Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

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Microsoft Media Devices: "All Together Now"

Microsoft makes an excellent digital music player (the Zune HD), a well-crafted networked storage and backup solution (Windows Home Server), a strong DVR/digital entertainment hub (Windows Media Center) and perhaps the industry leading gaming console (Xbox 360), which itself has a growing number of digital media capabilities. But can they all get along?

That was my question almost a year ago, when I returned from the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, which was riddled with a variety of incompatible, proprietary Network Attached Storage/TV set-top box combos, from a variety of vendors. The irony was that Microsoft's own server and set-top option had a, shall we say, stealthy presence at the show.

This weekend, I took the plunge and upgraded my dedicated home theater PC from Vista Media Center to Windows 7 Media Center. Last weekend, I applied an Xbox Live update to on of my Xbox 360 consoles, and a bit before that, my Windows Home Server updated itself to Power Pack 3 of that platform's core software.

The result? (1) Media Center can now archive TV recordings to Home Server, (2) I can view the status of my Windows Home Server rig from my Media Center PC, using the remote control, and can do likewise from either of my Xbox consoles, and (3) I can configure Windows Home Server to transcode my TV recordings to a lower bit rate, suitable for transfer to, and viewing on, a Zune device, Granted, I don't own a Zune, but the feature is intriguing nonetheless.

So there is now, in an ancillary fashion, a linkage between Xbox, Media Center, Home Server and Zune. Finally, the pieces of Microsoft's consumer media and electronics puzzle are fitting together. But sometimes the jigsaw cuts puzzle pieces imprecisely and the fit between them requires some brute force to realize.

Xbox just added really nice native support for Twitter, Facebook and Last.fm. Xbox consoles can also act as Media Center extender devices. But the Media Center and native UIs on the Xbox are separate and Media Center offers no built-in support for these Web 2.0 services. Want to use Last.fm on your Xbox? Then exit out of the Media Center UI. Want to use Netflix "Watch Instantly" services on your console? Once again, you'll need to get to the native Xbox user interface. Want to watch Netflix on your Media PC itself? You can, but you must do so with a native Media Center add-in, which does not run on an extender.

Twitter using Media Center? Nope; that's Xbox only. Catch podcasts on your Home Server? Not with software form Microsoft, but you can stream video podcasts on Media Center using the Internet TV feature. You can get podcasts on your Zune as well, but that uses different technology. Backup my Xbox hard drive and Zune storage to my Home Server? Forget it.

How can so many products form just one company work in such a detached fashion? How can the Xbox offer mutually exclusive features in its Media Center extender and native modes? How come Windows mobile is almost totally out of the picture? Microsoft will tell you that lack of interoperability is due to the separate development teams for each product. And they'd be right.

But that begs a question: why are the teams so separate? What if there were a single podcast/blog/RSS feed consumption technology and all the products used it? What if Home server could host CableCARD devices and record TV that Media Center or Xbox simply presented through their unique UIs? What if both XBox and Media Center could provide front-end interfaces to both the Zune Pass subscription service and the media stored locally on a Zune connected via USB (or even WiFi)? And perhaps my backups could go to Azure storage once a week.

If all of these potentially common technologies had their own dev teams and those teams had mandates to work with various device and platform product groups to make sure those products shipped with native support, then Microsoft's consumer device business would make more sense. Moreover, the personnel behind the technologies would would be motivated to achieve the most prolific and most consistent adoption across other Microsoft products.

If Microsoft did that, they'd have perhaps the best digital home entertainment suite on the market. As I've said before, this is one area where Apple hasn't done well and so this an area where Microsoft could score an important victory over Cupertino. That, in turn, could give Zune a fighting chance against iPod, seal the victory over Playstation 3 and Wii and maybe, one day, give rise to a compelling mobile phone play.

Maybe when I return to Las Vegas next month, for the 2010 CES, I'll see some glimmer of hope on this front. Maybe I'll see a great "better together" strategy in this space that works as effectively as it does with Windows Server, SQL Server and SharePoint.

Or maybe not. Maybe Microsoft would prefer I buy my PC from one of their OEMs, but get my phone/music player from Apple, my game console from Sony, my network storage from Netgear and my cloud storage from Amazon. If that's the goal, then they are executing perfectly. But if greater customer adoption, through reduced overhead and greater consistency of devices (across product lines and form factors) is what Microsoft seeks, then they need to change their game.

Posted on 12/07/2009 at 1:15 PM5 comments


My Week With Droid

A week ago I got a new phone. This was planned, and yet not planned. Getting a new phone working is disruptive and I didn't want that disruption on Thanksgiving week. However, Verizon somehow de-provisioned my old phone from its data network and told me it would take 5 days to fix the problem. That meant being without mobile email access, likely for a week, so I reasoned that getting a new phone would be actually less disruptive than fixing the old one. So I deactivated my Moto Q9m Windows Mobile 6.0 (Standard Edition) handset and replaced it with a spanking new Motorola Droid.

The Droid is my first SmartPhone that's not running Windows Mobile, and I really wasn't sure what to expect. On the one hand, I assumed the phone would be less clunky than WinMo has become, relative to other devices. I expected a more graceful UI, and a far better Web experience than the Q9m provided. I also expected worse Exchange integration. As for keyboard entry, I assumed the on-screen keyboard would be a terrible match for my big thumbs, but that the slide-out keyboard would keep me sane. And, finally, I hoped for some genuinely interesting and impressive software (sorry, I just can't bring myself to say "apps" since Apple commandeered the term).

How is the Droid in general? Did I get what I expected? Is it fun to use? Is it productive? The answer to each of these questions is "it's a mixed bag." Allow me to elaborate, or even ramble. But hold on until the end of this post for some thoughts on how Android and Windows Mobile compare (an especially interesting question given that the WinMo Q9m and Droid are both Motorola phones).

That Which Disappoints
I'll deliver the bad news first: the Droid hardware, other than the big, bright and beautiful screen, and the convenience of a 3.5mm earbud jack, is terrible. The power button is impossible to find by feel. The volume up down buttons are also hard to grope for and don't "rock" or "toggle" easily. The camera button is almost as bad. The slide out keyboard has buttons that aren't raised, and sit in a perfect rectangular matrix, without any curvature whatsoever. This makes it incredibly easy to press two keys at once and very hard to type without looking at the keys. To top it off (literally) the upper row of letter keys abuts the bottom of the screen so closely that it becomes impossible to get your thumb squarely on any of them.

