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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