February, 2007

Nigel Parker's Outside Line

Juxtaposing the web, media and mobile for New Zealand developers.
  • Nigel Parker's Outside Line

    My Tech.Ready (Well at least the parts I can talk about)

    • 5 Comments

    I'm starting my long flight home from Seattle to Auckland. Please join me for another long convoluted post about this week abroad all written and linked while disconnected from the Internet ;)

    Each year technical Microsoft staff that are based out in the field fly to Seattle to attend a week long technical breifing. The briefings takes place twice a year and unfortunately I have got myself into the winter cycle. That said the weather has been great! I'm sitting in Seattle airport watching the sun set over the snow capped mountains and there is hardly a cloud in the sky.

    The purpose of the briefing is for us to network with others doing the same job in other countries, to learn from product teams and to feed back customer information that we have encountered in our geographies.

    This event is the pre-cursor to public events like Mix and PDC where many of the technologies we are discussing are seen in public for the first time.

    So what are some of the stats for this year's event?

    There were 6000 people in the keynote on Monday morning, there were ~700 session with >35 sessions running concurrently in each timeslot.

    Since every session was recorded and streamed around the company worldwide in real time. This conference became the largest live meeting site in the world.

    I made an effort to track down, see sessions and introduce myself to some of Microsofts new hires during the week.

    I very much enjoyed Will Tschumy's (Ex Director User Experience for Flock) session on brokering the User Experience conversation with developers. Ethnography was mentioned more than once but the general principal here was that if you invest in UX upfront in a project it is much cheaper and easier than making changes later. The more time I spend with User Experience people the more I am convinced about this... if you are in Auckland on March 15 you might like to attend Intergen's twighlight event "Why User Experience and Usability are important to businesses online". Also I recommend reading Allan Cooper's "About Face 2.0" as a great introduction to the principals of User Experience.

    I attended an architecture de-brief for the Otto project. This is a client based e-commerce store that extends Otto's web site to offer a premium service to their customers (similar to the New York Times reader). This was very insightful particular as we learnt how the project was designed by a German pioneer design company SinnerSchrader. Since showing this project at the Windows Vista consumer launch in Europe Otto has received many requests by other online and catalog retailers to license the engine they have built for their own WPF based client stores. If you have .Net 3.0 installed or are running Vista check out the Otto Store here (warning takes a long time for the inital catalog to be downloaded and cached locally and at the last stage they have there window on top of other windows which is annoying). I took a couple of screen shots of Otto in action below.

    Watch Videos of models wearing the clothes... Add Clothes to your wardrobe and dress your model up with the clothes that you choose.

    The store is harder to navigate if you don't understand German but a couple of things to note, all the images in the offline store are syncronised with images available on their website and are simply presented in a different way. The catalog is "updated" from the web each time you open it. The 'Mix n Match' (shown above) allows you to experiment and dress the model with different outfits as you browse the store. If you've read 'the long tail' you'll realise what Otto are doing here. They are using a smarter UI to make their catalog more accessible to their customers so that they can sell their products further down the tail thus creating a competitive advantage in a world where shelf space isn't limited and your preferences can be visually served up front and centre.

    Bill Gates' presentation on Wednesday was very good. I have seen Bill speak at conferences a few times now and this was IMO indeed his best work. It was a very forward thinking presentation he talked about Microsoft Research and some of the projects that moved out of the research labs into commercial projects. It was interesting to hear about the tablet PC's begining in research and that there are more than two million tablet PC's sold world-wide. I've mentioned many times that I love my tablet. This morning I downloaded todays New York Times into the reader & used pen flicks to turn the pages reading in portrait mode in the tiny seats as I flew into San Fran. I couldn't help but smile when I saw others struggling with paper newspapers in the same seats! Incidentally I learnt this week that the Ny Times are now getting more page views in the reader than on their website!

    Bill also talked about Moores Law and how the "free lunch" speed increases in our processors is coming to an end (possibly around 5GHZ) & how a much greater emphasis in the future will be put on writing parallel code for client machines running 8 or 16 core processors. Bill talked again about the concept of verifiable composability. In this brave new world we may need to go back to basics and re-invent the way we write software to take advantage of the multiple cores that are at our disposal. I couldn't help but be taken back to this post from a few weeks ago. It is no secret that Bill regards Ray Kurzweil as the greatest futurist of our time and he referenced his book 'The Singularity Is Near' during his presentation. Bill spoke with passion & genuine excitement of what is just around the corner in this fast moving technology age. Greater processing power on the client coupled with advanced virtualisation and the widespread adoption of services & backup in the cloud makes for a very interesting future indeed.

    Kevin Schofield, head of Microsoft research followed Bill Gates. MS research is this year celebrating their 15th Anniversary. Kevin showed some mind blowing innovation! If only half the things that Kevin showed cross the chasm and make their way into commercial innovation in the next 3 to 5 years the world will be a better place.