I hate on-screen keyboards, but the Droid's is better than its physical one. However, unless you use it in landscape mode, the on-screen keys are cramped together so tightly that typing inaccuracy is almost guaranteed. And then there's the lack of cursor control, other than the backspace key (compared to the physical keyboard's 5-way joystick-style navigation); this forces you to try and tap the screen to get to the desired cursor position and the precision required to do so is only attainable on a random basis. So typing is frustrating, but it gets worse. The phone weighs a ton, due mostly to its battery and keyboard. Meanwhile, the former barely lasts one day and the latter, as I've said, is just an investment with no useful return.

The "hard-coded" touch keys at the bottom of the screen for Back/Esc, Options Menu, Home and Search provide haptic feedback, which is nice. But sometimes they just don't respond, and that is mean. The drag gesture necessary to reveal the full applications menu and the notifications list is equally capricious. It makes me say "Grrrr..." a lot.

As I knew before I got the phone, the Exchange integration is limited. There's no support for notes (which is typical of most phones) nor tasks (which is crazy) and appointment requests come through on the phone as if they're standard email messages, with no way to accept or decline, much less detect schedule conflicts.

Even the WiFi and cellualr radios seem a little flakey to me.

That Which Pleases
The issues I've enumerated above are really unacceptable, so why should you keep reading this post, and why do I keep using the phone? I guess my years with Windows Mobile have made me patient, and boundlessly optimistic. I'd like to believe that resilience in the face of bugs and clumsy interfaces might yield rewards in the form of cool features. (And I can't get an iPhone because AT&T's network is simply not an option for me).

So what's good about the Android? To start with, the browser is fantastic. It's fast, it works with both mobile and standard desktop HTML-formatted sites and the zoom in and out is very fluid and intuitive. What I lose in email productivity due to slow typing and poor Exchange integration, I make up for in my ability to branch out to the Web, get answers and achieve results, on my phone, rather than waiting until I am back at a PC.

And then there's search. You'd hope Google would do this well, of course. But they far exceeded my expectations. Search is everywhere and it, rather seamlessly, integrates data on the device and on the Web in a single result set from a single inquiry. If I hit the dedicated haptic search key and then type my friend and co-author Stephen Forte's name, for example, I get his contact record and a link to his blog's Google entry, presented in a single, cohesive response from the phone. I may have had to enter twice as many keystrokes as there are letters in his name, to correct my typos and get the search done, but the results are so useful and immediate that, in the end, I almost forget the initial frustration.

Integration with Google Maps is excellent as well. Even if calendar integration with Exchange is kind of goofy, any street address entered in the location or notes field of an appointment becomes a clickable link that produces a street/satellite hybrid map in one tap. If I'm willing to tap a few more times, I can enter my origin, and then get not just driving directions, but also a public transit route or walking directions, both of which are incredibly useful in New York City, where I live. A few more taps gets me Google Street View, and suddenly I'm getting a photographic preview of what my walk to the restaurant for my dinner appointment will look like.

I imagine the integration with Gmail, Google Calendar and other Google cloud services is tight and elegant as well, but I don't use those services nor do I need to. The phone comes with a Google Voice client, for which I have high hopes, but I have not yet set up an account on that service, and so have not tested its support on the phone.

Applications for the Droid seem pretty good. Seesmic just came out with a very nice Twitter client; TripIt has an excellent rich front-end to its travel planning service, the Weather Channel has an attractive and GPS-enabled UI for its current conditions and forecast data, eBuddy has a nice multi-platform IM client, that works fine with Windows Live Messenger's protocols and Documents to Go offers their capable replacement for Microsoft's Office Mobile, making opening Word and Excel email attachments a snap. The phone comes with good Amazon and FaceBook applications, and the Android Market offers easy access to lots more.

And although the Exchange integration is feature-poor, I will say that getting basic sync connectivity working on the Droid was actually much easier than on the two Exchange Push-enabled Windows Mobile phones I've owned.

See? The Droid offers not just bitter, but sweet as well.

Irony, Mobile Edition
Android has its rough spots, but Google has the power to address many of them through system updates, and the platform has great potential. Motorola did Google a service by creating an Android device with such a nice screen and at least offering the illusion of comfortable physical QWERTY text entry. The Droid hardware is an abomination. But I bet Droid 2 will be far better.

Will I keep this phone? Verizon says I have 30 days to decide; but I'm tempted to keep it. My only real debate is whether to lock in to two years of this phone's downsides or wait several months for a better Android 2.x iteration from Motorola or someone else. As I said before, years of using WinMo phones have made me tolerant and patient, with a tendency to focus on the positive, and the Droid has much of that.

That WinMo comparison (as well as a lack of comparison with iPhone) is significant. This morning I tweeted: "It's uncanny to me how much #Android seems to be the successful realization of Windows Mobile's original vision" and, subsequently: "Customizable, runs on a variety of hardware from multiple vendors and carriers, and lots of applications (no, that wasn't Apple's idea)."

In the case of Droid, Google's OS suffers from the same OEM foibles as does Microsoft's and, also in common with WinMo, suffers from Google's lack of Apple-like control over the platform. But it benefits in similar ways too: a multitude of OEMs, many of them Microsoft's current partners in the mobile space, the PC industry or both, like the Android platform, enjoy the degree to which they can customize and private label it and find it generally compatible with their business models.

So why is Google achieving this, and why has Microsoft not achieved it, when, as I said in this post, this successful strategy was Microsoft's to begin with?

I can cite many individual reasons and factors which have given rise to this situation. But the general answer to the question of why Microsoft has forfeited this victory, and allowed its most fierce competitor to embrace and extend its own game plan, is really this: "I don't know."

