Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

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MIX Report: Windows Phone 7 on Display

Another March, another MIX. For the fifth year running now, Microsoft has chosen to put on a conference aimed less at software development, per se, and more at the products, experiences and designs that software development can generate. In all four prior MIX events, the focus of the show, its keynotes and breakout sessions has been on Web products. On day 1 of MIX 2010, that focus shifted to Windows Phone 7 Series (WP7).

You can read more about the MIX conference here.

What little we had seen of WP7 had been shown to us in a keynote presentation, given by Microsoft's Joe Belfiore, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain last month. And today, Mr. Belfiore reprised his showmanship for the MIX 2010 audience. Joe showed us the ins and outs of WP7 and, in a breakout session, even gave us a sneak peek of Office (specifically, Excel) on WP7. We didn't get to see that one month ago in Barcelona, nor did get to see email messages opened for reading, which we saw today.

But beyond a tour of the phone itself, impressive though that is, we got to see apps running on it. Those apps included Associated Press news, Seesmic (a major Twitter client) and Foursquare (a social media darling). All three ran, ran well, and looked markedly different and better from their corresponding versions on iPhone and Android. And the games we saw looked even better.

To me though, the best demos involved the creation of WP7 apps, using Silverlight in Visual Studio and Expression Blend. These demos were so effective because they showed important apps being built in very few steps, and by Microsoft executives to boot. Scott Guthrie showed us how to build a Twitter API app in Visual Strudio. Jon Harris showed us how to build a photo management and viewer application in Expression Blend, using virtually no code. Demos of apps built from scratch to F5 without the benefit of a teacher, could be challenging. But they went off fine, without a hitch and without a ton of opaque, generated code. Everything written, be it C# or XAML, was easily understood, and the results were impressive.

That means lots of developers can do this, and I think it means a lot will. What I've seen, thus far, of iPhone and Android development looks very tedious by comparison. Development for those platforms involves a collection of tools that integrate only to a point. Dev work for WP7 involves use of Visual Studio, Silverlight and the same debugging experience .NET developers already know. This was very exciting for me.

All the demos harkened back to days of building apps for with Visual Basic... design the front-end, put in code-behind and then hit F5. And that makes sense, because the phone platform, and the PC of the early 90s are both, essentially, client OS machines. The Web was minimal and the "device" was everything. Same is true of this phone. It's a client app contraption that fits in your pocket.

And if the platforms are comparable, hopefully so too will be the draw of ease-of-development. WP7 has the potential to make mobile developers want to switch over, and to convince enterprise developers to get into the phone scene. Will this propel the new phone platform to new heights, and restore Microsoft's competiveness in the mobile arena?

I hope so. I think so. And if Microsoft uses developers to build themselves a victory, that would be beneficial and would show that Microsoft has learned from its failures, as well as its successes. Today I saw a few beautiful apps. Tomorrow I hope I see a slew of others; maybe not as polished, but plentiful, attractive and stable. That would be a victory for Microsoft, and for developers. And it would show everyone else that developers are the kingmakers. They need cheap, efficient dev tools and lots of respect. Microsoft has always been the company to provide that. Hopefully, with WP7, they will return to that persona and see how very timeless it is.

Posted on 03/16/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Code Bubbles: Disruption comes to the IDE

If you're like me, you might see the open source Eclipse IDE as a copy of, or more generously, a port of Microsoft's Visual Studio for the non-.NET world. It's not that Microsoft invented the IDE (I would credit Borland with that), but they really took the idea and ran with it for the first version of Visual Studio .NET in 2002. The question is whether someone outside of Microsoft could take the modern IDE yet another major step forward in both principle and productivity.

I think that has actually happened already, and I think the innovator in question is a second-year Computer Science PhD student at Brown, named Andrew Bragdon. His project, which he calls Code Bubbles, is an IDE that allows for editing, debugging and exploration of code in "bubbles," which remind me a little bit of the discrete note tiles on OneNote... but they're much more than that.

Bubbles actually allow for call stack traversal, saved debug sessions, sophisticated breakpoint and value watch behaviors and more. And because bubbles, unlike windows, are borderless, and focus on code fragments rather than whole files, the de-cluttering effect is unbelievably liberating. The best way to understand what Code Bubbles does is to watch the screencast video

Code Bubbles is an IDE for Java development. Why didn't Microsoft come up with something like this for .NET devs? Between the existing features in Visual Studio 2010, its WPF code editor, and the fact that OneNote's UI bears some affinity to Code Bubbles', it's interesting that Microsoft still has not thought outside of its own "box" to get us something like this.

Heck, that's easy for me to say. But it's easy for you to say that you'd like something like this in Visual Studio sometime soon. That's because the ASP.NET site within UserVoice is taking votes on this very issue. Just click this link and vote!

Thanks to my fellow Microsoft Regional Director Sondre Bjellås for making me aware of Code Bubbles, and to RD Steve Smith for creating the UserVoice voting option.

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

Is Microsoft's Cloud Bet Placed on the Ground?

Today at the Unversity of Washington, Steve Ballmer gave a speech on Microsoft's cloud strategy. Significantly, Azure was only briefly mentioned and was not shown. Instead, Ballmer spoke about what he called the five "dimensions" of the cloud, and used that as the basis for an almost philosophical discussion. Ballmer opined on how the cloud should be distinguished from the Internet, as well as what the cloud will and should enable. Ballmer worked hard to portray the cloud not as a challenger to Windows and PCs (as Google would certainly suggest it is) but really as just the latest peripheral that adds value to PCs and devices.

At one point during his speech, Ballmer said, "We start with Windows at Microsoft. It's the most popular smart device on the planet. And our design center for the future of Windows is to make it one of those smarter devices that the cloud really wants."

I'm not sure I agree with Ballmer's ambition here, but I must admit he's taken the "software + services" concept and expanded on it in more consumer-friendly fashion.

There were demos too. For example, Blaise Aguera y Arcas reprised his Bing Maps demo from the TED conference held last month. And Simon Atwell showed how Microsoft has teamed with Sky TV in the UK to turn Xbox into something that looks uncannily like Windows Media Center. Specifically, an Xbox console app called Sky Player provides full access to Sky's on-demand programming but also live TV access to an array of networks carried on its home TV service, complete with an on-screen programming guide. Windows Phone 7 Series was shown quickly and Ballmer told us that while Windows Mobile/Phone 6.5 and earlier were designed for voice and legacy functionality, Windows Phone 7 Series is designed for the cloud.

