierarchy: Notebooks have sections, sections have pages, pages have sub pages, multiple notes can be contained in either, and each note supports infinite levels of indentation.

None of that is new to 2010, but the new version does make creation of pages and subpages easier and also makes simple work out of promoting and demoting pages from sub page to full page status. And relationships between pages are quite easy to create now: much like a Wiki, simply typing a page's name in double-square brackets ("[[…]]") creates a link to it.

OneNote is also great at integrating content outside of its notebooks. With a new Dock to Desktop feature, OneNote becomes aware of what window is displayed in the rest of the screen and, if it's an Office document or a Web page, links the notes you're typing, at the time, to it. A single click from your notes later on will bring that same document or Web page back on-screen. Embedding content from Web pages and elsewhere is also easier. Using OneNote's Windows Key+S combination to grab part of the screen now allows you to specify the destination of that bitmap instead of automatically creating a new note in the Unfiled Notes area. Using the Send to OneNote buttons in Internet Explorer and Outlook result in the same choice.

Collaboration gets better too. Real-time, multi-author editing is better accommodated and determining author lineage of particular changes is easily carried out.

My one pet peeve with OneNote is the difficulty using it when I'm not one a Windows PC. OneNote's main competitor, Evernote, while I believe inferior in terms of features, has client versions for PC, Mac, Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone, iPad and Web browsers. Since I have an Android phone and an iPad, I am practically forced to use it. However, the OneNote Web app should help here, as should a forthcoming version of OneNote for Windows Phone 7.

In the mean time, it turns out that using OneNote's Email Page ribbon button lets you move a OneNote page easily into Evernote (since every Evernote account gets a unique email address for adding notes) and that Evernote's Email function combined with Outlook's Send to OneNote button (in the Move group of the ribbon's Home tab) can achieve the reverse.

Access
To me, the big change in Access 2007 was its tight integration with SharePoint lists. Access 2010 and SharePoint 2010 continue this integration with the introduction of SharePoint's Access Services. Much as Excel Services provides a SharePoint-hosted experience for viewing (and now editing) Excel spreadsheet, PivotTable and chart content, Access Services allows for SharePoint browser-hosted editing of Access data within the forms that are built in the Access client itself.

To me this makes all kinds of sense. Although it does beg the question of where to draw the line between Access, InfoPath, SharePoint list maintenance and SharePoint 2010's new Business Connectivity Services. Each of these tools provide overlapping data entry and data maintenance functionality.

But if you do prefer Access, then you'll like things like templates and application parts that make it easier to get off the blank page. These features help you quickly get tables, forms and reports built out. To make things look nice, Access even gets its own version of Excel's Conditional Formatting feature, letting you add data bars and data-driven text formatting.

Word
As I said at the beginning of this post, upgrades to Office are about much more than enhancing the suite's flagship word processing application. So are there any enhancements in Word worth mentioning? I think so. The most important one has to be the collaboration features. Essentially, when a user opens a Word document that is in a SharePoint document library (or Windows Live SkyDrive folder), rather than the whole document being locked, Word has the ability to observe more granular locks on the individual paragraphs being edited. Word also shows you who's editing what and its Save function morphs into a sync feature that both saves your changes and loads those made by anyone editing the document concurrently.

There's also a new navigation pane that lets you manage sections in your document in much the same way as you manage slides in a PowerPoint deck. Using the navigation pane, you can reorder sections, insert new ones, or promote and demote sections in the outline hierarchy. Not earth shattering, but nice.

Other Apps and Summarized Findings
What about InfoPath, Publisher, Visio and Project? I haven't looked at them yet. And for this post, I think that's fine. While those apps (and, arguably, Access) cater to specific tasks, I think the apps we've looked at in this post service the general purpose needs of most users. And the theme in those 2010 apps is clear: collaboration is key, the Web and productivity are indivisible, and making data and analytics into a self-service amenity is the way to go.