There's nothing in Android that Microsoft couldn't build. Windows 7 and Zune HD prove it can create a user experience of similar or better quality. Windows Desktop Search (and Vista/Windows 7 search), Bing's Web search and Bing Maps could bring about nearly identical device/Web search integration. There have been enough WinMo hardware blunders that Microsoft could easily work with Toshiba, Motorola, HTC or Samsung to produce better form factor, better ergonomics, and even a better screen than Droid offers. Microsoft's been burned often by lousy OEM hardware execution, and it now knows how to advise its hardware partners to generate better results.

The real problem to me seems to be managerial and structural, and it's very depressing to see. I think many of WinMo's ills are comparable to those that plagued Vista, both in terms of product quality, PR and the product team's management. The good news is that the WinMo/Vista parallels are more encouraging than the WinMo/Google ones. Because we know, in Windows 7, that Microsoft solved their Vista problem, which means they can solve their WinMo problem too.

Will version 7 be the lucky release on the mobile side, as it was on the PC? I am not certain. But I do think the problem will be solved, and I even think that Android may provide the encouragement needed to get to the solution. It may just take a while. But, as I said, when it comes to mobile devices, I am a patient man.

Posted on 12/01/2009 at 1:15 PM9 comments


PDC09 Final Verdict: Eye on the Prize, Not in the Sky

What a difference a day makes…at least to some. While the Day 1 keynote at PDC seemed mostly like a news update on last year's announcements, and a somewhat dry one at that, Day 2 gave developers some real "red meat." It began with a presentation by Steven Sinofsky on Windows 7's progress since its launch last month, including demos of the diverse array of hardware on which it now runs. Sinofsky then offered the ultimate crowd pleaser: he described the specs for a multi-touch, Microsoft-designed laptop manufactured by Acer, and then explained that all attendees would be receiving one for free. That greased the wheels for sure, and was followed up with a glimpse of IE9.

The pièce de résistance was a presentation by developer folk hero Scott Guthrie describing features that would be in the forthcoming Silverlight 4, the beta of which he announced was being made available immediately. We learned from Guthrie that this release of Silverlight will add an impressive array of client capabilities, from things like printing and microphone/webcam access to applications running in full trust and performing COM automation of Office. Scott Hanselman showed us how Silverlight 4 and Visual Studio 2010's Data Sources window make this new version of the RIA platform keenly well-suited for data-over-forms line-of-business applications. All of this really showed the audience that WPF was becoming more and more of a technology for ISVs (and Microsoft itself), and that custom app developers will find their rich client home in Silverlight.

After Guthrie finished his presentation, the audience was shown some of the cool new dev features in SharePoint 2010. Much of this was a summary of stuff shown at Microsoft's SharePoint conference a few weeks earlier. Given that, and the fact that Guthrie's a hard act to follow, the keynote ended somewhat anti-climactically. At about that time, my live and prolific "tweeting" of the keynote encountered an anti-climax of its own: Twitter told me I had exceeded my allowance of status updates and shut me down.

As annoyed as I was by Twitter's forced interruption of my reports, I thought about it and realized that it was OK. I really didn't need to give people the blow-by-blow. Why? Because this Day 2 keynote, at which we saw new Internet Explorer and new Silverlight, was still really about incremental developments at Microsoft, as opposed to giant leaps. Giant leaps are more fun to tweet. Giant leaps are more fun to see covered at a $2000 conference. Pondering giant leaps can invoke excitement, optimism and inspiration. And that's not what this PDC or this keynote, despite its improvement over Day 1, was about.

Maybe that's OK. Maybe it's alright that this PDC was more like a mid-year parent-teacher conference than starting a new grade and learning new subjects. The pipeline of the 2010 (and 2008 R2) new releases is dizzying, and developers really need help in absorbing them. Perhaps now is not the time for bold new vision, but rather for doing the homework and housekeeping necessary to ensure last year's vision is implemented calmly, clearly and competently. There's little point in planning a new game while we're still in an active one and we need to win.

Posted on 11/20/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments


#PDC09 or PDC08 R2?

The first day of Microsoft's 2009 Professional Developer Conference kicked off with a 2-hour keynote address led by Ray Ozzie. Ozzie enumerated various new features and launch dates for the Windows Azure Platform, including project "Dallas," a platform for open data feeds based on OData, an opened flavor of ADO.NET Data Services/Astoria. Ozzie also brought on customers and partners, including Automatic/WordPress, Kelley Blue Book, Seesmic and even US Federal CIO Vivek Kundra (via video link) to discuss interesting applications of Azure technologies. We also heard how Windows Azure's open source development support will include not just vanilla PHP, but also the Zend Framework and even MySQL and Memcached. That's a big deal. And this is not an exhaustive list of the announcements.

Bob Muglia's component of the keynote was good as well. We learned about things like SQL Server Modeling Services (formerly Oslo), AppFabric (in Windows Server and Windows Azure versions) and numerous new features in Visual Studio 2010.

However (and with apologies to Yogi Berra), this PDC was deja vu all over again. We had the same headline speaker as last year, leading a discussion of stuff first introduced last year, in the very same venue as last year. The more strategic (and more distant) futures I was hoping for, as discussed in my last post, did not materialize. It was exciting to see that many of last year's more abstract promises are becoming far more concrete, and sophisticated. But that alone doesn't make this show feel like a true PDC to me; it really makes it seem like a status update on last year's show. Don't get me wrong: I want a status update. I just wouldn't brand it PDC.

Along with other Microsoft Regional Directors, I have been promised that today's keynote will be juicier and more to my liking. If that's true, then I'll wonder why Microsoft didn't headline with it, while their Chief Software Architect was addressing the faithful. And if it turns out to be more update than groundbreaking "reveals" I won't be surprised. But I will probably be disappointed at the forfeit of an opportunity, to provide more insight on Redmond's plans for the next three years. I come to PDC for that insight and I doubt I'm the only one for whom that's true.

Posted on 11/18/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments


#PDC09: Here We Go Again

Until recently, Microsoft's policy toward its Professional Developers Conference (PDC), was that it should be held only once every two or three years, and should focus on Redmond's technology "futures." This meant that currently- or imminently-shipping products were not to merit much coverage; instead, emerging technologies that were at least 18 months away (or thereabouts) from shipping would get the spotlight.