Over and over during Ballmer's talk (and those of his guest demo presenters), the message was clear: Microsoft believes that client ("smart") devices, and not mere HTML terminals, are the technologies to best deliver on the promise of the cloud. The message was that PCs running Windows, game consoles and smart phones whose native interfaces are Internet-connected offer the most effective way to utilize cloud capabilities. Even the Bing Maps demo conveyed this message, because the advanced technology shown in the demo used Silverlight (and thus the PC's computing power), and not AJAX (which relies only upon the browser's native scripting and rendering capabilities) to produce the impressive interface shown to the audience.

Microsoft's new slogan, with respect to the cloud, is "we're all in." Just as a Texas Hold ‘em player bets his entire stash of chips when he goes all in, so too is Microsoft "betting the company" on the cloud. But it would seem that Microsoft's bet isn't on the cloud in a pure sense, and is instead on the power of the cloud to fuel new growth in PCs and other client devices, Microsoft's traditional comfort zone. Is that a bet or a hedge? If the latter, is Microsoft truly all in?

I don't really know. I think many people would say this is a sucker's bet. But others would say it's suckers who bet against Microsoft. No matter what, the burden is on Microsoft to prove this contrarian view of the cloud is a sensible one. To do that, they'll need to deliver on cloud-connected device innovation. And to do that, the whole company will need to feel that victory is crucial. Time will tell. And I expect to present progress reports in future posts.

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

*Sync This!* and Mary Jo Foley are reporting that rumors of Live Mesh’s death are greatly exaggerated. That’s excellent, as far as I’m concerned. Mesh is a good product, and it would be a huge pain if I had to switch to something else were Redmond to kill it.

Meanwhile, I continue to find it fascinating how many sync standards Microsoft has across its product set. Here’s a list of them (excluding Live Sync and Live Mesh), and I’m betting it’s not comprehensive. Can you think of others?

  • ActiveSync (for Windows Mobile over USB and BlueTooth)
  • Exchange Active Sync (used over the Internet, including 3G services)
  • Windows Offline Folders
  • Windows Media Player sync
  • Zune sync
  • Sync Framework and ADO.NET Sync Services (for database synchronization)
  • SQL Server Replication
  • Access/Jet database replication and JRO (Jet Replication Objects)
  • SharePoint/Outlook list/library synchronization
  • OneNote shared notebook synchronization
  • Live Messenger Sharing Folders

I formulated a similar list almost two years ago, when I wrote a post on my first impressions of Live Mesh. But things here are not getting better, and they need to. I’d like to see a common sync facility that every Microsoft product needing such services could build upon. Just (please) don’t base it on the Entity Framework!

Posted on 02/25/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Devil's Advocate: Windows Phone 7

Today's briefing by Microsoft on their re-booted mobile platform and strategy was very impressive. The prototype hardware they showed looked great and the UI was attractive, productive and unique; it was not an iPhone knock off. Microsoft seemingly brought to bear what it should have long ago: all the cool technologies and properties it already has. Zune, Office with OneNote, Outlook and Exchange, SharePoint, Xbox, Bing Search and Bing Maps all look to be represented and integrated elegantly, rather than just pre-installed in some gimped, stand-alone fashion.

I'm not going to offer a blow-by-blow on the feature set of Windows Phone 7 Series (WP7)... other sites and blogs have already done so really well, as has Microsoft itself. (Read Visual Studio Magazine's coverage here and here). But what I would like to do is help you guard your optimism, and do so for myself in the process. There's a lot of stuff we have not seen around this platform, and it would be naive to assume these things will just take care of themselves. So let's enumerate them, and let's put pressure on Microsoft to make sure they're addressed by launch.

In many ways, the demo showed us very little. For example, how does email work? While we saw a number of attractive inbox views, I have yet to come across a demo of reading or editing an individual message or thread. Next, how will Office be implemented? Again, the demo showed us the entry point (essentially a big menu listing Office and SharePoint applications and options), and did not drill down on the apps themselves.

The browser looked nice, and offers the now requisite full-page view with zoom. It also offered niceties around typography scaling to aid readability at various zoom/magnification levels. But what I didn't see was the text re-justifying to the current screen width after a zoom, in the fashion that my Droid does. I find this feature indispensible as it lets me zoom in on any standard Web page, then be able to read it without any horizontal scrolling. Could this really be missing from WP7? What about touch itself? Watch the demos, be they on third-party sites or Microsoft-produced, and you'll see a lot of "do over" flicks to get the scrolling to work, and a lot of delays between flick and actual movement on-screen. It seems that, at least on the prototype hardware, the horizontal scrolling suffers intermittent anomalies or failure.

I think it's nice that the standard Zune software will let you sync a WP7 unit with your PC. But in the demo, this was done using a USB cable, rather than over WiFi or Bluetooth. Will the unit ship this way, or will WiFi sync become enabled?

The integration of social networks into the WP7 "Hubs" and home screen looks excellent. But so far as I can tell, the only social networks to be supported are Facebook and Windows Live. What about Twitter? While tweets can be served through a Windows Live feed, any requirement of users to do so, rather than just link to Twitter directly, would be an absurd deterrent to adoption. Twitter has an open API. I hope Microsoft will use it to integrate Twitter, or that they will partner with Seesmic and get it done that way.

And given the platform now has the word "Phone" in the name, it would have been nice to see a demo of phone functionality itself. But what wasn't shown either.

As good as today's presentation was, it's not enough to make WP7 viable... Microsoft needs to keep heads-down on this and make the platform solid and fleshed out. It also needs to keep making integration deals, with services like Twitter and teams internal to Microsoft that are responsible for products like Windows Home Server, Windows Azure, Live Mesh and more.

The reality is that Windows Phone 7 Series has a bigger chance of failing than of succeeding. To overcome those odds, Microsoft needs to play as hard between now and launch as they have thus far. Let's all hope the developer details shared at next month's MIX conference are a great follow-up to what we learned today.

Posted on 02/17/2010 at 1:15 PM2 comments

Sallee Brust and a Bygone New York City

Some of you knew my mother, Sallee Brust (born Sallee Greenberg) quite well. Others of you never got to meet her. For all of you, less than two weeks after her passing, I'd like to tell you a little bit about her and her life, because I think no one knows all of this. In fact, even I wasn't aware of some of these details until last week.

First of all, it's important to know that my mother was a native New Yorker, and so were her parents. Her family lived here on the Upper West Side, which is one reason I'm glad we're having the service here. Sallee grew up on West End Avenue, in the 90s -- the now abandoned 91st Street & Broadway subway station (which you can still see as you travel on the #1 train between the 86th and 96th street stations) was her station. To me, this is a significant piece of data, even if it seems mere trivia, because my mother is emblematic of much of what I might call the "lost New York." As I continue, I think you'll understand that better.