But perhaps most of all, features are still important, as long as they get you through your day faster, rather than adding complexity for its own sake. I would argue that this is true for just about every product Microsoft makes: users want utility, not complexity.

Posted on 04/29/2010 at 1:15 PM1 comments


eBook Smackdown: iPad vs. Kindle

When the iPad was presented at its San Francisco launch event on January 28th, Steve Jobs spent a significant amount of time explaining how well the device would serve as an eBook reader. He showed the iBook's reader application and iBookstore and laid down the gauntlet before Amazon and its beloved Kindle device. Almost immediately after, criticism came rushing forth that the iPad could never beat the Kindle for book reading. The curious part of that criticism is that virtually no one offering it had actually used the iPad yet.

A few weeks later, on April 3, the iPad was released for sale in the United States. I bought one on that day and in the few additional weeks that have elapsed, I've given quite a workout to most of its capabilities, including its eBook features. I've also spent some time with the Kindle, albeit a first-generation model, to see how it actually compares to the iPad. I had some expectations going in, but I came away with conclusions about each device that were more scenario-based than absolute. I present my findings to you here.

Vital Statistics
Let's start with an inventory of each device's underlying technology. The iPad has a color, backlit LCD screen and an on-screen keyboard. It has a battery which, on a full charge, lasts anywhere from 6-10 hours. The Kindle offers a monochrome, reflective E Ink display, a physical keyboard and a battery that on my first-gen loaner unit can go up to a week between charges (Amazon claims the battery on the Kindle 2 can last up to 2 weeks on a single charge).

The Kindle connects to Amazon's Kindle Store using a 3G modem (the technology and network vary depending on the model) that incurs no airtime service charges whatsoever. The iPad units that are on-sale today work over WiFi only. 3G-equipped models will be on sale shortly and will command a $130 premium over their WiFi-only counterparts. 3G service on the iPad, in the U.S. from AT&T, will be fee-based, with a 250MB plan at $14.99 per month and an unlimited plan at $29.99. No contract is required for 3G service.

All these tech specs aside, I think a more useful observation is that the iPad is a multi-purpose Internet-connected entertainment device, while the Kindle is a dedicated reading device. The question is whether those differences in design and intended use create a clear-cut winner for reading electronic publications. Let's take a look at each device, in isolation, now.

Kindle
To me, what's most innovative about the Kindle is its E Ink display. E Ink really looks like ink on a sheet of paper. It requires no backlight, it's fully visible in direct sunlight and it causes almost none of the eyestrain that LCD-based computer display technology (like that used on the iPad) does. It's really versatile in an all-around way. Forgive me if this sounds precious, but reading on it is really a joy. In fact, it's a genuinely relaxing experience.

Through the Kindle Store, Amazon allows users to download books (including audio books), magazines, newspapers and blog feeds. Books and magazines can be purchased either on a single-issue basis or as an annual subscription. Books, of course, are purchased singly. Oddly, blogs are not free, but instead carry a monthly subscription fee, typically $1.99. To me this is ludicrous, but I suppose the free 3G service is partially to blame. Books and magazine issues download quickly. Magazine and blog subscriptions cause new issues or posts to be pushed to your device on an automated basis. Available blogs include 9000-odd feeds that Amazon offers on the Kindle Store; unless I missed something, arbitrary RSS feeds are not supported (though there are third party workarounds to this limitation).

The shopping experience is integrated well, has a huge selection, and offers certain graphical perks. For example, magazine and newspaper logos are displayed in menus, and book cover thumbnails appear as well. A simple search mechanism is provided and text entry through the physical keyboard is relatively painless. It's very easy and straightforward to enter the store, find something you like and start reading it quickly. If you know what you're looking for, it's even faster. Given Kindle's high portability, very reliable battery, instant-on capability and highly integrated content acquisition, it makes reading on whim, and in random spurts of downtime, very attractive.