Last year, that was mostly true. We got a pre-beta release of Windows 7, saw glimpses of what was then called the Azure Services Platform (a name that was introduced at the show), got demos of the Office Web Applications, were briefed on what would be forthcoming in Visual Studio 2010 and .NET 4.0, and heard great things about a project code-named "Oslo."

I guess Microsoft broke its own policy last year, because now, only a year later, Windows 7 has already shipped. Fair enough, but this year, the policy changes completely. We get our second PDC in as many years at which we'll witness the official launch of Azure. And much of the breakout coverage will focus on products and technologies covered last year, many of them shipping in 8 months or less: VS 2010, .NET 4.0, Office Web, multi-touch development for various Windows platforms and SQL Server Modeling (formerly Oslo -- still a ways off from shipping.

Will we see any true futures this year? Will we get any news about Windows Mobile 7? Microsoft's rumored tablet device? The next wave of cloud and services offerings? A clearer vision of Microsoft's move toward applications in the browser? Cool new stuff about Bing? Some more news about Xbox's project Natal?

I don't know, but I sure hope so. And I'll do what I can to pass on the news. On Monday, I will be presenting an all-day, pre-conference workshop at PDC, so I'll likely take that day away from the blogosphere and Twitterdom. But starting Tuesday, I'll be tweeting the keynotes in real-time (as the hashtag in this post's title suggests -- just follow me @andrewbrust) and I'll be posting daily blog reports on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at brustblog.com as well as RedDevNews.com and VisualStudioMagazine.com. Please post comments on any of the three sites and I'll do my best to respond. Likewise, I'll work to be interactive on Twitter and always appreciate a RT if you feel the tweet is deserving.

Posted on 11/16/2009 at 1:15 PM1 comments


Visual Studio's Cross-Platform Play

I like it when Microsoft bridges its technologies to other platforms. I like the PHP Driver for SQL Server and the samples in the PHP On Windows Training Kit so much that I did a whole session on them at VSLive! last month. The ADO.NET Data Services (Astoria) bridges for PHP and Java are very exciting to me. The Silverlight plug-in for Eclipse, the Azure SDK for Java, and the Windows 7 support for Eclipse are all good stuff.

To add to these recent developments, Microsoft has announced its acquisition of the Teamprise products from SourceGear. These are non-.NET, Team Foundation Server clients in the form of an Eclipse plug-in, a stand-alone client and a command line client, suitable for scripting. The clients work on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Solaris.

And beyond this Microsoft announcement, Novell announced its Mono Tools plug-in for Visual Studio, allowing .NET developers to target non-Windows platforms, without leaving the comfort of Visual Studio IDE and their favorite add-ins for that IDE.

With these products and technologies, Microsoft does both well and good. They build good will, they add credibility to their products and they diversify the customer base. I suppose a more skeptical view is that these products and initiatives erode the strength of Windows in the marketplace. But I don’t buy that. From what I can tell, Windows has the power to erode its own position (as Vista did) or strengthen it (as Windows 7 seems to be doing), all by itself.

I liken the Teamprise and Mono Tools’ widening of the Visual Studio customer base to the similar cross-platform adoption of Exchange facilitated by the licensing of ActiveSync. The latter has made Exchange a platform supported by iPhone, Android and Palm’s WebOS devices, in addition to its long-standing support on Blackberry and Windows Mobile. Given the strength of the newer smartphone platforms, (and the increasing weakness of Windows Mobile), this cross-platform support turns out to be really important for the continued strength of Exchange. Likewise, support on other operating systems for TFS and new support for other operating systems in the Visual Studio IDE help establish Microsoft development and ALM tools as true standards, rather than simply incumbents for the Windows platform.

I don’t know if everyone in Redmond is happy about these developments, but they should be, because this interoperability gives Microsoft gravitas, and a better-assured franchise than it would otherwise have.

Posted on 11/13/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Windows Phone: "Hey, That Was My Idea"

The tech influencers' Twitter streams have been all aflutter this weekend, with talk of the Motorola Droid. Verizon Wireless launched its version this phone on Friday, and the techies are swooning. They love the screen, the Google Maps-based turn-by-turn navigation and the thinness of the phone, which still manages to sport a physical, slide-out keyboard. Most of all they love the Verizon network, which offers resilient service and ubiquitous 3G coverage.

There seems to be something else though. There's something that people either like about the Droid, or are at least willing to tolerate: the fact that the handset manufacturer (Motorola) and the phone OS vendor (Google) are separate entities. People seem intrigued by the idea that unlike Apple, which makes both the iPhone and iPhone OS, and which controls the entire software channel for the device, that the Droid's platform is decentralized, and the Android Market is open to all developers willing to pay the $25 registration fee.

What's ironic about the market's new-found love for an open platform, that OEMs can customize and anyone can develop for? It's the exact same concept that Windows Mobile/Windows Phone has used for more than six years.

I thought (up until now) that the iPhone succeeded because it dispensed with that model. Apple decided to (1) own the platform, (2) design and manufacture the devices, (3) market the product and (4) bully their exclusive US carrier to the degree that they almost control their device's network, too. Microsoft, on the other hand, saw companies like HTC, Samsung and Motorola make most of their phones and let the various carriers market the devices as they saw fit. I thought that lack of uniformity and control was a huge part of why Microsoft lost so much share and momentum to Apple.

But I think the Droid may prove me wrong. Google's got a similar model to Microsoft's, many of the same OEM's, the same approach to carriers and the same democratic approach to developers. Meanwhile, people mistakenly believe Google invented this model, and the Droid seems poised to take off in a way that Windows Mobile never has.

I'm going to write another post one day about Microsoft's victory in the mobile space. But it will be a look back. The win was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Microsoft built the PocketPC, and used it to beat Palm and its eponymous PDAs. The problem is that Microsoft rested on that victory, using a little-evolved version of that same device in the phone market and thus leaving themselves wide open for the drubbing they got. First from Apple and their different approach. And now from Google with an almost identical one.

It's ironic, and it's sad. But it's hopeful too, because Google's success will be, in some measure, a validation of Microsoft's original approach. And, hopefully, it will also be a lesson in how to make better devices and strive for superior execution.