As a young girl, my mother lived through the Depression. Her dad, Harry (his real name was Aaron) owned his own fabric business, and her mother, Betty, was an independent apparel buyer. As such, the Greenbergs weren't poor, but they were very careful to economize, and that ethic stayed with my mother throughout her life. My mother's family was not especially religious, but still identified strongly as Jews, something else that my mother always carried with her.

My mother went to Julia Richman High School, a public school which still exists today as a complex containing six smaller schools. At the time my mother attended, it was a competitive school, rather than one with open admissions. It was on the Upper East Side, and established early on my mother's limit for a comfortable commute. For a variety of reasons, my mother did not pursue a college degree; she did, however, attend continuing education and some Freshman classes at Fordham much later in life. In fact, her student ID card is amongst the pictures we have on display here today.

My mother had my sisters at a fairly young age, and stayed home to raise them until they were aged 10 and 7. From there, in the 1960s, she started working, first in a brief stint as a dental assistant, and then as a hostess at the World Trade Club in Manhattan. The similarity of the club's name to that of the World Trade Center is not a coincidence, as the club was essentially the precursor to Windows on the World, which occupied the 107th floor of 1 World Trade Center, before it fell.

I remember on September 11th, checking in with my mother, her saying "they've taken part of my city." At the time, I thought she meant that figuratively -- I didn't understand her connection to the towers. Once again, a piece of lost New York that my mother was part of.

The World Trade Club was a popular lunch spot with many powerful Wall Street figures. And here is yet more lost New York: restaurants on Wall Street were in short supply and a club membership was crucial to lunch plans and status; if there were a Mad Men-like TV series about Wall Street in those days, the club would have typified the scene.

Anyway, since my mother, as you can tell from her photos here, was beautiful, we shouldn't be surprised that she befriended and then worked for two different Wall Street magnate club customers: Jack Fitch and then James Dines. Fitch owned and ran Francis Emory Fitch, Inc. which published financial documents; the company still operates today as part of the Fitch Group. James Dines was a financial technical analyst and pundit who, among other things, predicted the deregulation of gold. My mother oversaw marketing and fulfillment for his subscription investment letter, which exists to this day.

After working for Dines, my mother suspended her career to raise me, as she had my sisters before me. She was very proactive in my education and entered me in a threes program at The City and Country School, which in those days was a pioneer in Progressive education. She also worked tirelessly, despite her New York civic pride, to rid me of a New York accent: she was fond of saying "say ‘these,' not ‘dese'" and I now do the same with my kids. And the educational involvement didn't end there: for example, my mother knew all about Sesame Street before it ever came on the air, and she sat me down in front of our 9-inch Black and White TV to watch the very first episode, as it first aired. Both of my parents were ardent supporters of Public Television from the very early days.

In the 1970s, after I was older and more settled in school, my mother took a job in the fundraising department of the Spence Chapin Adoption Agency. During her employment there, my family moved to Long Island. As this was much further than the Upper East Side, my mother was not thrilled with the move. She made certain that we rented out our brownstone on West 4th Street, rather than selling it, and two years later, when my dad's job moved to a location that was more easily commutable from the City, we left Long Island and moved right back into our house in the Village. For my mother, equilibrium was re-established.

In the 1980s, my mother took a job with Balch, Hardy and Scheinman, a firm that was a pioneer in the stock options market for pension funds and other tax-exempt clients. She ran their customer service organization and was their Office Manager as well. Originally, the firm was located at 2 Wall Street, and later moved to 501 Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, across from the Public Library. I can remember going to my mother's offices, in both locations, after school sometimes, and feeling like they were quintessentially New York places to work. When I later worked at One Wall Street as a consultant for two years, I felt like my career had become real. And my current office, just three blocks north of 501 5th Avenue, felt like home right away. Sometimes I think my standard of being a real, grown-up New Yorker is defined by measuring parity with my mother's life. The more I think about it, the more certain of this I become.

My mother was practical, direct, liberal and supportive, in unexpected ways. When I started smoking, she gave me an ashtray. I soon stopped. In college, a girl that I really liked, but was afraid to ask out, was coming through New York on her way to London, for an academic term abroad. I asked my mother if she could stay over one night. My mother replied that she could, but that she really didn't feel like cleaning up the guest room, so said my guest had to stay in my room. I figured that would be a deal-breaker, but the bizarre invitation was nonetheless accepted, and by the end of that visit, we were dating.

Kidding aside, when I nervously presented to my mother the idea of starting my own company, she asked, almost in an annoyed tone, how at this perfect time, when I was single and childless, how I could think of not starting my own business. So I started it with full confidence, and now help run the company that bought it, ten years later.

My mother was frugal. I used to kid her -- sometimes even harass her -- about her habits of saving aluminum foil or using paper towels until they seemingly disintegrated. In school, as some here can attest, I was often teased for having store brand cola in my brown bag lunch. But for someone who grew up in the 1930s and 40s, and given my parents' modest financial beginnings, my mother's frugality was really in dedication to her kids. When the NYC public schools became especially tough, Jill and I were sent to private school; all of us went to college, without financial aid, and without loans. I even had dormitory fees covered while I was a student at Columbia. Of course, that was partly out of generosity, and partly something else: like many New Yorkers, my mother liked her privacy.

Can you blame her? With five of us squeezed into two floors of a 20-foot brownstone, space was at a premium, but that was a small sacrifice to be able to live where we did. My mother always loved New York, well before that was the State's slogan. And within New York, my mother really loved Greenwich Village, her adopted home neighborhood of some 40 years. When she got there, the Women's House of Detention was still on Greenwich Avenue, and Balducci's was just a local fruit and vegetable stand. When I was little, our block, the one I live on to this day, really was part of neighborhood. It had a fruit stand at one corner run by a man named Gus, a shoemaker on another corner, diagonally across from a corner grocery store called Shanvilla run by a group of friendly men with deep, sing-song Irish accents. In front of that store, my mother had me in a baby stroller as she listened to a man named Ed Koch chat with the locals about his campaign for Congress. Back on our side of the block was the Jamaican tailor shop, and the florist run by three gay men, who were also proselytizing Christians, I kid you not. This was Greenwich Village in the 70s. We knew most of our neighbors, went to their houses for Christmas parties, their kids and I played ball in the street, or we hung out on our stoops. You don't see that much in the Village anymore.