The Kindle's home screen lists all of your publications, and easily lets you select one, then start reading it. Once opened, publications display in crisp, attractive text that is adjustable in size. "Turning" pages is achieved through buttons dedicated to the task. Notes can be recorded, bookmarks can be saved and pages can be saved as clippings. I am not an avid book reader, and yet I found the Kindle made it really fun, convenient and soothing to read. There's something about the easy access to the material and the simplicity of the display that makes the Kindle seduce you into chilling out and reading page after page.

On the other hand, the Kindle has an awkward navigation interface. While menus are displayed clearly on the screen, the method of selecting menu items is tricky: alongside the right-hand edge of the main display is a thin column that acts as a second display. It has a white background, and a scrollable silver cursor that is moved up or down through the use of the device's scroll wheel. Picking a menu item on the main display involves scrolling the silver cursor to a position parallel to that menu item and pushing the scroll wheel in. This navigation technique creates a disconnect, literally. You don't really click on a selection so much as you gesture toward it. I got used to this technique quickly, but I didn't love it. It definitely created a kind of anxiety in me, making me feel the need to speed through menus and get to my destination document quickly. Once there, I could calm down and relax.

Books are great on the Kindle. Magazines and newspapers much less so. I found the rendering of photographs, and even illustrations, to be unacceptably crude. For this reason, I expect that reading textbooks on the Kindle may leave students wanting. I found that the original flow and layout of any publication was sacrificed on the Kindle. In effect, browsing a magazine or newspaper was almost impossible. Reading the text of individual articles was enjoyable, but having to read this way made the whole experience much more "a la carte" than cohesive and thematic between articles. I imagine that for academic journals this is ideal, but for consumer publications it imposes a stripped-down, low-fidelity experience that evokes a sense of deprivation.

In general, the Kindle is great for reading text. For just about anything else, especially activity that involves exploratory browsing, meandering and short-attention-span reading, it presents a real barrier to entry and adoption. Avid book readers will enjoy the Kindle (if they're not already). It's a great device for losing oneself in a book over long sittings. Multitaskers who are more interested in periodicals, be they online or off, will like it much less, as they will find compromise, and even sacrifice, to be palpable.

iPad
The iPad is a very different device from the Kindle. While the Kindle is oriented to pages of text, the iPad orbits around applications and their interfaces. Be it the pinch and zoom experience in the browser, the rich media features that augment content on news and weather sites, or the ability to interact with social networking services like Twitter, the iPad is versatile. While it shares a slate-like form factor with the Kindle, it's effectively an elegant personal computer. One of its many features is the iBook application and integration of the iBookstore. But it's a multi-purpose device. That turns out to be good and bad, depending on what you're reading.

The iBookstore is great for browsing. Its color, rich animation-laden user interface make it possible to shop for books, rather than merely search and acquire them. Unfortunately, its selection is rather sparse at the moment. If you're looking for a New York Times bestseller, or other popular titles, you should be OK. If you want to read something more specialized, it's much harder.

Unlike the awkward navigation interface of the Kindle, the iPad offers a nearly flawless touch-screen interface that seduces the user into tinkering and kibitzing every bit as much as the Kindle lulls you into a deep, concentrated read. It's a dynamic and interactive device, whereas the Kindle is static and passive.

The iBook reader is slick and fun. Use the iPad in landscape mode and you can read the book in 2-up (left/right 2-page) display; use it in portrait mode and you can read one page at a time. Rather than clicking a hardware button to turn pages, you simply drag and wipe from right-to-left to flip the single or right-hand page. The page actually travels through an animated path as it would in a physical book. The intuitiveness of the interface is uncanny. The reader also accommodates saving of bookmarks, searching of the text, and the ability to highlight a word and look it up in a dictionary.

Pages display brightly and clearly. They're easy to read. But the backlight and the glare made me less comfortable than I was with the Kindle. The knowledge that completely different applications (including the Web and email and Twitter) were just a few taps away made me antsy and very tempted to task-switch. The knowledge that battery life is an issue created subtle discomfort.

