10 things about Microsoft's PDC 2009: The good, the bad and the ugly

Microsoft's 2009 developer conference wrapped up yesterday in Los Angeles. Not since PDC 2003 has Microsoft talked so much and said so little. As I listened to the keynotes and have reviewed the sessions, words "series finale" repeatedly popped into my head -- like a TV show coming to its end after a long run. Good or bad for Microsoft, a computing era is ending. Perhaps PDC 2009 demarcates the transition.

PDC 2003 was memorable for demos that wooed but seemed insubstantial. Within weeks after that developer conference, I began telling my clients (I was a senior analyst for JupiterResearch then) to expect Microsoft to delay Windows Longhorn sometime in early 2004. The delay came, followed by several others, as Microsoft dumped features to get Windows Vista out the door -- late -- missing holiday 2006.

PDC 2009 had a quality that reminds me of the event six years earlier. Much of the big new stuff came off a bit airy, and there are gapping pot holes in the product strategy -- mobile being the biggest -- that Microsoft executives tried to walk around or jump over. Ignoring these holes doesn't make them go away, unless perhaps sticking one's head in them like an ostrich might.

Windows is no longer the satellite around which trendy development projects revolve. Windows gravity remains strong in the enterprise, for which switching costs to competing platforms hold tight the orbit. Increasingly, Web development and the mobile device capture pull developers away from Windows. Microsoft didn't increase enough the gravity to pull them back. For example, Internet Explorer 9 demos were laughable in context of continued and aggressive Apple Safari, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox development. Meanwhile, Microsoft had virtually nothing to say about Windows Mobile/Phone.

With that introduction, I've compiled my thoughts about PDC 2009 -- and related announcements this week, such as the Office 2010 public beta -- into a list of 10 things. The things are in no particular order of importance.

1. Two screens aren't enough for a three-screen strategy. The most baffling Microsoft messaging coming out of PDC 2009 was the continued talk about three screens -- mobile device/phone, PC and TV. But Microsoft only really has one of those screens down, the PC. The TV screen is more about Xbox gaming and entertainment, without enough synchronicity yet with the PC.

The mobile phone strategy is a disaster. Microsoft has got no software or service that can effectively compete with Apple, Google, Nokia or Research in Motion mobile operating systems. Windows Mobile is losing licensees to Google's Android, and Apple's App Store/iPhone/iPod touch platform is a black hole sucking in developers.

Actually, it's embarrassing for Microsoft to pitch three screens when the software and strategy around one of those screens stinks so badly. I actually felt sorry for Microsoft executives trying to make the three-screen pitch. I was embarrassed for them.

2. A laptop isn't a bribe, it's an investment. During the PDC Day 2 keynote, Steven Sinofsky, Windows & Windows Live divisional president, told paying attendees they would each receive a free laptop. Microsoft and Acer designed the thin-and-light laptop, with 11.6-inch touchscreen. The other features seemed quite underwhelming,

But underwhelming really was an overwhelming achievement. Microsoft accomplished two important objectives by giving away the laptops:

  • Every developer attending the conference now has Windows 7 for creating new applications.
  • The laptop establishes a baseline for which developers should create their new applications.

The latter is important. Many Windows XP and Vista systems can be upgraded to Windows 7, and they won't have the fastest processors, best graphics capabilities or highest screen resolutions of computers shipping now. Then there are all those underpowered netbooks that businesses and consumers are buying. Microsoft set an appropriate baseline for where the market is and where Microsoft wants the market to go -- touchscreens.

3. A big conference should justify attendees' investment of time and money. PDC 2009 didn't offer any big surprises, aside from the the free laptop. Perhaps that's OK, as Betanews' Scott Fulton expressed yesterday:

The big stories here in Los Angeles this week were more evolutionary than revolutionary. That was actually quite all right with attendees I spoke with this week, most of whom are just fine with one less thing to turn their worlds upside down. It's tough enough for many of these good people to hold onto their jobs every week.

Perhaps some other attendees would like to keep their jobs by justifying the time and expense of attending Microsoft's developer conference. Microsoft should have skipped doing a developer conference this year. It's better to saying nothing if you really have nothing to say.

4. A shipping operating system is better than none. Windows 7 is here. It's real, and it's really much better than either Windows XP or Vista. Windows 7 is fun and productivity boosting. During PDC, Microsoft made a pretty good pitch for why Windows 7. Yesterday, during a Webcast, Google made an operating pitch, too -- for Chrome OS. After months of rumors, Google finally explained what to expect from Chrome OS. The news was everywhere yesterday. But for all the buzz, Chrome OS is, at least for today, vaporware. The software release is a year, maybe even more, away.

