Is Microsoft being responsibile with Mix and PDC?

I previously wondered whether Microsoft has the right Mix, i.e. whether it will present things that are good enough at the Mix07 conference starting this Monday April 30 2007.

The official site lists some of the things that will be presented at mix including: “Exciting new Web experiences with the still-secret “Technology X””

This leads me to the point that even after it’s sold out, Microsoft and it’s bloggers seem to take the “You have to be there” attitude about these occasions without disclosing what the cool stuff is. Perhaps this attitude has been started more on blogs than by Microsoft officially – it’s not like Ray Ozzie has blogged anything despite many saying he’s been working on something. Offering a free copy of Vista to attendees seems hardly enticing given that any enthusiast or developer will already have it, if not many licenses threw their existing partnership or subscriptions with Microsofot. Why don’t you tell me what kind of things you’re going to be revealing, and then I’ll decide whether it’s worth thousands in expenses and many thousands more in opportunity cost to be there? There doesn’t appear to be any hint of keynote streaming or other remote viewing offerings to Mix right now, although I’d be really surprised if the keynote isn’t available at least on-demand afterwards.

Yesterday I was searching for clues about the potential Mix announcements. I found this on Microsoft’s MSDN Channel 9 forum, where Robert Scoble gloats about having seen some small demo or other that no-one outside of Microsoft (including him) is supposed to see.

Other than a nasty personality clash (which I’ll talk more about in my next post), in that same thread there are comments about how forward-looking PDC and Mix are. The statement from the Microsoft camp seems to be that while there were many things talked about in bygone PDCs about Vista features that never made it, these demonstrations should have been taken lightly and just as a point for discussion. I would say that such a claim shows a lack of responsibility ownership by Microsoft to the same extent that is shown with excessive profanity in music leading youth, skinny models leading young girls in the fashion industry and powerful media outlets influencing the news.

OK, so it’s one Microsoft person giving this back peddling claim. In any case, Microsoft must surely realise how it strongly encourages developers to get involved with technologies it says (initially) should be in the next OS, and this means that developers commit not inconsiderable resources to learning these things and giving feedback.

I’m not sure that it’s made entirely clear to developers that the technologies presented up to, during, and after these events can really be so… disposable (particularly if one pays so much money to attend or buy a DVD of the proceedings).

I actually think Microsoft needs to be announcing some real launchable (non-beta) things at Mix – I don’t think credibility will be too high if all we hear are a few more ‘ideas’. I realise Bill Gates was no blogger, but Ray has had a false start or more where he’s initiated some potentially interesting ideas but not followed through for a long time with his blog. I know Expression is, um, kind of launched in pieces aswell as taking an awful long time, though it’s not surprising when there are no WPF UI design tools for Visual Studio.

I also wish Microsoft would stop using team members’ blogs as dissemination points for how-to topics and announcements for upcoming and released technologies, instead of having the stuff of MSDN where it should be. OK to be fair, those bloggers are doing (good for them) through the out-of-band channel, what Microsoft should be doing through the main channel (and with appropriate vapourware warnings).

I really do hope that Microsoft has some great services, technologies and tools to offer next week and that they are extremely clear about what is real, and what should come with a repeating disclaimer and big flashing warning lights.

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Does Microsoft have the Silverlight bullet?

Its prey is the Flash player (and possibly the design application). Flash is everywhere on the desktop.

Having said that, Macromedia would not (and still Adobe doesn’t) let ISVs distribute the player for mobile devices – end users have to dig on the website for it themselves. Device manufacturers can however, come to a bundle arrangement. Despite this, mobile applications like FlashThemes (a great animated theming application for Pocket PCs which is a today screen plug in), and FlashThemes Pro (it’s bigger brother that takes over the today screen) are thriving.

This is stuff FlashThemes can do today on mobile device with flash!

FlashThemes player (using Flash) showing an animated Today Screen on a Pocket PC device running Windows mobile
FlashThemes player (using Flash) showing an animated Today Screen on a Pocket PC device running Windows mobile
FlashThemesPro player (using Flash) showing a replacement fully animated Today Screen on a Pocket PC device running Windows Mobile
FlashThemesPro player (using Flash) showing a replacement fully animated Today Screen on a Pocket PC device running Windows Mobile

Why am I mentioning mobile devices?

Microsoft says this is a “cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivery the next generation of media experiences and rich interactive applications for the web”, but apparently nolonger cross device?!

In fact, let’s look at the FAQ on the Silverlight website…
Q:”Which devices will be supported?”
A:”Device platforms are being considered based on customer feedback”

Microsoft showed WPF/E (that’s Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere), now “Silverlight”, over a year ago running on a Pocket PC device with the Windows Mobile OS. I was interested.

At least it’s cross-browser and runs on other platforms… OK just one – it supports Mac with Safari… but wait, not with Opera.