If this sounds like a lot of indulgent reminiscing, forgive me. But also understand that this was the same era that President Ford told New York City to drop dead, when the subways were dangerous and filled with graffiti, when no one even walked near Central Park at night, and when Police Officer Frank Serpico, who also lived in the neighborhood, fought against systemic corruption in the New York City Police department. To borrow a phrase, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Really, it was what you made of it.

My mother made the most of it. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her. Not just the shopkeepers, but the local electrician, plumber, handyman, UPS driver and even the Con Ed meter reader. These guys still ask about her, and say hi to me in the street (except the meter reader, who we can't even get to show up). This isn't just about friendliness. It was about taking a scary city and making it a safe and welcoming place for her children.

Our mother taught us how to be street-smart, to avoid the end cars on the subway train, so that no one could block one door and trap you. She taught us which station exits to take, and which streets to walk down, or avoid. She had us carry "mugging money." And with all this she gave us the confidence and sense of control not to feel scared. Then she introduced us to what we couldn't get anywhere else: the museums, dance, Saturdays for kids at Lincoln Center, our local public library branch and, once we had the palate for it, the wealth of great cuisine and people from all walks of life.

My mother took a place that most parents saw as a war zone to protect their kids from and showed us what it really was: a wonderland that was a privilege to live in. You needed the right skills to see it that way and take advantage of it, and she gave us those skills. For me, it was the greatest gift I could have. I used it to discover neighborhoods, subway lines and stores that I read about. When I was older, I used it to discover night clubs and restaurants and to take after-school and summer jobs working with kids from totally different, sometimes poorer backgrounds, without fear and without an attitude of superiority. I still use these skills to make friends, contacts, and build my business.

The New York of the "bad old" 70s, as shown in movies like Taxi Driver, is gone now. The neighborly Greenwich Village that we (and a few of our childhood friends here) grew up in is gone now as well. Die-hards like my mother, who tolerated the Taxi Driver reality because she and they saw the reality of other films, like Annie Hall, and Manhattan, are now gone too. It's all part of that lost New York. And now, New York has another loss, in my mother's passing.

Posted on 02/08/2010 at 1:15 PM2 comments

Microsoft BI, Late at the Office

Tuesday, Microsoft announced that the official release timeframe for SQL Server 2008 R2 would be May of this year. Since a huge proportion of the features new to SQL 2008 R2 are Business Intelligence-related, Microsoft BI users and professionals should be very happy. Ostensibly, Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 will be released concurrently with R2, or very close to it, and the MS BI stack will get its most important refresh in quite a long time.

Reporting Services will have important new data visualization capabilities, "grab and go" reporting and a much more useable Web-based report viewer and management UI. PowerPivot, Microsoft's exciting new self-service OLAP product, will be ready to go too. And, with SharePoint 2010's delivery, a new build of PerformancePoint will be part of the mix as well.

But how long will it take before PowerPivot and PerformancePoint 2010 will actually be an option for customers? They won't be able to use the former's client component until they upgrade at least some users to Excel 2010, and they won't be able to use PowerPivot's server component or the new version of PerformancePoint unless and until they adopt SharePoint Server 2010 and purchase enterprise client access licenses (eCALs) for all users of these BI products.

No matter how dedicated a Microsoft shop some customers are, the time between release and broad deployment of Office and SharePoint will be non-trivial. Users of competing BI stacks, like IBM/Cognos, Oracle/Hyperion and SAP/Business Objects don't have this problem, and that creates a competitive disadvantage for Microsoft. By tying much of its BI stack to Office, Microsoft limits its ability to refresh its stack to a frequency of once every three years or so. And because of the lag time between release and adoption, MS BI users get new BI technology after the point in time where it's cutting edge.

What can Microsoft do? Basing its BI toolset in Office and SharePoint gives it the power of "incumbency" that constitutes a strong competitive position, so divorcing from Office/SharePoint is unlikely. One solution: a more frequent release cycle. This would allow Microsoft BI products to release more often than Office and perhaps allow alternate releases to be compatible with exiting versions of it. This would require greater agility and more investment from Microsoft, in order to do more releases, more quickly. One could argue that the usually-staggered releases of SQL Server and Office already constitute such a scheme, but I would counter-argue that changing the platform without changing the tools on top of it is too infrastructural to address the competitive threat I'm discussing here.

Another possible device to break the logjam would be the cloud. If Microsoft BI products, on the server side, and Office on the (hosted, virtualized) client side were one day all cloud-based, then the upgrade burden would be on Microsoft, instead of its customers, to carry out. Customers would still need to schedule training for new versions, and might still be slow in doing so. But the lag time would almost certainly shorten, and the BI stack would benefit.

There are probably other possibilities here, but I can't think of them. Can you? Leave a comment and let me know.

Posted on 01/22/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Tonight was the inaugural audience event of the newly formed New York Technology Council, and I must say the organization is off to an excellent start. The event was panel discussion focusing on technology trends for 2010, and included Alfred Spector, who heads Google's research and special initiatives (and is based in New York City, not Silicon Valley), Bill Zack, an Architect Evangelist for Microsoft focusing on Azure, and New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer, who is the Chair of the Council's Committee on Technology in Government. The panel was moderated by BusinessWeek's Arik Hesseldahl. This was a strong panel, with an excellent moderator and an impressive turnout; a good omen for the future success of NYTECH.

I won't relate the blow-by-blow of the discussion (if you're interested in that you can read the tweets from the event, but I think a summary of the discourse merits some discussion.

Questions and statements concerning health IT, government open data, mobile devices and broadband were raised. With each question, patterns emerged amongst each panelist's answers. Google's Spector said his company believes all data will, and should, be interconnected. Google also feels that mobile devices, fetching data from the cloud, will continue to grow in popularity and disrupt. Microsoft offers, not surprisingly, a differing, though not opposing, view. Redmond's take is that on-premise and cloud-based architectures are very different, that each offers distinct advantages and that in many cases, a combination of the two is the most sensible choice. Contrast this with Spector's comment that "it's only incidental whether data is stored on-premise or in the cloud" as long as it's not in a "walled garden."

Before I get to Councilmember Brewer's views, let's observe that in their responses, Google and Microsoft each clearly espouse views that correlate to their own agendas. Google wants everything to be published and interconnected, so that it can all be indexed, searched and Adwordized. Microsoft, on the other hand, wishes both to promote its new cloud platform (Azure) and protect its legacy PC and server software franchise. Software + Services, don't ya know? Google is all for mobile devices, and why not? They've got an increasingly ubiquitous mobile operating system, and are tickled pink by underpowered devices that rely on the Web and the cloud for their functionality. Microsoft, too, sees mobile as a key part of the future tech landscape, but doesn't quite assign the same emphasis to the space as does Google. If Windows Mobile 7 ever comes out, and if it gets any traction, let's see if Microsoft changes its story here. In any case, the themes are pretty clear: Google wants to index, advertise and monetize it; Microsoft wants to license it or host it.