But the timing of the announcement felt deliberate, like Google had looked into the Microsoft playbook and copied a few strategies. During the 1990s, Microsoft was notorious for announcing big new -- coming someday in the future -- things about the same time competitors released new products. Some of these forthcoming Microsoft products were real vaporware; they never shipped. But whether real products or not, the announcements gave businesses and consumers reason to wait on the competing thing available in the present for the one that sounded so good in the future. Chrome OS is Google's reason to wait on Windows 7. I say that nothing is no reason to wait on something.

5. Being Amazon is no way to launch Azure. During PDC 2008, Microsoft's Web services pitchman, Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, gave a rousing pitch for Azure. He convinced that Azure would be a cloud-based operating system developers would write their applications to. The strategy beamed with innovation. A year later, the pitch came across as something much different. Ozzie still talked about a cloud OS, but the deliverables and new services were about databases.

It seemed as if Microsoft had pulled a Windows Longhorn, dumping features and shifting strategies before reaching the destination. Azure, which won't launch until Jan. 1, 2010, now looks less like a cloud OS and more like an up-and-coming Amazon Web Services. Chasing Amazon is not a winning strategy, even with all the leverage Microsoft commands from existing PC desktop and server software.

Like PDC 2003, where Microsoft employees showed lots of Longhorn facade but not much structure behind it, Azure seemed not only less substantial than PDC 2008 but missing pieces even ahead of the launch. What about Windows Live and important services like Windows Mesh for which there was supposed to be synchronicity with Azure?

6. Silverlight can light Microsoft's way to the Web. Scott Guthrie made a compelling pitch for the new features coming in Silverlight 4.0, which is now in beta. The Microsoft corporate vice president showed that at least with this one product, Microsoft is innovating -- and remarkably fast. New features include Adobe AIR-like capabilities, support for microphones and Webcams, standalone Silverlight containers and better HTML support, including HTTP streaming. There is much for developers to like in Silverlight 4.0.

But Microsoft also is acting like the old Microsoft and not the more open one presented during PDC 2008. Some new features are specific to Windows, which potentially fragments Silverlight functionality across different platforms.

7. People don't want to work more, they want to live more. The most baffling Microsoft marketing messaging of the week had to be for Office Mobile. Tagline: "Take work with you?" Exactly what is aspirational about that? Microsoft expects so-called knowledge workers, whose computing habits already mix professional and personal lives, will want to take even more work with them? The tagline is reason not to use Office Mobile. That is unless the marketing goal is to generate fear: It's better to take more work home than to not work at all, given the increasing chances of otherwise being laid off in this economy. Such approach is perhaps motivational, but certainly not aspirational.

8. Real open-source supporters improve Azure's allure. Ozzie has consistently and persistently pitched Microsoft's Web services strategy as being more open. He made his case during PDC 2009 in a surprising -- and I'd say shocking -- way. He brought out two surprising Azure supporters It was a simply brilliant marketing maneuver. The first: WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg came out on the PDC stage to announce that Automattic would begin using Azure in production ahead of the official service launch. From a marketing perspective, it was a stunning announcement, since Automattic uses open-source tools like Apache and MySQL. The message: Azure isn't just about Microsoft products or development tools.

Additionally, Vivek Kundra, the US government's chief information officer, appeared via satellite link. Many news reports have painted Kundra as a Google hosted apps lover. That buzz has raised questions about how much the Obama Administration might embrace Microsoft software or services. Kundra is on record supporting the use of open development tools for government online services. While the Federal CIO mostly spoke about the government's open-development efforts, his appearance at PDC was good for Microsoft by association. Kundra concluded by saying that he looked forward to the "thousands of applications that are going to be created." But he didn't specifically say with Microsoft development tools or services.

9. SharePoint and Windows Live are not social networks. On Monday, Microsoft released Office 2010 beta, ahead of PDC 2009's official opening. Among the announcements with potential developer appeal: Office Social Connector. Microsoft is attempting to make Outlook 2010 the hub for users' social connections. But right now, the major supported product/service is SharePoint 2010. While Microsoft acts like SharePoint is a social network, it most certainly is not. Meanwhile, Microsoft promises Windows Live support for Office Social Connector sometime next year. Third-party services must support a Microsoft proprietary XML schema to appear in Office Social Connector.

10. Digital natives are looking elsewhere. The biggest tech news of the week was about competitors' vaporware -- the aforementioned Chrome OS and Apple's rumored tablet. How outrageously laughable. Apple's rumored tablet is rumored to be delayed. It was all over the InterWebs during PDC! A product that doesn't exist will ship late. Later than what?

The point: Apple and Google are having much more success appealing to geeks and digital natives than is Microsoft. While Microsoft executives talk big iron -- the kind of blathering heard from IBM a generation ago -- Apple and Google offer products or services meaningful to everyday users, such tools for creating or managing content that matters, like photos and videos, rather than static text documents. Just look at the bazillion of iPhone/iPod touch new App Store application stories that post to the Web in any week.

Apple and Google have got the buzz. By comparative perception, Microsoft makes software for aged computing users and IT stiffshirts. Microsoft did little to change perceptions through PDC 2009.

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