Posted on 11/09/2009 at 1:15 PM4 comments


Cuomo vs. Intel and Son vs. Father

I grew up in New York and I've grown up with the Cuomo family. I liked Mario Cuomo and thought he was a good governor. He was one of those guys in the 1980s that I characterized as a Macho Liberal: someone with compassionate beliefs and a street-tough approach to pursuing them. A Macho Liberal wasn't a wimp, nor was he a bully. He was someone ready to fight and hold his ground while trying to do good.

Sound naive? Hey, give me a break: I was a teenager and an idealist. And I was living under a Republican president who had been in office since the very moment I had become politically aware. I was proud to be from a state with a leader who thought differently and didn't apologize for it, and I liked the idea that he might run for President himself.

But it was Bill Clinton who won the Whitehouse and he named Andrew Cuomo as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I was hopeful for the new Cuomo, who would be fighting for urban concerns in the Federal government. But I soon became disillusioned. I really felt Andrew was trying to fill his dad's shoes, and I think that very motivation thwarted his progress.

Now the younger Mr. Cuomo is my state Attorney General and he's trying to fill not one set of shoes, but two. In addition to achieving the home-state, Cuomo-recognition that is uniquely his, Andrew Cuomo is also trying to live up to the image of Elliot Spitzer's Attorney General persona and record. Despite Spitzer's infamous, scandal-ridden gubernatorial stint, as AG he made a name for himself as the man who took on Wall Street and won. And despite Spitzer's resignation in disgrace as Governor, he still defined a standard as AG that, clearly, Cuomo believes his own record must meet.

And I fear this explains much of Cuomo's motivation in suing Intel for anti-trust violations. Maybe I'm being naive again, but I find no other explanation possible. While it's tempting to believe that Intel strong-armed large OEMs, like Dell, HP and IBM, into using Intel CPUs exclusively, the accusation seems a bit wild to me. Are all three of those companies truly bully-able? And, even if you answer yes, would you agree with Cuomo that Intel stifled innovation in the CPU market and caused customers to pay more for computers?

By my own observation, PCs have continued to fall in price. Compare today's entry level machines with those of a few years ago. Or compare mid-range or high-end units. Today's machines are more powerful and cheaper than their predecessors. While Intel's Itanium chips (whose architecture actually originated at HP) were less than impressive compared to AMD's offerings at the time, that competition from forced Intel to come up with rock-solid, 64-bit Core 2 chips that were consistent with its x86 architecture, and to introduce an innovative, low-end product like the Atom line, which powers most netbooks. The Atom is so cheap that it cannibalizes sales of conventional CPUs. And it yields less profit. Would a monopolist introduce such a product?

Another issue Cuomo raises is that of rebates paid by Intel to OEMs in exchange for exclusivity or near-exclusivity. Cuomo likens these rebates to bribes and it all does sound kind of sinister at first blush. But, in many industries, fees paid for exclusivity are not uncommon and would thus appear legal, or at least openly accepted by regulators. It would seem then that the best way to prevent the practice would be through broadly applied regulatory processes, or influencing industry-wide agreement. Meanwhile, accusing a single company of creating harm through its use of rebates, and asking it to abstain from the practice, while implicitly allowing competitors to use it, seems unfair, unwise and by definition imposes a double-standard. Given the cover provided by Asian and European regulators who have been pursuing similar action against Intel, Cuomo's entire motivation seems political. Such opportunism is not exclusive to one party: Cuomo's lawsuit mirrors similar politically-motivated actions taken against Microsoft, by then Republican NY State AG Dennis Vacco, in the late 1990s.

The fact is that government regulation of industries can have at least a short-term negative impact on efficiency and usually a long-term negative impact on innovation. Government oversight slows industries down and can create the very dysfunction Cuomo purports to be fighting.

That doesn't mean all oversight is wrong. We know from the financial crisis that such oversight was lacking on Wall Street and we'd likely all be better off had it been more vigilant. But it does mean accusations of monopolistic behavior, and any application of penalties, need to be used sparingly, prudently and not politically. It's hard to fix anything by disrupting it, and it's absurd to try doing so with something that's not really broken.

Macho Liberal is one thing. Aggressive bullying is something quite different.

Posted on 11/06/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Windows Virtual PC: I Can't Stand the Way You Tease

There are a lot of things to like about the new version Virtual PC. Compared to its predecessor, it has added support for USB devices; allows individual applications to be run from a virtual machine yet project on the host desktop; has terrific shell integration; and much better awareness of the host's power management, allowing users to hibernate their physical PC even while a virtual image is activated. When you add to that the new ability of Windows 7 to mount VHD files as physical drives and even boot from VHDs, the world of Windows virtualization really starts to look like an awesome party.

But can you get pas the velvet rope? If you didn't already know, Windows 7 Virtual PC runs only on machines with hypervisor/hardware virtualization support. Oh, and it still doesn't support 64-bit guests. So even if you're running Windows 7 on the latest and greatest 64-bit hardware, you will not be able to run a 64-bit operating system within one of its virtual machines. And given the increasing number of Microsoft products, like Exchange 2007 and 2010, SharePoint 2010 and even Windows Server 2008 R2, that run only on the 64-bit OS platform, this is a big deal.

Back in 32-bit land, you'll still need hypervisor support on your CPU. And here's where that gets interesting: in most cases, it can be difficult to determine if a PC you're interested in buying has the hypervisor support or not. Unless you can get physical access to the machine and run Steve Gibson's nifty Secureable utility, you may be out of luck. It's rarely mentioned in the machine's specs. And even if you're comfortable researching it, as long as you know the precise CPU model in the machine, that won't always help you. Sometimes the CPU model information isn't available. And even when it is, the OEM may have decided to disable the hypervisor support in its particular machines. Or it may be disabled by default in the BIOS settings.

How could this be, even in a time when virtualization is all the rage? I can't say for sure. But this is a prime example of Microsoft needing to corral its OEMs with greater agility and authority. Would it have been that hard to get Intel, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus and their resellers to agree to a standard designation of “virtualization capable” to make it easier for PC buyers to know the virtualization capabilities of their new PCs?