If the Kindle makes you feel like you're in a library reading room, then the iPad makes you feel, at best, like you're under fluorescent lights at a Barnes and Noble or Borders store. If you're lucky, you'd be on a couch or at a reading table in the store, but you might also be standing up, in the aisles. Clearly, I didn't find this conducive to focused and sustained reading. But that may have more to do with my own tendency to read periodicals far more than books. And, truth be known, the book reading experience, when not explicitly compared to Kindle's, was still pleasant.

It is also important to point out that Kindle Store-sourced books can be read on the iPad through a Kindle reader application, from Amazon, specific to the device. This offered a less rich experience than the iBooks reader, but it was completely adequate. Despite the Kindle brand of the reader, however, it offered little in terms of simulating the reading experience on its namesake device.

When it comes to periodicals, the iPad wins hands down. Magazines, even if merely scanned images of their print editions, read on the iPad in a way that felt similar to reading hard copy. The full color display, touch navigation and even the ability to render advertisements in their full glory makes the iPad a great way to read through any piece of work that is measured in pages, rather than chapters.

There are many ways to get magazines and newspapers onto the iPad, including the Zinio reader, and publication-specific applications like those from the Wall Street Journal and Popular Science. The New York Times' free Editors' Choice application offers a Times Reader-like interface to a subset of content from the Gray Lady. The completely Web-based but iPad-optimized Times Skimmer site works well too. Even conventional Web sites themselves can be read much like magazines, given the iPad's ability to zoom in on the text and crop out advertisements on the margins.

While the Kindle does have an experimental Web browser, it reminded me a lot of early mobile phone browsers, only in a larger size. For text-heavy sites with simple layout, it works fine. For just about anything else, it becomes more trouble than it's worth. And given the way magazine articles make me think of things I want to look up online, I think that's a real liability for the Kindle.

Summing Up
What I came to realize is that the Kindle isn't so much a computer or even an Internet device as it is a printer. While it doesn't use physical paper, it still renders its content a page at a time, just like a laser printer does, and its output appears strikingly similar. You can read the rendered text, but you can't interact with it in any way. That's why the navigation requires a separate cursor display area. And because of the page-oriented rendering behavior, turning pages causes a flash on the display and requires a sometimes long pause before the next page is rendered.

The good side of this is that once the page is generated, no battery power is required to display it. That makes for great battery life, optimal viewing under most lighting conditions (as long as there is some light) and low-eyestrain, text-centric display of content. The Kindle is highly portable, has an excellent selection in its store and is refreshingly distraction-free. All of this is ideal for reading books. And iPad doesn't offer any of it.

What iPad does offer is versatility, variety, richness and luxury. It's flush with accoutrements even if it's low on focused, sustained text display. That makes it inferior to the Kindle for book reading. But that also makes it better than the Kindle for almost everything else. As such, and given that its book reading experience is still decent (even if not superior), I think the iPad will give Kindle a run for its money. True book lovers, and people on a budget, will want the Kindle. People with a robust amount of discretionary income may want both devices. Everyone else who is interested in a slate form factor e-reading device, especially if they also wish to have leisure-friendly Internet access, will likely choose the iPad exclusively.

One thing is for sure: iPad has reduced Kindle's market, and may have shifted its mass market potential to a mere niche play. If Amazon is smart, it will improve its iPad-based Kindle reader app significantly. It can then leverage the iPad channel as a significant market for the Kindle Store. After all, selling the eBooks themselves is what Amazon should care most about.

Posted on 04/22/2010 at 1:15 PM10 comments


WinMo's Demise: Notifying Next of "Kin"

This past Monday, April 12th, Visual Studio 2010 was launched. And on that same day, Microsoft also launched a new line of mobile phone handsets, called Kin. The two product launches are actually connected, but only by what they do not have in common, and what they commonly lack.

On the former point: VS 2010 had released to manufacturing a couple weeks prior to its launch. The Kin phones, meanwhile, are not yet available. We don't even know what they will cost. (And I think cost will be a major factor in Kin's success... I told ChannelWeb's Yara Souza so in this article.)

