REDMOND, Wash. – Nov. 17, 2008 — Like most of the developers and other technology professionals who attended the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2008, held at the Los Angeles Staples Center Oct. 27-30, Dan Rigsby attended to see the latest from Microsoft and rub elbows with Microsoft’s technology leaders.
But equally important was the chance to catch up with peers, and meet some new ones. “It’s a great place to build up relationships with people I may only have met online,” says Rigsby, Lead Software Engineer at Interactive Intelligence, an Indianapolis-based firm that develops call center software. “I got to meet a lot of people that I knew online through Facebook and other sites, and I saw a lot of Microsoft people I may have met in forums or online.”
For the 6,500 developers who attended PDC2008, the event is one of the tech highlights whenever it’s offered. But along with the usual networking, this year’s PDC also was the site of some major announcements from Microsoft. These include the Azure Services Platform, which extends Windows and an array of services such as Microsoft SQL Services and Microsoft .NET Services in the “cloud,” and also a first look at the new features of Windows 7 as well as Office 14, (code name of the next version of Office) and the new Office Web applications.
For most PDC attendees, the broad outlines of a Microsoft cloud initiative, plus a look at Windows 7, and Office had already been the subject of speculation and techosphere discussion, online and elsewhere.
But Ray Ozzie’s keynote address unveiling Windows Azure and the Azure Services Platform still made a powerful impression. “It seemed just a few years ago Ozzie was talking about this move to ‘services in the cloud,’” says Tim Huckaby, CEO of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Interknowlogy, which is a leader in building applications around Microsoft .NET and other tools. “And then to see him on stage there – he was clearly excited about it, and charismatic and dynamic – and to see him execute that vision was really great. Then I had the realization that Microsoft already has capitalized over $1 billion into its datacenters worldwide. That is a very bold statement.”
Others had the same reaction. “In a lot of ways I was surprised at how far along (Windows Azure and the Azure Services Platform) was,” says Rigsby. “You could see how it could be used as a repository today. Also, Ozzie pointed out that some of the foundations for Azure are going to drive the stuff like Live Services and Mesh, so I had the idea that as a developer I may not even have to touch the Azure foundation – there are enough services built on top that you might be able to leverage those.”
Some realized how much Windows Azure could change their lives. “I thought back to 2000 when I was a CIO at a company,” says Michele Leroux Bustamante, chief architect for San Diego-based IDesign.inc. “We had to scale out hardware for a startup, and one of our challenges was making sure we could handle big bursts of requests. We had to go through extensive tests on scalability and make sure that we had enough equipment to manage that scalability. We ended up spending close to $1 million.
“If we were doing that today with Azure and cloud services, we could have managed those issues extremely easily – and for much less money.”
Huckaby thought big from the start. “Software plus services could totally solve some of the world’s really big problems,” he says. “Take healthcare. In a totally connected, collaborative world, where millions of people are tackling the same problem, there’s no reason we couldn’t solve some of the biggest health problems that we have.”
But a big announcement such as that for Windows Azure and the Azure Services Platform naturally raises questions. Hynds and other developers also wonder what it will take to convince CIOs and others to off-load much of a company’s data to something as seemingly evanescent as, well, a cloud. “It’s going to take some education,” says Hynds. “I see it like the switch from Excel to SQL – when people made that switch they felt like they were giving up control on their desktop and giving it to the entire organization. Azure is the same jump, that same order of magnitude of loss of control.”
Windows 7 received a similar reception – plenty of enthusiasm, and some caveats. Uniformly, developers like the new features round in Windows 7, as well as its speed. “Things like mounting virtual hard drives – we were just drooling over that,” says Huckaby. Adds Rigsby: “I installed the pre-beta (the third build, handed out at PDC) and was surprised at how stable it is. And it seems very, very fast. And I like a lot of the UI stuff, the multi-monitor support, and the DirectX improvements.”
Huckaby, for his part, was disappointed to see that some of the features on the Windows 7 beta did not match what had been demo’d during the second morning session. And there are concerns as to whether the final product will be all that has been promised. “When we saw Vista, no one wondered whether it would be a functional OS with great features,” says Hynds. “But what we found is that it wasn’t fast or stable enough. If Windows 7 is stable, then we should be in good shape.”
Office Web applications, new lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote delivered through a browser, were also shown for the first time at PDC. These applications also demonstrate Microsoft’s focus on software plus services.
Scott Barker, director of IT and Informatics Chair for the University of Washington Information School, had previewed the Office Web applications before PDC. He saw it as a great tool for students to use. “Microsoft Office Web applications will provide our students with the choice of writing a paper, for example, in the cloud, or writing it via the desktop using Microsoft Word. Web Applications provides students with the means — at any time of day, from anywhere — to access, edit, share and collaborate with other students or faculty using just the browser.”
Added Dan Ribgy: “I like the approach — there is market for online office apps like this, and even if the online version have less features, they will still be highly useful.”
PDC also gave the tech media plenty to talk about. ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, for instance, noted on her blog that while Windows 7 gained attention in the popular press, the more arcane Windows Azure was the big news of the event. “Windows 7 is incredibly important, to be sure, but in terms of Microsoft’s long-term vision of itself, I think Windows Azure is ranked higher.”
Scott M. Fulton III, writing on BetaNews, liked Steven Sinofsky’s Day 2 presentation on Windows 7. “(Sinofsky) spelled out Windows 7 for what it truly was — not some pretense that Vista didn’t exist or that this was the real Vista, but rather that Win7 will truly be a correction of some of Vista’s less well-embraced ideas. As Microsoft evolves its image over the next few years, I’m hoping it looks more and more like the picture of the world Sinofsky is giving us.”
On the Office Web applications front, press and analysts were impressed by the move to offer Office on the web and the impact it will have on the productivity market as Peter O’Kelly an independent analyst noted in a Network World article, “This is way bigger than anything Google has done so far. Think of the things you could do going to the next level of Office Live Workspace. Not just basic AJAX edit controls, but actually the models that are embodied in the applications, and being able to take advantage of that without requiring that everyone have the latest version of Office installed on the client side. It is big.”
PDC2008 wasn’t just about unveiling Windows Azure, Windows 7 and Office Web applications. On Day 3, Microsoft Research’s Rick Rashid and his team showed the future they see in areas such as robotics, and in tiny sensors that can send data over the web. Rashid also announced the first limited release of the SDK (software development kit) for Surface, Microsoft’s new multi-touch, multi-user computer.
Those topics and more kept developers’ attention. Then there those moments some developers will remember more than others. “I got to meet Ray Ozzie,” says Dan Rigsby. “It was my best week ever.”