Want more WOW starts now? Go to the Silverlight website. Tell me it looks wicked awesome with that immersive cyberspace 3D stuff. Um… no. It’s based on a subset of WPF which only includes 2D support, so that video you saw is bogus. It’s a little like buying Windows Vista Basic and finding out you don’t get that one Flip 3D trick you saw on the TV commercial.

Well, at least it’s free, so it should be easy to distribute. Probably a Windows Update if Microsoft wants to get it out there quickly. If not, then it may be harder to proliferate. The new (and good) security in Windows Vista means that you need to elevate to an admin user to install it, which may present a barrier for adoption. When Flash came along years ago, lots of consumers were merrily running 95/ME/XP as admin users and it was very easy to install Flash.

The new website sadly presents the same tired-looking demos. Where’s the Microsoft equivalent of Flash (the design application, not the player)? The site mentions tools like those in Expression Studio and Visual Studio (which seems more like marketing for those tools) – there doesn’t seem to be any specific tool add-ons to make the design experience work. This is not surprising given that Visual Studio will not have designer support for the full WPF platform (released last November, alongside Vista) until probably this November.

If Microsoft really wants this to be the Silverlight bullet, it needs to have this running on mobile devices to make it permeate every aspect of the new consumer age. This means having it run on Symbian based devices. Take PhoneThemes.

PhoneThemes player (not using Flash) showing an animated theme on a Symbian Series 60-based phone
PhoneThemes player (not using Flash) showing an animated theme on a SmartPhone form-factor device running Windows Mobile

This is an animated theming application and DRM-protected distribution platform for mobile phones (Windows Mobile-based PDAs and phones or Symbian-based phones). It doesn’t use Flash and it can now run on even the older Symbian 40 Series devices.

Can Microsoft make Silverlight work on these devices and make an Adobe killer? Given the spin about video interaction they are singing, it’s unlikely these devices will hold up performance-wise. That makes it a race with new devices. Microsoft needs to get behind its device manufacturer partners and allow ISVs to distribute (or at least link in the installer from the web) before Adobe does a deal with someone like Nokia that wipes out Silverlight before it’s properly lit.

Windows Procrastination Foundation (WFP)

Windows Vista was released on Nov 30 for businesses – OK about time
.NET framework 3.0 was included which includes the runtime for the Windows Presentation Foundation – it is also available as a download for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 – lovely
Visual Studio 2005 has no designer support for WFP 4 months later – hoorah, oh… what? really?

Hard to believe that one of the huge fanfare technologies of Windows Vista has no serious tool support isn’t it? Well there’s Notepad and the erm… XAMLPad… and… 3rd party tools and convertors…

So when will there be Microsoft support for WFP?
Well there was a Nov CTP of designer support in VS 2005 but the download page is quick to mention that it make not be the same as the final support in Visual Studio codenamed Orcas.
When can I get Orcas? That’s due um… sometime later in 2007, with a March 2007 CTP available. So I’d need to use a less than beta version to get that support.

So I’m now left to consider things like Flash, Direct3D or some serious owner-drawing for a funky interface.

Wait, do I even want a funky interface? Perhaps all that UI consistency that Microsoft has instilled with their many UI design guideline documents will go out the window.

Well, it would make some pretty kiosk and web-launched applications (if everyone has Vista or the .NET 3.0 runtime download installed that is).

Oh well…

SQL Server 2005 Integration Services – Not bad

I have colleagues that have been using this for 8 months or so, and I just took the dive into using it properly myself yesterday.

SQL Server 2005 Integration Services is part of the Business Intelligence set of SQL tools that replaced DTS packages from SQL Server 2000. It’s heart is in the right place, but it’s definately a V1 product.

I should have probably looked at the Adventure Works samples because it wasn’t easy to get into. However, once you figure out what all the bundled task and data flow tools do, you are ready to go…

Well almost:

  • the designer interface is slow (even on an fast machine)
  • error messages are all horribly truncated with the hover tool tips not being too helpful
  • the debugging is pretty bad in terms of being able to really see what’s going on
  • it’s possible to get items corrupted in which case you need to delete, reinsert and reconfigure

However, it is doing the job I want it to do – create a data warehouse from database, webservice and CSV sources using excel reference data – put it’s a little painful at times. Getting the security right to run one of these packages in SQL is also a fun configuration job. Of course, I can create custom tasks and data flow items if I want to which is a plus.

I admit to not yet having installed SQL Server 2005 SP2 and Visual Studio 2005 SP1, so I’ll give those a go.

I’m about to shift to Vista and I know SP2 is needed (plus a hot fix) to make scripted tasks work in the new OS.

I’m wondering whether they will replace the control takes with Windows Workflow Foundation at some point. I can see how needs could have arisen simultaneously but that either the fit or the timing wasn’t quite right…