What do the two products both lack? Simple: Windows Mobile 6.x. For example, Kin seems to be based on the same platform as Windows Phone 7 (albeit a subset). And VS 2010 does not support .NET Compact Framework development, which means no .NET development support for WinMo 6.x and earlier.

So I guess April 12th marks Windows Phone "clean slate day." If you want to develop for the old phone platform, you will need to use the old version of Visual Studio (i.e. 2008). Luckily VS 2010 and 2008 can be installed side-by-side. But I doubt that's much consolation to developers who still target WinMo 6.5 and earlier.

Remember, WinMo isn't just about the phone. There are all sorts of non-telephony mobile devices, including ruggedized Pocket PC-style instruments, bar code readers and shop-floor-deployed units that don't run Windows Phone 7 and couldn't, even if they wanted to.

Where will developers in these markets go? I would guess some will stick with WinMo 6.x and earlier, until Windows Phone 7 can handle their workloads, assuming that does indeed happen. Others will likely go to Google's Android platform.

For OEMs and developers who need a customizable mobile software stack, Android is turning out to be out-WinMo-ing WinMo. As I wrote in this post, Google took Microsoft's model (minus the licensing fees) and combined it with a modern SmartPhone feature set (rather than a late 90s/early oughts PDA paradigm), to great success. You might say Google embraced and extended.

You might also say Microsoft shunned and withdrew

.

Posted on 04/19/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments


iPad at One Week: A Great Device Made with a Heavy Hand

I have now had my iPad for a little over a week. In that time, Apple introduced the world to its iPhone OS 4 (and the SDK agreement's draconian new section 3.3.1). HP introduced Slate, and Microsoft got ready to launch Visual Studio 2010 and .NET 4.

And through it all I have used my iPad. I've used it for email, calendar, controlling my Sonos, and writing an essay. I've used it for getting on TripIt and Twitter, and surfing the Web. I've used it for online banking, and online ordering and delivery of food.

And the verdict? Honestly? I think it's a great device and I thoroughly enjoy using it. The screen is bright and vibrant. I am surprisingly fast and accurate when I type on it. The touch screen's responsiveness is nearly flawless. The software, including a number of third party applications, include pleasing animations and use of color that make it fun to get work done. And speaking of work, the Exchange integration is, dare I say it, robust. Not as full-featured as on a PC or Windows Mobile device, but still offering core functionality and, so far at least, without bugs.

The UI is intuitive, not just to me, but also to my 5 1/2 year old, and also to my nearly-3-year-old son. They picked it up and, with just a few pointers from me, they almost immediately knew what to do, whether they were looking at photos (and swiping/flicking along as they did so), using a drawing program, playing a game, or watching YouTube videos. The younger of the two of them even tried to get up on a chair and grab the thing today. He dropped it, from about 4 feet off the ground. And it's still fine. (Meanwhile, I'll be keeping it on a higher shelf.)

I cannot fully describe yet what makes this form factor and this product so appealing. Maybe it's that it's an always-on device. Maybe it's just being able to hold such a nice, relatively large display so close. Maybe it's the design sensibility that seems to pervade throughout the app ecosystem. Or maybe it's that one's fingers, and not pens or mice, are the software's preferred input device.

Whatever the attraction, it's strong. And no matter how much I tend to root for Microsoft and against Apple, Cupertino has, in my mind, scored big.

Can Microsoft compete? Yes, but not with the Windows 7 standard UI (nor with individual OEMs’ own UIs on top). I hope Microsoft builds a variant of the Windows Phone 7 specifically for tablet devices. And I hope they make it clear that all developers, and programming languages, are welcome to the platform. Once that’s established, the OEMs have to build great hardware with fast, responsive touch screens, under Microsoft's watchful eye. That may be the hardest part of getting this right.

No matter what, Microsoft's got a fight on its hands. I don't know if it can count on winning that fight, either. But Silverlight and Live Tiles could certainly help. And so can treating developers like adults. Apple seems intent on treating their devs like kids, and then giving the kids a curfew. For that, dev-friendly Microsoft may one day give thanks.