    I was very happy also to see the progress with WPF/E. Tooling is getting better for both the designer & the developer and there is a nice open jscript + XAML model available to try today in the browser & cross platform (yup search engines can index it!). Check out this site (click the left icon then use alt+v then c to view source if you are using IE7) that was built usign WPF/E as part of the Vista launch in Slovenia. There are some big new announcements coming up in this area at Mix so book your ticket to Vegas or check this site on April 30.

    On Wednesday night I went out with Tony Chor (Principal Group Program Manager Internet Explorer or 2IC for short). I must admit that I have been quite suprised by all the press (1, 2, 3) surrounding Robert's presentation at foo regarding Mozilla's proposed offline support for web applications. Juha wrote in his Friday fryup "I asked Nigel from Microsoft if Redmond had anything similar to this coming up, but it doesn’t look like it"... how can you take two unrelated comments like that & put them together? We are not talking about features/timelines/dates or codenames for the next version of IE just yet.

    What I can tell you... The IE team has more than 200 team members (sorry Asa I low balled that number when I talked to you at foo) they are absolutely taking the standards route welcome Molly and as I said in my previous post as the standards bodies are looking at offline caching the IE team is looking at it too. That said will any web developers actually write their applications to support the new offline capabilities if they are made available by the browsers? IE has had support for some of this for a long time in the form of the userData behavior which is used by Google but very few others. It isn’t quite as powerful as what the WhatWG has proposed here but it is pretty close. In addition to WhatWG Robert wrote... "The only really new API is an API for storing application pages in the "offline cache", and that's just a new "rel" keyword for the element. So it should be pretty easy to add this to any browser."

    I caution you all not to blow this up at such an early stage as this feature may not make it into the final build of FF (or IE)... does anyone remember places or winfs?

    If you are running on windows and want an offline version of your gmail today why not use Windows Live Mail Desktop, I love it and I use it to work with my hotmail account while offline.

    While we are back on the Windows client side at the launch of Vista Mary Jo Foley asked where are all the 3rd party Vista applications? In response Tim Sneath did a great job summarising a bunch of these (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8). Although this is a good selection it is by no means conclusive. One of the ones that I saw for the first time during this week was a "showcase " piece of art created by the leading design firm in Japan. they were experimenting with using 2D raster images in a 3D plane. This is what they came up with... .Net 3.0 runtime required... this is not a video click the camera icon then try interacting with the 3D environment by using the zoom controls while the animation is playing. Also I see Warner Brothers Japan has a Vista ap as well. 

    Another thing I did this week was spend quite a bit of time listening and talking to John Lam about dynamic languages and the web. John was the only presenter I saw running a Mac this week, I guess it's the best way to test cross platform. Again if you want to hear more go to Mix or check if out virtually late April. If you want to see what Microsoft is doing with dynamic languages today travel to http://asp.net/ironpython. It was great seeing Polita of "Blinq" fame involved in these presentations. What do you guys think about getting this team down to NZ and Australia for Tech.Ed?

    Thursday night was the party, it is a challenging task to feed and entertain 6000 people but the organisers did a great job of doing just that. Each different part of the warehouse on the pier was set up with food, music & dance from a different part of the world. I very much enjoyed the Jam session where anyone could pick up an instrument & get involved... some MS employees had some real talent here.

    For the keynote on Friday we were spoilt with a presentation by Chris Bangle (Director of Design at BMW). IMO Chris was brilliant & very inspiring (yes I know he has his critics). He started... I'd like to thank Microsoft for teaching me the secret of dreams. I now know that they are simply your brain defragging over night!

     

    Chris took us all In a very insightful journey of car design... he explained the visual language of the surface itself he explained how his designers learnt the skills of "industrial origami" and showed us new techniques st shaping steel in a way that it is asymmetric and creates an emotional connection. He took us through the 3 step design process that they employ at BMW (Understanding, Believing, Seeing). He talked about the importance of computer modelling in car design but he stressed that their modellers are clay sculptures first so that they don't forget that the computer is simply a tool. Virtual design is important but you must take your creation out into the wild at some stage to ensure that it speaks to your target audience. Also Chris is a strong believer in putting the best tools into the hands of the Consumer. Everyone can read & write but there are plenty of great authors still earning a crust. Chris believes in having a 'Consumer Dialog' joining humanism with industry and seeking consumer contribution in the process of design.

    I think Chris' presentation resonated with many in the room there is a real synergy with the design process at BMW and the sea change of user experience that is taking place at Microsoft. You just need to spend some time with products like Windows Vista, Blend and the 2007 Office System to experience the feeling that the software just fits and works with you.

    I am now inflight halfway home... I'm still handwriting in portrait mode. I have all my notes to reference. My email (hotmail included) is available cached offline (along with all the Rss feeds from the blogsphere from the last week or so). My complementary upgrade came through on Air NZ and I am for the first time stretched out in a sleeper seat. I ate a great meal, watched Babel and drank some fantastic wine. Whats more I have power! very important as I had to run from my Seattle flight to make this connection. All we need now is WiFi on air NZ and I could actually post this... goodnight :)

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