So what vantage point did Councilmember Brewer have to offer? Reality! Brewer explained that many New Yorkers can't afford broadband. Their libraries have it, but they're only open six days a week, at most. Schools are short on computers and, in any case, pulling broadband lines into the 1600 NYC Department of Education school buildings isn't the trivial matter Microsoft and Google might assume. And mobile devices don't help: NYC school kids are not allowed to have them in school; in fact, if they even want to bring them, they have to leave them at a local bodega (corner grocery) and pay a checking fee of $1.

Think this is a problem unique to underfunded cities? Think again. Brewer explained that New York City has an annual budget larger than any other American city, 48 of its states, and half the countries in the world. Software? Services? Connectivity? Hmmm... how about something faster than dialup for people who could benefit most from it.

The panelists never really talked about trends. Explicitly. But they sure hit on the key issues for the year ahead. While the titans duke it out over architecture and business models, a huge proportion of their customers are still fighting for decent usability, functionality and basic access.

Posted on 01/15/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments

CES Exhibits to Microsoft: Watch Your Back

As an avid Microsoft observer and dedicated partner, I find special excitement in attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Redmond delivers the event's night-before keynote, and it has a large booth immediately adjacent to one of the Las Vegas Convention Center's Central Hall entrances. Beyond that, attendees are genuinely interested in what Redmond has to say about the Consumer Electronics Industry. It's a place where Microsoft can shine, outside of the hardcore IT world.

But this was a tough year for Microsoft at CES. Not only was Steve Ballmer's keynote (covered in my prior post) disappointing, but walking around the trade show floor, I saw a number of threats to Microsoft and Windows. I thought it wise to enumerate some of these here:

The Ubiquity of Android
Google's Linux-based operating system, Android, seemed to me to be the star of CES. It appeared on numerous mobile phones from heretofore close Microsoft partners like Motorola, Samsung and HTC. But various computing devices shown at CES were running it as well. These included special purpose kiosk prototypes, but also portable media devices and netbooks. I swear I even saw Android running on one netbook that had a Windows key on its keyboard.

The Irrelevance of Zune
Zune HD is a wonderful device. But whereas the iPhone commands an entire third-party product subsection at CES, I only saw Microsoft's media player at the company's own booth and at the pavilion set up by the HD Radio group. The latter is hardly a technology market leader. And I'm afraid that makes apparent Zune's comparable position.

The Mainstream Growth of Blu Ray and Introduction of Blu Ray 3D
Microsoft backed the wrong horse, HD-DVD, in the high def video disc wars. I liked Toshiba's HD-DVD format better than Sony's Blu Ray, but when HD-DVD lost, it lost. Microsoft seems to have had trouble admitting this. It has refused to offer a Blu Ray player for Xbox 360, and has also failed to integrate the disc format into its Windows Media Center product, leaving third parties to fill the gap.

Microsoft insists that streaming and downloaded HD content will make Blu Ray irrelevant before it can reach a critical mass in the marketplace. But this CES made it clear, to me at least, that this forecast is a bad one. While HD movies are available on Xbox 360, through the Zune Video Marketplace and Netflix, the selection of new releases is still lousy and the availability of titles with multi-channel surround audio is even worse.

Meanwhile, Blu Ray's reaching mainstream adoption. Holiday sales of players and discs were huge, and Walmart now sells a Magnavox Blu Ray player for less than $100. Studios are rapidly reducing the delta in price between DVD and Blu Ray releases, and with Blu Ray titles they are increasingly including DVD and digital file copies, ensuring portability and even enabling non-Blu Ray player owners to buy the discs in advance of their player purchases.

Then there's the matter of 3D, which was a huge story at CES, and the announcement of a Blu Ray 3D standard. The latter, to be supported by numerous standalone players and by existing PlayStation 3 units (via a firmware upgrade), further buttresses the importance of Blu Ray and of physical media in general. It also further impugns Microsoft's decision to make the Xbox 360 console Blu Ray-averse.

Growth of Connected TVs and Blu Ray Players
A byproduct of Blu Ray's growth is an interesting one, because it has little to do with the Blu Ray format itself. Since virtually all Blu Ray players feature Internet connectivity, the vast majority of them now include connectivity to the very streaming content Microsoft said would trump Blu Ray discs in the first place. Owners of many new-generation Blu Ray players can connect to the likes of Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Blockbuster and other streaming content sources. And more and more HDTVs are including similar capabilities themselves, so that a Blu Ray player isn't even required.

Why is this a threat to Microsoft? After all, Xbox 360 and Windows Media Center both offer integrated clients for Netflix, and Windows 7 Media Center's Internet TV feature offers access to an array of streaming content from broadcast and cable networks. The problem is that neither Xbox nor Media Center offer as much content as many Blu Ray players and HDTVs do (most Media Center Internet TV content is from CBS), and so these consumer electronics devices are making the PC, and even Xbox, less important and less necessary devices in the living room and home theater.

Flash's Increasing Momentum
The cross-platform compatibility of Adobe's Flash format, its huge momentum in the market and its impending availability on mobile phones, presents a multi-faceted threat to Microsoft. Flash's strength continues to prove a formidable challenge to Silverlight's growth, and it makes direct support for Windows less important. Case in point: EchoStar's SlingBox. This product, which allows consumers to view their video device (cable set top box, DVR, DVD player, etc.) remotely over the Internet, at one time offered software clients exclusively for Windows and Windows Mobile. But at their booth this year, Slingbox displayed their new browser/Flash-based client, as well as clients for BlackBerry and iPhone. The company also told me they are working at breakneck speed on an Android client. The Windows client will continue to be available and supported, but no longer enhanced. The WinMo client was nowhere to be seen. Stuff like this should make Microsoft afraid… very afraid. It should also make them respond with something innovative. But no such innovation was in evidence at CES this week.

There were probably other threats to Microsoft in evidence at this year's CES. But the ones I have enumerated here should prove the point. Microsoft is failing, on both offense and defense, to command relevance with consumers and inspire their passions. In so doing, it increasingly relegates itself and Windows to the business market, and especially the enterprise market. The business market is certainly nothing to sneeze at, of course. But, Microsoft should not concede the consumer market; it's an important source of revenue and is today where tech influencers are most influenced. Microsoft needs to fight back this year and wow the CES audience next year.