I think not. And even if you believe that almost all CPUs will be hypervisor-enabled within a year, that still doesn't help people now. Nor will it help those buying ever-more-common refurb units that will buck trends given their older hardware. I hope the industry can get it together and make a PC's virtualization capabilities discoverable, and easily so. The companies that do this right will win friends amongst tech influentials. The companies that don't leave themselves vulnerable.

Posted on 11/02/2009 at 1:15 PM3 comments


PowerPivot Gets Multi-Vendor Support

PowerPivot is the newly announced name for Microsoft's (not yet released) self-service analytics product, formerly code-named "Gemini." PowerPivot brings the power of OLAP analytics to end-users, by allowing them to create their own data models, drawing from conventional data warehouses as well as flat files, spreadsheets and even data feeds and reports. It then allows for sophisticated drill-down analysis in Excel 2010 itself, which will feature a new "Slicer" element in its user interface, essentially allowing for easy dimensional filtering.

That's cool enough on its own, but PowerPivot also allows for such Excel-based BI solutions to be published to SharePoint and shared amongst colleagues, who can work with the model, interactively, in the browser, thanks to SharePoint 2010's Excel Services facility. The creator of the solution can even configure scheduled data refreshes to prevent the solution's data from becoming stale and obsolete (and that's an issue with almost all "spreadmart" solutions). All of this allows spreadsheet solutions to be shared, but prevents users from creating their own private version of the data (another common spreadmart pitfall), because the spreadsheet is stored centrally and is, effectively, read only.

But there's a hidden gem in all of this: when the PowerPivot solution is published to SharePoint, it becomes, in effect, a SQL Server Analysis Services cube. That's because the engine servicing the queries and drill downs on the server-side is a specialized version of Analysis Services, premised on a new column-oriented, in-memory storage technology. Any client tool capable of talking to Analysis Services, or any server capable of using Analysis Services as a data source, will be able to do likewise with PowerPivot.

That's not just versatile, that's downright ingenious. Because a number of third parties make Analysis Services client tools. And even more important, a number of Microsoft's BI marketplace competitors work with Analysis Services, and therefore will work with PowerPivot, too. Specifically, IBM/Cognos, Oracle/Hyperion, SAP/Business Objects, Microstrategy, Information Builders and Tableu will all work with server-side PowerPivot solutions once the product is released. That list represents virtually every major commercial BI vendor, with the notable exception of QlikTech, whose QlikView product PowerPivot will compete against most directly.

The fact that PowerPivot will work with competitors' tools, and the fact that it's based on Excel and SharePoint, which many non-MS BI shops use anyway, could make for huge early adoption of the product. It could also mean that the self-service BI phenomenon could catch on in a big way and prove to be disruptive across the industry, rather than exclusively within the realm of Microsoft's BI customers. I'm not sure if this "inherited" industry support was an intended consequence by Microsoft or an unintended one, but it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that Microsoft will be empowering a number of other companies' customers by lowering their barrier of entry to BI. Insightful indeed.

Posted on 10/30/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Win7 vs. Vista: It's a Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Windows Vista is the OS everyone loved to hate. Its replacement by Windows 7 is welcomed by just about everyone, and the initial reviews are excellent. Thank goodness. But let's not let this go unanalyzed. The OS formerly known as "Beasta" is dead, but a post mortem is necessary.

Let's be factual about matters: when run on a decent PC (by late-2006 standards), that was designed for it, with the OS and all drivers pre-installed, Vista ran just fine, especially the 64-bit version. Yes, Vista used a lot of memory and CPU. Yes, file copy operations were slow before SP2. User Account Control prompts were burdensome and annoying (and sometimes there was a longish pause between screen blackout and prompt pop-up). And I never enjoyed the game of Windows Explorer roulette, wherein the particular view an Explorer window might display when opened was unknown. Especially since the odds of winning seemed to heavily favor the house. Vista had its flakey factor; no question.

But, I'll say it again: on the right hardware, Vista ran fine. Is "fine" (and flakey) good enough to succeed in a market where everyone thought XP was already quite good? Well, no, it's not. And when you add the mishaps encountered in running Vista as an upgrade on older hardware designed for XP, it's no wonder the OS became a laughing stock. But the fact remains that much of the hateful criticism hurled at Vista was unfounded. It's fine to say you didn't like Vista. It's quite another to say it was horrible.

This is especially true given that many of the same people who derided Vista, and who passionately proclaimed the vast superiority of the Mac OS over it, are now singing the praises of Windows 7, utterly abandoning their zealous anti-Windows rhetoric reserved for the last release. Yes, Windows 7 runs great on old machines and Netbooks. It looks nice, and things like the Taskbar and Jump Lists are good productivity features. The UAC prompts are less obtrusive, Libraries are helpful and the media features are neat. The pre-beta of Windows 7 seemed to run more stably that the original RTM release of Vista. The product team was very well run. OEMs were better-managed and the quality of their drivers at launch was far superior than for Vista. Having 8 million beta testers didn't hurt either.

Windows 7's development was exemplary. No argument. But this still doesn't explain the exuberance around Windows 7 by some of its predecessor's most virulent detractors. In fact, with apologies to Alan Greenspan, we might call the exuberance downright irrational.

Does anyone remember the "Mojave Experiment?" This was a stealth market research effort by Microsoft wherein random PC users were shown what (they were told) was a new version of Windows code-named Mojave. But they were, in fact, just running Vista. The overwhelming feedback from participants was positive. Microsoft thought this outcome was striking, significant, and even somewhat humorous. Tech wonks everywhere thought the campaign was carried out in bad taste and proved nothing.

If at first you don't succeed... reconfigure your campaign. I see Windows 7 as Stage II of the Mojave experiment. The new OS is built on the same codebase as Vista... but that code has been refined, the process around it was much better controlled and the fit and finish of the OS is nearly flawless.

That's probably not unlike the original Mojave experiment's circumstances: I am certain the machines used in Mojave sessions were beefy, with fully compatible drivers, optimized configurations, lots of RAM and sufficient hard disk. So the OS ran well. And the people showing it were able to highlight its advances over Windows XP. We're all Mojave 2.0 users now. But we're viewing it in a different light than we did Mojave 1.0.