Posted on 04/12/2010 at 1:15 PM1 comments


Weekend With iPad

Saturday morning I got up, got dressed and took a seven-minute walk up to the Apple Store in New York's Meatpacking District to pick up my reserved iPad. This precinct, which borders Greenwich Village (where I live and grew up) was, when I was a kid, a very industrial and smelly neighborhood during the day and a rough neighborhood at night. So imagine the sense of irony as I walked up Hudson Street towards 14th Street, to go wait in line with a bunch of hipsters to buy an iPad on launch day.

Numerous blue T-shirt-clad Apple store workers were on hand to check people in to the line specifically for people who had reserved an iPad. Others workers passed out water and all of them, I kid you not, applauded people as they got their chance to go into the store and buy their devices. They also cheered people and yelled "congratulations" as they left. The event had all the charm of a mass wedding officiated by Reverend Sung Myung Moon.

Once inside, a nice dude named Trey, with lots of tattoos on his calves, helped me and I acquired my device in short order. Another guy helped me activate the device, which was comical, because that has to be done through iTunes, which I hadn't logged into in a while. Turns out my user id was my email address from the company I sold 5-1/2 years ago. Who knew? Regardless, I got the device working, packed up and left the store, shuddering as I was cheered and congratulated. By this time (about 10:30am) the line for reserved units and even walk-ins, was gone. The iPhone launch this was not.

As much as I detested the Apple Store experience, I must say the device is really nice. The screen is bright, the colors are bold, and the experience is ultra-smooth. I quickly tested Safari, YouTube, Google Maps, and then installed a few apps, including the New York Times Editors' Choice and a couple of Twitter clients.

Some initial raves: Google Maps and Street View on the iPad is just amazing. The screen is full-size like a PC or Mac, but it's right in front of you and responding to taps and flicks and pinches and it's really engulfing. Video and photos are really nice on this device, despite the fact that 16:9 and anamorphic aspect ratio content is letter boxed. It still looks amazing. And apps that are designed especially for the iPad, including The Weather Channel and Gilt and Kayak just look stunning.

The richness, the friendly layout, the finger-friendly UIs, and the satisfaction of not having a keyboard between you and the information you're managing, while you sit on a couch or an easy chair, is just really a beautiful thing. The mere experience of seeing these apps' splash screens causes a shiver and goosebumps. Truly. The iPad is not a desktop machine, and it's not pocket device. That doesn't mean it's useless, though. It's the perfect "couchtop" computer.

Now some downsides: the WiFi radio seems a bit flakey. More than a few times, I have had to toggle the WiFi off and back on to get it to connect properly. Worse yet, the iPad is totally bamboozled by the fact that I have four WiFi access points in my house, each with the same SSID. My laptops are smart enough to roam from one to the other, but the iPad seems to maintain an affinity for the downstairs access point, even if I'm turning it on two flights up. Telling the iPad to "forget" my WiFi network and then re-associate with it doesn't help.

More downers: as you might expect, there are far more applications developed for the iPhone than the iPad. And although iPhone apps run on the iPad, that provides about the same experience as watching standard def on a big HD flat panel, complete with the lousy choice of thick black borders or zooming the picture in to fill the screen.

And speaking of iPhone Apps, I can't get the Sonos one to work. Ideally, they'd have a dedicated iPad app and it would work on the first try. And the iPad is just as bad as any netbook when it comes to being a magnet for fingerprints. The lack of multi-tasking is quite painful too -- truly, I don't mind if only one app can be active at once, but the lack of ability to switch between apps, and the requirement to return to the home screen and re-launch a previous app to switch back, is already old and I've had the thing less than 48 hours.

These are just initial impressions. I'll have a fuller analysis soon, after I've had some more break-in time with my new toy. I'll be thinking not just about the iPad and iPhone but also about Android, the 2.1 update for which was pushed to my Droid today, and Windows Phone 7, whose "hub" concept I now understand. This has been a great year for alternative computing devices, and I see no net downside for Apple, Google or Microsoft. Exciting times.