Posted on 01/11/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments

MS at CES10: A Little Like PDC 09

It's always exciting to attend the CES keynote. This was the second year that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has had the honor of presenting the night-before keynote and, as a speaker, he did well.

On the PC front, we saw new slate form factors from HP and others. On the Xbox side, we saw a new mystery/film noire genre game, a new version of Halo, the new Xbox Game Room service that will feature numerous classic arcade games and Project Natal, the forthcoming Xbox innovation that will let you use your own body as the game controller. We learned that Natal would ship in time for the next holiday season. This was hoped for when Microsoft first showed Natal at the E3 gaming conference last year, but it took until this CES for it to be officially confirmed.

The keynote also covered Bing, Bing Maps and even Office 2010, with a demo of collaborative PowerPoint editing over Windows Live. Microsoft MediaRoom, its cable TV/IPTV platform, was shown and we learned that a new version will work on existing PCs, Xboxes and phones, rather than requiring a dedicated set top box. Speaking of phones, some new ones were shown, including the new HD2 from HTC. It's a nice phone (I tried it out today myself), but it's still, of course, based on Windows Phone/Mobile 6.5.

What I found striking was that this year's keynote really focused on the same things as last year's: Windows 7, Xbox 360, Windows Mobile 6.x and a few other products. Nothing was discussed last year about Bing, of course, because it had not come out yet. But even Bing fits this pattern. Most of what was discussed in the keynote focused on past achievements, rather than new announcements.

We saw nothing of the "Courier" slate, nothing of Windows Mobile 7 (although we did learn that WinMo7 will be discussed at a future wireless industry conference), and no new demos of Natal. And all this reminded me a bit of the Day 1 keynote at this year's Professional Developer's Conference -- what we got was a progress report on last year's announcements, rather than any major new ones.

I think that's too bad. Not every year can be a big newsmaker, but if Microsoft is going to kick off a major technology conference, they should have some new tricks to show. Maybe there's more waiting in the wings. It's just too bad that none of it could be shown or discussed when all the eyes of the technology world were watching.

Posted on 01/08/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Predictions for 2010

Tech bloggers like to have a predictions post at the beginning of each year (or the end of the previous one). I've never actually written one before, although I have made year-ahead predictions in panel discussions for the now defunct NYSIA. Since there's no panel this year, and since I'm taking better care of this blog, I'd thought I'd give clairvoyance a whirl right here. The following predictions are pretty random and probably not comprehensive, but I'm making it my new year's resolution to prevent perfection from being the enemy of the good (very Presidential of me, no?). So here we go…

Android Will Continue to Gain Share
I'm really not a Google fan, but I gotta be fair: the Android OS is very well done. It doesn't have the polish of the iPhone OS, although that may come with time. Rather, it appeals to the same gadget-happy demographic that Windows Mobile tried to (and failed). The 2.1 build of the OS, which will ship on Google's own (HTC-manufactured) Nexus One phone, looks to be faster and more stable than the already impressive 2.0.1 build that runs on the Motorola Droid. Perhaps most important, the platform is growing nicely in terms of application support. Web 2.0 must-have's like TripIt, FourSquare, Evernote,, Pandora, Qik and OpenTable all offer native Android applications and they all work well. The Android Market has an order of magnitude fewer applications that the Apple App Store, but Android's catching up quickly. 2010 will be a big year for the Google mobile phone platform.

Time Warner - Fox Debacle Will Hasten Slightly the Move to a la Carte Programming Via the Internet
Time Warner Cable had one of its end-of-year carriage contract show-downs again this year, but this time the crux of it was over fees Fox wanted TWC to pay for its free, over-the-air Fox and MyTV network stations. Meanwhile, much of that programming is available for free from Hulu and other sites, in addition to the high-definition digital airwaves. TWC and Fox did work out a deal, but it still seems likely that customers' already high cable bills will increase as a result. Look for formative developments this year in a not-free but reasonably-priced TV over Internet platform. If the cable companies are smart, they'll shift business emphasis to their ISP product and building a TV-friendly platform on top of it for delivery of TV programming on an a la carte basis.

Windows Home Server Will Continue its Quiet Progress
Aside from an all-but-forgotten file corruption bug in the first release, the Windows Home Server platform has been a great success story, but the story itself has had limited exposure. WHS boxes in a variety of form factors are available not only from HP (the "anchor" OEM, in effect), but also Asus, Acer, Lenovo and other PC manufacturers. I think it's the best home network backup product out there, and that's really just the beginning. Media Center integration is evolving nicely, and the advent of Atom-based WHS machines means ultra-low price points are part of the mix now. When version 2.0 of the WHS OS is released, things should really heat up. The question is whether Microsoft will stay in modesty/stealth mode on this product or whether they'll really start to promote it.

News Corp.'s Pay Walls Won't Work
Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (owner of 20th Century Fox, the various Fox TV networks, the Wall Street Journal, a slew of tabloid newspapers around the world and other media properties) will push hard this year to start charging Internet surfers for its content. The Wall Street Journal, which News Corp. acquired relatively recently, has always charged for the majority of its content and Murdoch now sees fit to apply the WSJ formula to other properties' sites as well. As much as I agree in principal with this policy, I don't see it working out well. The Internet has fostered a culture of entitlement whereby people look at content disparagingly if it's made available only on a subscription basis. WSJ has bucked that trend, but its content, and readership, are more specialized than that of most media sites. Content from the New York Post, News of the World and Fox News just doesn't have the same dedicated, affluent audience.

.NET 4+ Will Impress Developers and Establish a Benchmark in Maturity
As much as I (and others) have lamented that .NET is becoming bloated and reaching middle age, the fact remains there's some very good stuff coming in .NET 4. New bits like the Reactive Extensions and the Parallel Extensions, and fit/finish releases like ASP.NET MVC 2 and Entity Framework "4" (it's really version 2 as well) bring both innovation and iterative refinement to Microsoft's bet-the-company development platform. And Visual Studio 2010's surprisingly robust support for SharePoint development will give .NET something no other platform has: straightforward development for a high-barrier-to-entry corporate collaboration platform. As an aside, I find it interesting that many of Microsoft's would be eulogists neglect to mention .NET when they describe the last 10 years as Microsoft's "lost decade." That's because a success like .NET doesn't fit the narrative of an obituary.

