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Opinion: Gates' Tech-Ed Farewell

ORLANDO, FLA. -- Tuesday at TechEd 2008, Developer Edition, Bill Gates gave his last public speech as fulltime chairman of the Microsoft Corporation. Anticipation was high at the Orange County Convention Center, with a line forming at the keynote hall a couple of hours before the event. Everyone knew it was Gates’ last public speech before retiring to manage his and wife Melinda’s charitable foundation. It was sure to be a blockbuster!

Alas, it was not to be. Instead of delivering a blockbuster, Gates delivered a keynote typical TechEd keynote. It was as worthwhile to attend as previous keynotes, for the demos, silly videos and his thoughts of where we can and should go. Titled "Application Development Today and Tomorrow," he looked back, reviewed where we are today and provided some interesting insights into the future of what might be.

Surprisingly, there were no big announcements, other than fairly minor upcoming events like a new Silverlight 2.0 beta this week and a second beta of Internet Explorer 8 in August, two months away. Microsoft has a new partnership with IBM to integrate DB2 development into Visual Studio Team System Database Edition, and new partners for its Sync Framework. Useful information, perhaps, but not exactly earth shattering. To make matters worse, the delivery often seemed unrehearsed, when Gates and other speakers apparently just read from the monitors.

That’s not to say that he spoke of nothing interesting. The robotics demo was very cool, and the coming CTP of Velocity, the code name for a distributed, in-memory application cache platform, will provide a great enhancement to applications. Project Oslo, Microsoft’s long-overdue foray into a unified modeling platform, extends their support for the entire application lifecycle.

Bill Gates is in a unique position to provide insights into the history of computer technology. He talked about the advances of clock speeds and immense growth in cheap storage, describing how increases in clock speeds have leveled off but the number of processor execution units is increasing. This will continue to allow ever more powerful applications that will empower people, a long-standing Gates and Microsoft theme. As a resident of rural Alaska, I was interested in his comments about the ubiquity of broadband in urban areas, while a substantial portion of the earth’s population has limited or no connectivity. This means that it will be a long time before we can rely solely on applications that count on a fast Internet connection. He implied that this will get some attention as he tries to solve world problems using technology through his foundation. Gates is a master of the vision thing, and that showed through today.

I suspect that this will be the most often quoted part of the entire keynote: "It's the first time I've really changed my career since I was 17 years old." That’s quite a statement from the former Richest Person in the World.

He marveled a bit at the state of application development today. We have some amazing tools to write code and debug it, and a multitude of ways to deploy it wherever it needs to run. Recalling that Microsoft was founded on software written for the Altair that used switches and lights as its user interface and a miniscule amount of memory, he expressed envy at developers entering the field today. He observed how Microsoft was built on its strong relationship with and support for developers. It often took years of hard work to develop products and convince developers to write applications built on Microsoft technologies. But once they did, it meant almost sure success for the technology.

Diving into current and future technologies, Gates covered the presentation tier and brought up S. Somasegar to demo the latest whizbang application developed with Silverlight. I initially wrote off Silverlight as anything I’d be interested in, since I had my creative gene removed at birth and it seemed to only be for creating eye candy. But with a subset of the .NET Framework included in Silverlight 2.0, as a developer I just can’t ignore the benefit of making use of so much power on the client.

Given that, I am mystified at why Microsoft spends so much time showing off the pretty interface features of Silverlight while ignoring the power of having .NET behind the pretty face. This is particularly strange in front of a TechEd audience of thousands of developers.

Then Gates moved to the business logic layer, taking the opportunity to talk about tools and modeling for the tier that often has the most -- and most interesting -- code in an application. Project code-named Olso was the star here, which will provide an Architecture Explorer to help visualize code and its structure, and an Architecture Layer Diagram that describes the application as it was designed. The Team System group’s Brian Harry showed a cool demo of validating the design against the code to find linkages that violate the design that could cause maintenance and other nightmares over its lifetime.

Microsoft will have a CTP of Oslo available around PDC this fall.

For the data layer tier, Gates brought out SQL Server’s Dave Campbell to show off SQL Server’s Data Services, along with a bit of the Entity Framework. The Services tier got short shrift, with just a mention of WCF and the WS-* specifications and no demos.

The last demo of the morning was by far the coolest, even for a non-hardware person like me. Tandy Trower, the general manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group, described the Robotics Developer Toolkit and how its use by robotics engineers is growing. Then Patrick Deegan of the University of Massachusetts brought out the Ballmer-bot that reprised in recorded voice -- sigh -- Steve Ballmer’s developer, developer, developer chant. The robot itself, built with the Robotics Toolkit, was amazing in its smooth motion, wild arm movements and ability to balance itself on just two wheels, much like a Segway. Quite amazing. The only problem here is that there was a lot of talk about what the robot could do rather than having it do anything. Don’t just say it can throw eggs, folks! Have it throw some eggs! Bill Gates is used to being pelted by food items.

Gates followed up the keynote with about twenty minutes of Q&A. VBers will be encouraged by the answer to the first question about the future of VB. As he has consistently done for years, Gates expressed his strong support for the language and its place in Microsoft’s future. It has a central role and the company has a long-term commitment to it. Now, if the rest of the company would only follow his lead and stop sending signals that it is only a hobby language!

All in all, it was an interesting couple of hours, even lacking big announcements and a polished delivery. Microsoft is entering a new era as Bill Gates takes a diminishing role in the company. The world of computers and software is a different place because of this one person, an undeniable truth whether you think the world is better or worse off for his contributions. Microsoft is big and diverse enough to survive his reduced role, and I am looking forward to the new and better technologies to come in this new era.

About the Author

Don Kiely is a senior technology consultant in Fairbanks, Alaska. When he isn't writing software, he's writing about it, speaking about it at conferences, and training developers in it. Reach him at donkiely@computer.org.

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