Papa's Perspective

MIX: a Missed Opportunity for Microsoft?

Was there confusion at Microsoft's Web-focused show? Sure. But from Papa's Perspective, that wasn't a bad thing.

It's almost Spring; for the past several years, that's been the time I found myself furiously organizing activities, demos, keynotes, sessions, schedules and more at Microsoft's premier Web conference, MIX. But not this year. Not 2012. As most of you know, Microsoft officially cancelled MIX -- not just this year, but for good, as explained in this official blog post from Tim O'Brien, GM of Developer Platform Evangelism (DPE) at Microsoft.

I won't dissect all the reasons, because I agree with some of them. Microsoft needs change, and MIX needed a shakeup. But don't think for a minute that MIX didn't have value, because it did. MIX was a unique conference that had a ripple effect on many developers inside -- and outside -- of Microsoft.

There's Value In Confusion
MIX was an event without a singular focus. It was the design conference, the UX event, the Web gathering, the open source celebration, the Silverlight nexus. It was all of those things, and yet none of them at the same time. O'Brien says attendees were confused about what MIX was, and I agree with that. From where I sat inside Microsoft, I experienced a lot of that confusion from developers. So if we concede that there was confusion, do we also concede that confusion is bad?

I think the confusion was one of MIX's draws. Confusion was one of its values. Often developers were pondering what MIX was going to be, and this helped surround MIX with a lot of buzz.

Let's look at TechEd in comparison. It's one of the largest and longest running Microsoft events. TechEd is a very successful event year after year; but does anyone ever wonder what's going to be at Tech Ed? I'd argue that TechEd is “Old Reliable,” where developers can always find current technology, but very little excitement. There's nothing wrong with that model; it's certainly helpful to many. But MIX wasn't in that same mold. The confusion around MIX helped people focus on it.

MIX was a rebel. It adapted to each year's needs for what Microsoft needed to promote and announce. It catered to the community that craved its variety. At the same time, it upset developers that MIX was never exactly what everyone wanted it to be – still, people came. To be fair, I believe MIX did need to hold more closely to its original promise of education and inspiration for the grass roots Web community, designers and open source.

Cultivating Community
So MIX is gone because it wasn't having the desired effect. But I believe it did have an effect on the community. Perhaps not the desired effect, but a ripple effect for certain. Forget the specific technologies for a moment and consider the communities brought together during MIX's era. It brought together open-source leaders, developers, designers and community personas from around the world. Many of these people networked with each other and Microsoft, and continue to do so today. The community concept was really taking hold, although it wasn't cultivated nor grown. What could have happened if this was cultivated?

Take, for example, the Open Source Fest event at MIX 11 that I organized. At the time there was no major draw for open-source leaders to attend MIX. The idea was spawned to host a gathering where the focus was the open-source community. While the event was far from perfect, there was an amazingly positive response from the attendees; they believed Microsoft cared about them.

What could've happened if this was more than just a one-time pre-keynote event? An event where Microsoft fostered this community in earnest? After all, isn't one of Microsoft's major goals to win the collective minds of the larger, broader development community? MIX was a means to get there.

The Next Phase
The next great event by Microsoft may do all this and much more. Or maybe it won't. I won't say cancelling MIX is a mistake, but I do hope that Microsoft learns how to cultivate community. If MIX was proof of anything, it demonstrated clearly that Microsoft could stir the collective passion of different groups. If it failed at anything, it failed to draw in a broad enough community. There were designers, developers, and open-source leaders, but there are many more developers who it didn't attract from other platforms.

At the next big event, perhaps the focus should equally be on the technology and the community. Perhaps winning the hearts is as important as the minds. If that happens, perhaps we all win at the next incarnation of MIX.

About the Author

John Papa is a Microsoft Regional Director and former Microsoft technical evangelist. Author of 100-plus articles and 10 books, he specializes in professional application development with Windows, HTML5, JavaScript, CSS, Silverlight, Windows Presentation Foundation, C#, .NET and SQL Server. Check out his online training with Pluralsight; find him at johnpapa.net and on Twitter at twitter.com/john_papa.

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Reader Comments:

Fri, Feb 24, 2012 LA

If MIX were to be held this year, someone from Microsoft might accidentally slip up and reveal some actual information. That seems to be illegal in Redmond these days (literally - ask the people who've been let go).

I never attended MIX, but watched most of the videos - and learned a tremendous amount. More than any other MS event (because there seemed to be less BS spouted at MIX, which is probably a main reason it got killed).

Thu, Feb 23, 2012 Alex

Yes, I think its a real shame that Microsoft canceled this event. I not only looked forward to the event but I also watched all the videos all year long...and the reason was that it was different.

Thu, Feb 23, 2012 James Ashley Atlanta

It's a shame that Microsoft has abandoned a successful brand. It feels a bit like Courier all over again. There's a simple solution, though. Host the yet to be announced end-of-year conference in Las Vegas and call it MIX.

Thu, Feb 23, 2012 John Papa United States

Brian - Great points about the hallways conversations, the pre-contests and the general interactions with the influencers at Microsoft. But not just that they happened, but the WAY they happened. All highlights of what made MIX great.

Thu, Feb 23, 2012 John Papa United States

Scott - Yes, MIX did have a purpose. But a hidden value from MIX was the community it was cultivating. I remain hopeful that community focus on the hearts and minds will emerge once again.