I don't think that's surprising. People were ready to like Windows again, they desperately wanted a clean slate, and so they got it. But make no mistake; they're judging Windows 7 under a different standard than they did Vista... a double standard. Microsoft should learn that errors in execution will subject it to such double standards and negative perceptions in general. Redmond has only itself to blame.

Hopefully some analysts and customers will eventually acknowledge that double standards are not rigorous standards, nor are they intellectually defensible. Mojave 2.0 is better than 1.0, but hardly to the degree proclaimed.

Posted on 10/27/2009 at 1:15 PM14 comments


Windows 7 Launch: A Winner Hits the Channel

I attended the Windows 7 launch today, and the success of the product really hit close to home. I mean that literally, as the launch event itself was held in a NYC loft space that was walking distance from my home. But I mean it figuratively as well, because I think this version of Microsoft's client operating system, and the company's confidence and pride around it, harkens back to a time, toward the beginning of my career, when Windows really excited people and created a buzz.

Tech commentator luminaries, like John Dvorak, were in attendance at the launch, as was just about every Microsoft "beat" reporter from the industry press. It didn't stop there though; mainstream news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press, were covering the event too. And I dare say everyone in the room was impressed with the product, including hipster tech bloggers, from whom I took more than a little satisfaction, as I watched them typing furiously on their Macs with excitement over Windows 7.

Visual Studio Magazine News Editor Jeffrey Schwartz attended as well. You can read his coverage here.

The event kicked off with "Kylie" (who, at five and a half years old, is probably the youngest person on TV to exclaim "I'm a PC") introducing Steve Ballmer, then bantering with him and chiding him for the late arrival of his flight into NYC. From there, SteveB spoke beamingly of the newest version of his company's flagship product.

But Steve kept his words brief and really shined the spotlight on Windows 7. He brought colleagues on to do impressive demos, including of the new Windows-based Amazon Kindle e-book reader software, and a slew of home media tricks like a single Dell machine sending distinct, high-def video content to something like 12 different widescreen TVs.

Newfound Confidence
Following the stage show, though, was probably the best part of the event: a curtain opened to reveal an entire showroom full of OEM hardware, including notebooks, netbooks, gamer rigs and even TVs powered by Windows 7. A Microsoft spokesman demoed it all and attendees were invited to follow them around. After the formal keynote ended, everyone was encouraged to try out all the hardware themselves.

This was no ordinary Microsoft launch. The star of the show wasn't Ballmer. It wasn't even Microsoft. And in a sense, it wasn't even Windows 7, at least not in isolation. Instead, It was the diverse variety of stylishly-designed products (yes, I said "stylishly") from numerous companies that were ready to run Windows 7 at launch. And given a number of these products are offered at price points below $500, Apple got a double-whammy today. And Microsoft presented it all with confidence sufficient to allow attendees more unfiltered hands-on time with the product than was devoted to the structured demo and presentation.

Earlier in the week, I attended Microsoft's other victory party, the 2009 SharePoint Conference, as detailed in my two previous posts (SharePoint Conference: The Developer Story and Of Data and BI). That the two events overlapped and both occurred in the space of four days may make this one of Microsoft's best weeks ever. And that's nice to see.

My travel itinerary yesterday involved a trek out of the (Las Vegas) desert and back home. And today it felt like Microsoft emerged from the desert and returned home as well. And while there's plenty more work for Redmond to do, let's see if this week can provide a suitable foundation for more comeback achievements.

Posted on 10/23/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments


SharePoint Conference 2009: Of Data and BI

Day 2 of the SharePoint Conference 2009 has just about come and gone, and I've shifted my focus from yesterday's pure developer angle to topics of data and business intelligence. And there has been a lot to see. I'm sitting in the last session of the day, attending the "Business Intelligence Power Hour" and began the day with an in-depth look at SharePoint's Business Connectivity Services (BCS, formerly known as the Business Data Catalog, or BDC).

I work very closely with Microsoft Business Intelligence tools and members of the MS BI team, so I've known for some time that the entire MS BI presentation layer strategy has been based on a move to SharePoint. We began to see this with SharePoint 2007, which incorporated the new Excel Services features, hosted PerformancePoint Server and optionally integrated SQL Server Reporting Services and ReportBuilder. With SharePoint 2010, all this remains and deepens, and is enhanced by the addition of Visio Services (which allows for shared, data-connected diagrams) and PowerPivot (formerly code-named "Gemini"), which is a full self-service, in-memory BI product that uses Excel for constructing content and SharePoint for, well, sharing it.

But I knew all that already. What I didn't know was that the former BDC, a somewhat niche feature of SharePoint that connected it, in a read-only fashion, to back-end data sources would graduate to the new BCS, which turns SharePoint and, along with it, Office 2010, into a full-fledged platform for creating simple browser-and-client, occasionally-connected CRUD (create, read, update and delete) applications, connected to virtually any database.

Not enough? How about the ability to "shred" your Reporting Services reports, and their constituent tables, matrices, charts, gauges and (new) maps, into separate components that can be shared and reused? And remember Access? That iconic stalwart of end-user database management? Well, it too can publish its databases to SharePoint, wherein its tables become SharePoint lists and its reports can be viewed online.

What's going on here exactly? And what does this do for Microsoft in the competitive marketplace? I tend to think the rise of Open Source Web content management applications like Drupal and Joomla!, and their ability to be used as functional business application platforms (with a little help from some custom PHP code) is egging Microsoft on here. Customers don't wish to pay for custom development of simple data maintenance apps, and the Open Source content management systems have ridden this wave to great success. Plus, they're free. But for many corporate users, SharePoint is effectively free too (because it's already deployed in their enterprises) so why shouldn't Microsoft make SharePoint serve as a data platform on its own?

Don't answer that. It's a rhetorical question. We've seen throughout the years that most business apps are data apps. Now we're seeing that SharePoint, the portal, collaboration and content management system for businesses, is a data platform too.

Posted on 10/21/2009 at 1:23 PM0 comments


SharePoint Conference 2009: The Developer Story

As I write this, Day 1 of the Microsoft SharePoint Conference 2009 is almost over. The conference is impressive. There are over 7400 people in attendance, a number that represents 92% growth over last year and which tops this year's Tech*Ed and MIX attendance combined. All this in a year when most events' attendance is way down.