Netbooks Will Recede (but Thin and Light Notebooks Will Gain)
I bought a netbook this year, and I really liked it. But then I, as other attendees and speakers at Microsoft's Professional Developer Conference, became the lucky recipient of an Acer Aspire 1420P Celeron machine. Ever since, the only thing I've done with the netbook is install Windows Updates patches and back it up. The thin/light notebook category, when compared to netbooks, offers machines that are only slightly bulkier/heaver, have comparable battery life and yet offer the display capabilities and processing power that chase away most of the compromises. The great thing about netbooks is that they've forced down the price points on their high-powered brethren (a sub-$500 ThinkPad, anyone?), even considering the higher cost of non-Starter Edition Windows 7 licenses. So netbooks have been important, without a doubt, but I still see them as an endangered species.

LAMP Stack Will Continue to Grow and Microsoft Will Do Something Interesting With It
Facts are facts: LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) has gained huge popularity in the last few years. WordPress, Drupal and Joomla! effectively use PHP as their scripting languages and Microsoft has nothing to counter them (SharePoint is a great product, but designed for a very different customer). Meanwhile, while it may seem otherwise, Microsoft does know the score, and has gone to great lengths to make PHP easy to install and run well on Windows Server, easy to integrate with SQL Server 2005 and 2008, and even offered sanctioned support for PHP and MySQL on its Azure cloud platform. What comes next? A credible open source Web publishing product? Support in Visual Studio for PHP? New, robustly-supported tools and techniques for script-and-markup style programming in ASP.NET and/or a standalone toolkit for ASP.NET MVC development? I think one of these initiatives, or something comparably accommodating of scripter Web development support on Windows, will emerge in 2010.

Microsoft Partner Companies will Begin to Roll-Up/Consolidate
At its 2009 Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft made clear its distaste for a slew of boutique-sized solution providers in its channel, with so many of them getting a Gold Partner designation. Look for Microsoft to prioritize its partner engagements such that larger firms, with bigger geographic footprints and more license revenue-generating prowess, get the most attention. Expect corresponding consolidation to occur in the partner ecosystem, such that shops with deep technical expertise and those with big selling engines come together.

Oracle Will Have a Tough Year
Maybe it's ironic ownership of the open source database MySQL will cause an existential crisis for Oracle. Perhaps its impending entrance into the margin-challenged hardware business will mess with Larry's head. Maybe Oracle's late-(if ever)-to-the party position in the cloud computing market will be hard to transcend. And maybe, just maybe, the shrinking willingness of customers to continue paying exorbitant licensing fees will put a wrinkle in Oracle's quarterly results winning streak. On the other hand, maybe Oracle will put it all together, making its disparate products and acquired company business units work well together. No matter what though, Oracle's path forward will be about as simple and straight as New York's Taconic Parkway. It might be just as scenic and interesting though.

Whether or Not You Believe in the Cloud, It Definitely Exists
I'll conclude with something less of a prediction and more of an observation, regarding the cloud. There's already a glut of predictions out there about it, and I'm afraid I have little original to add to them. It's hard to tell how successful cloud offerings will be in 2010, and to what extent they will enable a new layer of entrepreneurial services and companies. But it stands to reason that most companies will at least think about the cloud as they pursue just about every effort in new and existing products, services and personnel. That will be impactful no matter what.

I think 2010 will still be a tough year for our industry. But I think we'll start to slope upwards to better times. And 2010 will be the year when much groundwork for success is done. Let's keep an analytical eye, and we'll be better set for better times.

Posted on 01/04/2010 at 1:15 PM4 comments

BI (Up) in the Cloud

In the new film “Up in the Air,” George Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, poses a question relevant to the premise of BI as a cloud computing offering. Bingham is a career transition specialist -- i.e. someone who fires people as an outsourced service – and he insists that his services must be delivered on-premise (if you will), despite his firm's new initiative to start doing so via Web conference technology. That initiative is being pushed by his colleague, Natalie Keener (played by Anna Kendrick), a new hire and recent graduate. The film explores this inter-generational debate and competition between the effectiveness of personal presence and the efficiency of the Internet.

A similar debate is playing out between BI startup companies, many of which are cloud pure-plays, and the traditional BI heavyweights. The startups, with names like Oco, ParAccel, and Birst, insist that the efficiency, ease of provisioning and on-demand scale of the cloud is exactly what's needed to move BI more into the mainstream. Meanwhile, the traditional BI players like IBM/Cognos, Oracle/Hyperion, SAP/BusinessObjects and even Microsoft don't necessarily agree, and don't see sufficient customer demand to warrant investment in the new approach.

If Ryan Bingham were a BI specialist, he would argue (and rightly so), that enterprise BI implementations vary greatly, require significant business analysis and sometimes even business process reengineering, both which are very interactive, high-touch services best delivered in person. Even after implementation, the volumes of data, the processor-intensive ETL (extract, transform and load) jobs, and the data- and query-specificity of cache, index and cube optimizations don't lend themselves well to a multi-tenant, hosted environment.

Natalie Keener would likely counter (and not without merit) that in-memory database technology can render many of these post-implementation concerns moot. And I bet she'd also argue, even though it would incense Ryan, that with enough customer volume, commonalities in the analysis and business process reengineering delivery would start to emerge, making the services more mappable, repeatable and deliverable by new trainees.

Who's right? For large enterprises, I'd say Bingham's right, today. For smaller organizations looking for analytics on their Web logs, CRM/ERP transactions and other common data repositories, Natalie's vision may be feasible quite soon. Even larger organizations with more customized needs might fit her paradigm in the not-so-distant future. Only issue is that the technology's not ready for them yet, and even if it were, the organizations would not be ready for the new technology.

As a case in point, take a look at Microsoft's BI stack, cloud stack and SaaS stack. Microsoft has a lot of cloud BI pieces already in place. It also has some more work to do. SharePoint is key: its ties to Excel Services and the Excel Web App make it the sensible end-user BI point of delivery. Then take a look at PowerPivot, which uses the high-compression, in-memory technology Natalie would love. Its server engine integrates with SharePoint, which can initiate and load-balance instances of the server, according to demand, which is very cloud-like indeed. But will SharePoint Online support all of these products and features? It's hard to tell. And what about SQL Azure? Seems like a great on-demand data warehousing platform. Until you start to contemplate its 10GB limit in database size!

So Microsoft isn't there yet; Bingham would be vindicated. But imagine If the Excel Web App and Excel Services, which are already kissing cousins, merged. And imagine if SQL Azure databases could be larger, and a scale-out technology, like that in the forthcoming SQL Server “Madison” product, were used to aggregate a collection of such databases into a single data warehouse. Now, finally, envision PowerPivot running as part of SharePoint Online and in the core Analysis Services product, which would become a feature within SQL Azure. With all of this, Microsoft would really have something for cloud BI. And, by then, their customers might just be ready.

