Q&A: Driving Customer Connections

LAS VEGAS, Nev., March 20, 2006 — With the proliferation of new tools, frameworks, and styles of Web development, the opportunity to deliver new and unique experiences over the Web has never been greater.

Tim O’Brien, Group Manager, Microsoft Platform Strategy

This week at the MIX06 Conference in Las Vegas, Web developers and designers are exploring how to build more interactive and responsive experiences that take full advantage of the capabilities of the Web, as well as the myriad of digital touch points that consumers use every day, from the Web to the PC to the mobile phone.

To learn more, PressPass spoke with Tim O’Brien, group manager, Microsoft Platform Strategy, about Microsoft’s Web technology offerings and how they are enabling developers and designers to create more dynamic “customer connections.”

PressPass: Why is the ‘user experience’ suddenly back in vogue?

O’Brien: A look back is often helpful to set some context about what the future holds, and that’s certainly the case with the Web. Just seven or eight years ago, the rapid rise of the Internet sent businesses far and wide on a mad scramble to “out-reach” their competitors via the Internet. If you had a Web presence, you had reach, and you had a leg up on your competitors. But now everyone has a Web site, and as broadband adoption and Web usage continues to grow, the differentiator is no longer just having a site, but how you make your Web experience better than the next guy’s. Creating customer connections is really at the root of the phenomenon that’s happening as we speak – the resurgence of the customer experience as a means to find, retain, and interact with customers in a uniquely differentiated way.

And, this isn’t exclusive to the Web. Companies today are thinking beyond the browser in terms of how you enhance the customer experience. You can see this at work today in all the toolbars, the deskbars, the sidebars, the widgets and the gadgets — all client applications, mostly coming from Web-based businesses.

PressPass: What kind of investments has Microsoft already made in this area?    

O’Brien: Microsoft has and will continue to innovate in the Web platform and across a broad range of Web technologies. Today at MIX06, we announced the availability of a Community Technology Preview (CTP) for “Atlas,” our framework to enable AJAX-style Web development. Included with the “Atlas” CTP is a Go Live license, which enables developers to use it for Web applications in production. We are also giving attendees an up-close look at the Internet Explorer 7 with the release of an updated version of Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 preview for Windows XP, giving Web site and application developers the opportunity to test their sites and applications with the latest build of the technology before it is released.

Today’s announcements build on Microsoft’s ongoing investments in our Web platform. For example, at our Professional Developers Conference this past September we announced the Expression tools for graphic design, which will integrate the designer-developer workflow that today is simply disconnected. We also shipped ASP.NET 2.0 just this past November, and this year will see the release of Windows Presentation Foundation with Windows Vista. Our investments in software-based services, including Windows Live and Office Live really extend our end to end platform offering in a pretty comprehensive way.

PressPass: Can you tell us about the scope of companies participating in MIX06?

We are excited to have a host of customers, partners and other industry players, including big consumer brands, media companies, design firms, start-ups and on-line marketing companies. Amongst the companies showing off some of the great customer experience work they have done with the Microsoft platform include Amazon, BBC, eBay, Fluid, MySpace, Avenue ARazorfish, REZN8 and Yahoo. Many of the sessions at MIX06 are actually presented by these other companies, not Microsoft.

PressPass: What is it about Really Simple Syndication (RSS) that businesses on the Web should be getting excited about?

O’Brien: The RSS platform is really going to be exciting. The arrival of Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 7 will help take RSS to a much broader set of people and make it easier to use overall. So if you’re a Web developer and you’ve really embraced the notion of content syndication and programmatic interfaces with customers, what you need right now are sockets to plug into. When you look at the popularity of Windows and Internet Explorer, the sockets amount to literally hundreds of millions. That becomes very interesting if you’re Web developer — you’ve got a huge addressable market you can interact with. You couldn’t do this before when RSS was an “early technology.”

The question here isn’t whether RSS has passed the relevance test, but rather how disruptive it will be to Web businesses, and which of them will adapt and thrive by programmatically interacting with customers and successfully syndicating their content.

PressPass: Microsoft is clearly addressing both Web developers and Web designers. Do you think the boundary between the two groups is blurring?

O’Brien: The industry has always faced this challenge — designers come up with an innovative user interface, only to see their creativity often get lost in the software implementation. We set out to bridge that gap with XAML, and now the Expression tools, bringing together the designer-developer workflow. It’s an important part of our tools strategy. The two groups have attempted to work more closely for some time, but there hasn’t been a common tools platform to integrate the way the two groups work together. The common thread to overcoming this challenge is making sure the design capabilities are implemented in the software.

That’s why we’re calling the event MIX. Right now the Web is in this interesting place where all the barriers and boundaries between things are starting to get a bit mixed up: what’s the difference between a technology company and a media company? What’s the difference between a designer and a developer? What’s the difference between a PC and a TV? These questions are all extremely relevant right now.  

PressPass: So why should Web developers and designers choose the Microsoft platform?

O’Brien: First and foremost, it’s really about breadth of platform, historically for developers, but now for designers as well. ASP.NET is an extremely popular platform for Web development today, and we’ve built on that foundation with ASP.NET 2.0 and now “Atlas.” From a designer’s standpoint, the opportunity to bridge the gap between design and development is super compelling, and the feedback we’ve gotten thus far on our Expression efforts are really helping us shape what we ultimately take to market into a unique and comprehensive set of tools. We want Web designers and developers to know that we are not only committed in terms of platform investment, but are focused on delivering software that helps bring to life what companies want to achieve from a business perspective. 

PressPass: It seems we’re seeing more and more Web experiences extending beyond just the browser. Will that trend grow over time?

O’Brien: If you think about the Web experience today, there are a number of different paths it can take, and they’re not necessarily divergent. Everyone agrees that the browsing experience needs to get better, and we’re enabling that with “Atlas” and Internet Explorer 7. But we’re seeing Web-based businesses extend their content and service offerings beyond the browser and onto client devices like the PC, the phone, the media center/TV, and the game console. At one end of the spectrum, you have this proliferation of deskbars, sidebars, toolbars, gadgets, and widgets — these are all client applications, and it seems that Web-based businesses are the ones leading the charge to put them on your PC. At the other end, you have extremely rich client applications that take full advantage of the hardware graphics capabilities of computers already in the market. If each of these form factors represents an opportunity for you to digitally connect with your customer, then the notion of driving your experience and interaction across all of them, both in the browser and on the client, makes a lot of sense.

PressPass: So what’s the most important challenge to Web developers and designers over the coming year?

O’Brien: The key challenge is building applications that elevate experiences. Meaning, using the Web to find, retain and interact with customers in new and different ways. Just having the reach of the Web used to be good enough, but now it’s about differentiating your customer interaction by taking the user experience to the next level — inside the browser and out to the vast array of client devices that customers use every day. The companies that recognize this and do it well are the ones that are going to succeed. We want to provide them the tools and technologies to help them get there.

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