That should tell you something about SharePoint, and should explain why Steve Ballmer, in his keynote at the conference this morning, said (1) he wasn't going to start this keynote by talking about the economy and (2) that SharePoint is a product he loves to talk about. It's obvious SharePoint is one of those things in Microsoft's product portfolio, and in the industry in general, that's doing really, really well. And there's not too many of those just now.

There's a party going on here in Las Vegas, literally: tomorrow night's conference “beach party” will be the Mandalay Bay hotel's largest ever. SharePoint defies economic gravity and it's becoming pervasive in the corporate world. And, when SharePoint Online 2010 and the Office Web apps (which sit on top of SharePoint) become available next year, it could also take off for small business and maybe catch some consumer love too. That makes for a huge market and that's good for developers.

But it's not all fun and beach games. Microsoft now has an important challenge that could make it a victim of its own success: SharePoint developers, good ones anyway, continue to be in short supply. And while that may seem good for those developers, it threatens SharePoint's long-term viability, and thus their own. Because if a high developer barrier to entry remains for a product that is becoming pervasive, that pervasiveness might peak pretty early.

So what is Microsoft doing about it? What I learned today is that they're doing a lot. For example, they're adding Business Connectivity Services to connect to external data in a straightforward way, REST APIs to allow external systems to connect to SharePoint more easily, a SharePoint-specific LINQ interface to make server-side SharePoint development a snap, and a developer dashboard feature for diagnosing all kinds of programmer-relevant information.

And beyond what's being added to the product itself, the most important developer accommodation has finally been made: The Visual Studio and SharePoint teams have collaborated to produce a premier development environment. Team Foundation Server support. SharePoint Workflow designer support. Visual Web Parts that get built like ASP.NET User Controls. Support for Service Applications. And full deployment support, including deployment of so-called Sandbox Solutions, that can run in a safe, trial environment before being activated. Plus, from what I can tell, much of this will work with SharePoint 2010 Online (the SharePoint cloud offering) as well.

SharePoint is maturing and so is SharePoint development. And developers should get in while the gettin' is good: the tools are productive and the and the market shortage is still acute. Plus, the 2010 product wave is the one where Microsoft finally seems to have embraced the browser, and done so in a way that will sync with their cloud strategy. This alignment of circumstances is rare and should be exploited quickly.

Microsoft isn't Google. Nor are they Apple. Microsoft is still the company whose base franchise is Windows and Office. But SharePoint seems to be the product that allows them to make peace with their traditional underpinnings, while extending those core strengths to more modern channels. SharePoint lives in the browser and plays in the cloud. But it's a tool for office workers, and as Steve Ballmer said during his keynote today, "SharePoint's becoming a platform just like the OS."

Works for me, and I expect it should continue to work for Microsoft, for quite some time. Should work for developers too.

More tomorrow.

Posted on 10/20/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Getting Ready to Share

This is my 100th post to this blog, but it's also, in a real sense, my first. That's because, starting now, my blog will be syndicated on RedDevNews.com and VisualStudioMagazine.com, the same sites that carry my monthly column, Redmond Review.

For those who haven't read my posts or columns before, allow me to present a quick intro. (For everyone else, go ahead and skip to the next paragraph.) My name is Andrew Brust, and I'm a Microsoft MVP and Regional Director. I don't work for Microsoft -- they've just assigned me and about 140 other enthusiasts in their circle, around the world, that title. I've been a practitioner, writer, speaker and entrepreneur in the Microsoft ecosystem for about 15 years. Much has changed with Microsoft and its technologies in that time, but a surprising number of patterns and phenomena in Microsoft's strategy, product cycles, PR and marketing plans have remained remarkably consistent. Some of those similarities, and some of the differences, are good for Microsoft and its customers; some less so. A while back, I made it my hobby to opine on Microsoft product developments and market moves, mostly through frequent quotes in the tech industry press. And about a year ago, I formalized this practice by starting to write Redmond Review. The problem with starting the column has been that, frankly, I have given it much more attention than this blog.

By getting my blog in front of the same online readers as the column, I have more than ample motivation to post often and, in effect, make the blog a extension of the column, where I can cover highly current topics, without the dual challenges of press lead time and word count limits.

One such current topic, and a decent justification for this post's cheesy title, is Microsoft's SharePoint Conference, which starts this Monday, October 19th, in Las Vegas. This is the preview party for SharePoint 2010. Although the product won't ship until, most likely, the summer of next year, we'll learn a ton about it this week. We'll also learn much more about Office 2010 and the Office Web apps. SharePoint's market is quite big (Microsoft said a while back that it's a billion dollar annual business for them) and it's getting even bigger. The product's penetration within corporate customers is proving a formidable analog to that of Lotus Notes in the 1990s. So this show will be a very important one for Microsoft, and that's why I am attending it, for the first time.

The SharePoint show will also cover the next wave of Microsoft's Business Intelligence (BI) stack, which combines SharePoint and Office 2010 with the upcoming SQL Server 2008 R2. Since Microsoft decided to forego holding its standalone BI conference this year, the SharePoint show serves as the de facto BI show too. This is of huge interest to me, as my firm, twentysix New York, specializes in Microsoft BI and I sit on Redmond's BI Partner Advisory Council (PAC). In fact, the PAC is meeting over the weekend on-site in Las Vegas, so the next several days will be a real BI festival.

I'm psyched for the conference and excited to be covering it for a broad audience. So I'll be posting a daily summary of the SharePoint Conference here on Monday and Tuesday nights. Catch it at RedDevNews.com, VisualStudioMagazine.com or, of course, my blog's home at brustblog.com. And if you'd like live coverage of the conference keynotes, just follow me (@andrewbrust) on Twitter. The tweets will provide factual coverage of the keynote announcements. The blog posts will analyze those and other of the day's announcements in more depth.

I hope my missives from the show will be helpful to you, and a fun read. For the SharePoint show at least, what happens in Vegas will not stay there.

Posted on 10/19/2009 at 1:15 PM0 comments


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