On that day, Natalie might feel smug, like she were right all along. But could she last that long? One cloud BI startup, LucidEra, has already folded. And by the time such product and customer maturity were reached, Ryan may be very comfortable with the change, gracefully delivering his old services within it. Granted, he, like Microsoft, would be older. But if the offering's a good one, then I bet it wins. George Clooney, and his admirers, would corroborate that, I imagine.

Posted on 12/31/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Are Pricing Models Where the Cloud Will be Won?

I may be a Microsoft aficionado, but the competition is still important, especially when it’s especially worthy. That’s why I subscribe to Amazon Web Services’ newsletter. A new issue arrived in my inbox recently and revealed AWS’ latest innovation: Amazon EC2 instances priced by bid. Specifically, according to AWS’ Web posting on the so-called EC2 Spot Instances option: “Spot Instances allow customers to bid on unused Amazon EC2 capacity and run those instances for as long as their bid exceeds the current Spot Price. The Spot Price changes periodically based on supply and demand, and customers whose bids meet or exceed it gain access to the available Spot Instances.”

I think that’s such a good idea that it almost seems absurd that Microsoft isn’t doing it. But Microsoft is doing some pricing innovation of its own: it’s including large blocks of Azure compute hours with MSDN developer annuity licenses, and it’s also planning to make Azure services eligible for inclusion in Enterprise Agreements. Given the reality that most large enterprises negotiate heavily over their EAs, this makes Azure subject to some of the same supply and demand forces that EC2 Spot Instances are beholden to.

Clearly the two approaches are rather different: Azure’s negotiability covers an array of service usage over a multi-year period, while AWS’ covers very discrete, time-limited transactions. But both companies are realizing that if the cloud is to go mainstream, it should be subject to similar arbitrage as software licenses and on-premise hardware infrastructure. Maybe Amazon will hire Bill Shatner away from Priceline.

It’s exciting to see this evolve, and it shows that a company like Amazon has more reason to be in this business than their network of data centers: they understand markets and pricing power and the cloud is a great new scenario in which that knowledge can be applied.

It strikes me that Amazon’s market pricing options would appeal more to Web businesses (especially those with temporary spike/scale needs), whereas Microsoft’s are more geared to traditional corporate customers. My fervent hope is that each company will accommodate both customer groups. They are already doing so with their technologies (Windows instances on EC2; PHP and MySQL on Azure). But I think the competition will get most beneficial for customers when the pricing schemes break barriers and comfort zones too.

Posted on 12/21/2009 at 1:15 PM7 comments

Redmond Vendor Management Matters

There's been a lot of press in the last 24 hours concerning MSN China's apparent (and now acknowledged) theft of code and copying of design from Taiwan's Plurk microblogging service for the beta of its own Juku service. You can read Visual Studio Magazine's coverage here. Turns out the work was outsourced to an external vendor which, in turn, was the source of the plagiarism. Microsoft, in a public statement, said "in the wake of this incident, Microsoft and our MSN China joint venture will be taking a look at our practices around applications code provided by third-party vendors."

I hope so. Because this isn't a one-off anomaly; it's part of a larger phenomenon.

Remember the whole "Mojave" experiment, wherein Microsoft invited individuals to work with its allegedly new operating system, code-named Mojave, which was actually just Vista in disguise? I thought that was a neat campaign and a good way to deflect some of the FUD hurled at Vista. But do you remember the first take at the Mojave Web site? It contained numerous participant interview videos and made them browse-able and viewable. Too bad the first version of the site used Flash for the video format instead of Silverlight. And guess what? This was another outsource vendor gaffe.

There's at least one other such screw-up I could mention, and it's even more embarrassing, but I reported it to Microsoft before it got out and promised discretion. Trust me though, if the two examples of outsourcing unruliness above don't have you convinced of a systemic problem in Redmond with vendor management, this one would tip the scale.

Not all vendors are bad. In fact, my own firm, twentysix New York, has developed many things for Microsoft, including reference applications, starter kits and hands-on-labs. We do good work. So did another vendor brought in to re-do the entire Mojave site using Silverlight. And they did it all in just two weeks.

Outsourcing isn't the problem. Quality control of outsourced work-product seems to be something that Microsoft could and should shore up, however. Given the tendency of vendors to use the tools and technologies most familiar to them, rather than most consistent with their client's offerings (which is understandable, given the budgets on some of these projects), Microsoft is deluding itself if it thinks common sense will prevent more gaffes like these. And unfortunately, some vendors don't just disregard good judgment, they disregard ethics too. Contractual stipulation may prohibit this, but that isn't enough; there has to be a verification regime as well.

Posted on 12/16/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Time for an MSpiNoff?

This week, TimeWarner, completed the spinoff of the online service that was at one point the initial part of its corporate name... AOL. TimeWarner believes that the online portal is not core to its business, and that its non market-leadership would be best cured by independent management.

Should Microsoft do a similar spinoff of MSN? Is “the butterfly” doing well under Redmond’s PC software-oriented management? Despite an impending re-design, and a respectable market share in the US and global markets, MSN feels stuck in time and in a gradual decline. As with AOL and TimeWarner, MSN does not seem core to Redmond’s mission. And I’ve heard rumors that MSN is where Microsoft shifts personnel that are not succeeding elsewhere, to get them out of the way. That’s just a rumor. But, if true, that strategy wouldn’t help anybody, least of all MSN.

I’m not talking about Bing, or Bing Maps, or even Windows Live (properties that used to carry the MSN brand but conveniently do not any longer). I’m not even sure if I’m talking about MSNBC. But I am talking about the core portal and its departments, like MSN Money and MSN City Guides. Those sites have no developer story that I know of, and have never been a good partner in terms of pushing Silverlight (the now defunct MSN SoapBox used Flash; MSN Video only recently converted and has in any case rebranded to Bing Videos).

Had Microsoft actually acquired Yahoo, keeping certain MSN properties in-house would make sense. But Yahoo is still independent, and yet it is a Bing partner and MSN competitor, which to me provides two reasons for spinning MSN off right there. Also, MSN (exclusive of Bing) does not really compete with Google. Maybe that’s a third reason to let the former go.

Even if spun off, MSN could still be owned by Microsoft. It could retain its first initial. It could continue to help be a primary channel for Bing searches, and it could begin anew to provide similar support for Silverlight. But like Expedia, another erstwhile Microsoft Internet property, MSN and Microsoft (proper) might each do better on their own.

Posted on 12/11/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments

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