Posted on 04/05/2010 at 1:15 PM5 comments


Why I'm Getting an iPad

I have never purchased an Apple product in my life. That's a "true fact." And, for that matter, the last Apple product I really wanted was an Apple IIe, back in the 1980s. I couldn't afford it though (I was still in high school), so I got a Commodore 64 instead -- it had the same microprocessor, after all. If the iPhone were on Verizon, I probably would have picked one up in December, when I got my Droid. And if the iPod Touch worked with my Napster subscription (which, of course, it does not, but my Sonos does) I might have picked up one of those instead.

That's three strikes, but Apple's not out. I've decided I want the iPad.

Why? Well, to start with, my birthday is March 31st. The iPad comes out on April 3rd and my wife wanted to know what to get me. Also, my house is a seven minute walk from the Apple Store on West 14th Street in Manhattan. This makes it easy to get my pre-ordered device on launch day, and get home quickly with it. Oh, and I agreed to write an article for Redmond Magazine, the fee for which will pay for the device -- that way the birthday present doesn't have to be an extravagant expense. Plus, I'm a contrarian, so I want to buy the one device from Apple that the fanboys have actually panned.

Think those are bad reasons? How about this: I want to experience iPhone and iPad development and, although my app will probably never hit the App Store and run on the actual device, I still think owning one will help me develop something better.

I also want to see if the slate form factor has good business usage scenarios. I want to see if Business Intelligence technology on a device like this can work. Just imagine a dashboard running on this thing.

And, for the consumer experience, I really want a touch device on which I can surf the Web while I'm in the kitchen, or on the couch. I don't want the small form factor of my phone, I don't want to use my TV, and I don't want a keyboard that will get dirty or in my way.

I don't want to watch movies on it (my TV is good for that), so I don't care that the iPad has a 4:3 screen. I don't want to read books on it, so I don't care that the display is backlit LCD, rather than eInk.

But really what I want is to understand, first hand, why people have such brand loyalty to Apple. I know the big reasons; I'm not detached from society. But I want to know the subtle points of what Apple does really well, and also what they do poorly. And I'd like to know, once and for all, if Microsoft can beat Apple, if Microsoft can think the right way to beat Apple and if Microsoft should even try to beat Apple.

I expect to share my thoughts on these questions, as they develop.

Posted on 03/31/2010 at 1:15 PM5 comments


Windows Desktop Virtualization Gets Easier

This past Thursday, Microsoft announced that Windows (7) Virtual PC (WVPC) and its XP Mode feature would no longer require hardware-assisted virtualization (HAV). That means any PC running Windows 7 Pro, or higher, can now run this software. And that's a great thing because, as I noted in a post almost five month ago, determining whether a given PC you might be planning to buy actually offers HAV can be extremely difficult. That meant even dedicated, sophisticated PC users, with a budget for new hardware, might be blocked from using this technology. And that was just plain silly.

One of the features offered by WVPC, and utilized heavily by XP Mode, is the concept of virtual applications: apps within a guest VM that can actually run within the host's desktop environment. I find this feature so powerful that my February Redmond Review column entertained the notion of a future version of Windows that runs all applications in this manner.

The elimination of the HAV requirement for XP Mode and WVPC was just one of many virtualization-related announcements Microsoft made on Thursday. And, interestingly, most of the others were also desktop-related, rather than server-related. This is a welcome change from the multi-year period in which Microsoft enhanced its server virtualization lineup (in Hyper-V) and let the desktop platform fester. Microsoft now seems to understand desktop virtualization is in high demand and strengthens the Windows franchise. As I explained in the column, even cloud computing can have a desktop spin if desktop virtualization is part of the equation.

One company that knows this well is Citrix, and a closer alliance between Microsoft and Citrix was one of the many announcements from Thursday. In fact, there's a whole Web site dedicated to the alliance.