Thu, Feb 23, 2012 Scott Barnes Australia

TO be fair Mix did have a purpose and it was primarily focused on engaging the Web crowd. It was to be the convergence of Web meets Microsoft with a dual thread of developer meets designer. It wasn't until we mutated the shit out of Silverlight strategy that it started to become this vechile for announcements and i think honestly the day IE team hijacked that conference it soon became this "WTF is going on.." MIX was Silverlight and Blend with bleed-outs from there. Again its confusion started when the success these two products began to have created an internal feeding frenzy and as a result it just became more and more irrelevant. That being said, the best MIX was the day we named Silverlight for the first time out loud. I can't remember much about that night suffice to say a limo of Microsofties ended up at the playboy club after hours and i have photos of a pussy-cat doll in a giant martni glass. I wasn't confused, I was amused! :)

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 Brian Henderson Bellevue, WA

As the tagline on live.visitMIX.com/About site states, "Unplug from your day job. Be inspired at MIX". Too bad Microsoft has lost the connection between unplugging and being inspired. For MIX'ers the inspiration came from the individuals attending, their open conversations, and sharing raw passion. MIX had a unique mix of community members from business, designers, developers & Microsoft partners. MIX organizers managed to balance keynotes & presentations between Microsoft technologies & showcasing community content. Each year a call would go out to the community and they'd receive an overselling response from community leaders willing to speak. Be it a full/mini-session, or at a lighting talk. The quality of these talks were some of the best. Part of the culture was the pre-mix design competitions leading up to MIX. Seeing the best ones made it on the big screen was a highlight, while the others were celebrated on the web. Coolest part was willingness of creators to share tips & techniques afterwards at MIX . e.g. ReStyling MIX08: CSS competition www.istartedsomething.com/20080129/mix08-restyle-css-competition And, the discussions after: adamkinney.com/blog/2010/02/18/john-papa-and-i-discuss-the-mix10k-winners-on-silverlighttv or, adamkinney.com/blog/2009/08/26/showcase-silverlight-apps-for-talks-and-demos Keynotes where just not about "what" was awesome, but the "why" and "how" that made it awesome. Reading Kevin's live post from '07 you can get a sense of this: astartupaday.wordpress.com/2007/05/01/mix-07-day-2-live-from-the-keynote At MIX, it didn't matter who you where, you could meet, talk & eat with anyone in a very open and embracing environment. As Albert can attest, having lunch with Michael Arrington, Lynda Weinman, Robert Scoble, & Bill Gates: simplyalbert.blogspot.com/2006/03/my-lunch-with-bill-gates-at-mix06.html Many other keynoters of the statue of Scott Guthrie, and Bill Buxton would freely share time and answer many questions in the common areas. www.microsoft-watch.com/content/developer/bill_buxton_mixes_it_up.html MIX attracted a number of attendees focused on design and user experience long before it was buzz in the general tech community. For example a discussion on "design challenges facing the design discipline" at MIX07: http://www.lukew.com/ff/entry.asp?527 Or, if the experience story behind the Office’s Ribbon: uxaddict.com/2011/09/the-story-of-the-offices-ribbon MIX was much more than a tech conference, it was a source of inspiration to many both inside and outside of Microsoft. Sure Microsoft choose this event to launch many products with high visibility, but this was only a small part of the MIX culture. I think what Microsoft does not realize is the importance of it's participation and interaction with the much larger community. Like Bill Buxton, "MIX was one of my favourite conferences. Great energy!", it will be missed. Many thanks to all who made MIX what it became over the years. --Brian

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 Ian Muir United States

I don't think Microsoft is intentionally sending a message that they're getting out of the web. I agree with you that winning the hearts and minds of developers with a MIX replacement is key, but it needs to start happening soon. When it comes to technology, no news is usually bad news.

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 John Papa Orlando, FL

Ian - I don't think the message is that Microsoft is out of the Web, but rather that they are rethinking how they want to do events. It's all yet to be seen .... but I stay hopeful.

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 John Papa Orlando, FL

David - The UX focus was unique and valuable. I think the massive turnouts for the design focused pre conference sessions, the many UX Lightning talks we had, and the Bill Buxton following were evidence of the appetite for UX at an event. Hopefully we'll see this again. soon. Maybe we'll see my 5th MIXer party again too :)

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 Ian Muir United States

I agree with you completely that MIX's lack of focus was part of it's appeal. Web, mobile, design, UX, Open source and other things MIX tackled all change too fast to have a set plan that works for all years. The fact that MIX adapted to the needs of the community was it's greatest strength. The hardest part for me is that cancelling MIX sends a clear message to agencies. As I posted a few months ago ( http://www.piehead.com/blog/2011/12/the-death-of-mix-and-the-future-of-microsoft-on-the-web ), these moves make it very hard to present the Microsoft Web stack or Windows Phone as viable solutions to clients. When I'm telling a client that Microsoft gets the web, then they read that Microsoft is bailing on web events, both of us lose a customer. Hopefully Microsoft has a solution to address the gap left by MIX and they make an announcement soon. I know agencies like ours are in a rough spot right now and feel a little left out.

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 David J Kelley seattle

I will go so far as to say it was a mistake, MIX was naturally evolving into a UX center conference which was why it was so important and the only conference that was critical as the others were too developer focused. We need a MIX meaning a Microsoft UX focused next generation tech conference. events like the open source even you organized and talks about UX and design as applied to microsoft technologies and show casing next generation stuff with out all the developer focused stuff is what will drive the community forward.

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