I'd love to see virtual applications and entire virtual desktops offered as Azure-branded services. This could allow me to run, for example, the full Office client on a variety of desktops I might use, and for large organizations it could easily reduce the expense, burden and duration of the deployment cycle for new versions of Office. Business Intelligence providers, including my own firm, twentysix New York, would find great relief in enabling their customers to run the newest version of Excel, with the latest BI capabilities, instead of having to wait the requisite two to three years it takes for many Fortune 500 customers to upgrade.

Microsoft should do more, and faster. WVPC still does not support 64-bit guest images, even on 64-bit hosts. That needs to be fixed. File access from the guest to the host needs to be improved (right now, it's done through Terminal Services/Remote Desktop file sharing, and it's slow) and VM load times need to be significantly reduced before virtualized apps can become the norm. (I suppose the advance of solid state drive technology will help there.)

I do think these improvements will come, because Microsoft is focused on the virtual desktop now. And that's a smart focus to have.

Posted on 03/24/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments


MIX Day 2 Keynote: Put the Phone Down and Listen

The MIX day one keynote was all about Windows Phone 7 (WP7). MIX day two was a reminder that Microsoft has much more going on than a new mobile platform. Steven Sinofsky, Scott Guthrie, Doug Purdy and others showed us lots of other good things coming from Microsoft, mostly in the developer stack, that we certainly shouldn't overlook.

These included the forthcoming IE9, its new JavaScript compiling engine and support for HTML 5 that takes full advantage of the local PC resources, including the graphics processing unit.

The announcements also included important additions to ASP.NET (and one subtraction, in the form of lighter-weight ViewState technology), including almost-obsessive jQuery support. That support is so good that John Resig, creator of the jQuery project, came on stage to tell us so. Then Scott Guthrie told us that Microsoft would be contributing code to Open Source jQuery project. This is not your father's Microsoft, it would seem.

But to me, the crown jewel in today's keynote were the numerous announcements around the Open Data Protocol (OData). OData is nothing more than the protocol side of "Astoria" (now known as WCF Data Services, and until recently called ADO.NET Data Services) separated out and opened up as a platform-neutral standard.

The 2009 Professional Developers Conference (PDC) was Microsoft's vehicle for first announcing OData, as well as project "Dallas," an Azure-based cloud platform for publishing commercial OData feeds. And we had already known about "bridges" for Astoria (and thus OData) for PHP and Java. We also knew that PowerPivot, Microsoft's forthcoming self-service business intelligence plug-in for Excel 2010, will consume OData feeds and then facilitate drill-down analysis of their data. And we recently found out that SQL Reporting Services reports (in the forthcoming SQL Server 2008 R2) and SharePoint 2010 lists will be consumable in OData format as well.

So what was left to announce? How about OData clients for Palm webOS and Apple iPhone/Objective C? How about the release to open source of .NET's OData client? Or the ability to publish any SQL Azure database as an OData service by simply checking a checkbox at deployment? Maybe even a Silverlight tool (code-named "Houston") to create SQL Azure databases (and then publish them as OData) right in the browser? And what if you you could get at the entire NetFlix catalog in OData format? You can -- just go to http://odata.netflix.com/Catalog/ and see for yourself. Douglas Purdy, who made these announcements, said: "We want OData to work on as many devices and platforms as possible." After all the cross-platform OData announcements made in about a half year's time, it's hard to dispute that statement.

When Microsoft plays the data card, and plays it well, watch out, because data programmability is the company's heritage. I'll be discussing OData at length in my April Redmond Review column. I wrote that column two weeks ago, and was convinced then that OData was a big deal.

Today upped the ante even more. And following the Windows Phone 7 euphoria of yesterday was, I think, smart timing. The phone, if it's successful, will be because it's a good developer platform play. And developer platforms (as well as their creators) are most successful when they have a good data strategy. OData is very Silverlight-friendly, and that means it's WP7-friendly too. Phone plus service-oriented data is a one-two punch. A phone platform without data would have been a phone with no signal.

Posted on 03/17/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments


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