If you’re wondering what the post title is all about, read on and all will be revealed!
Anyway, today I was at the inaugural WebDD event held at the Microsoft UK campus near Reading, having grown out of the previous Developer Developer Developer events that have been running at the same location over the past couple of years.
As indicated by the title, the focus of the day was slightly different, and alongside developers working with web technologies, there was also an effort to provide sessions that would interest web designers. As a result, although there were a number of familiar faces around, the mix of people was somewhat different. Another big departure was that the speakers were not all from the community, as the team had managed to get Scott Guthrie, who on his website says that he develops a few software products for Microsoft, to speak. In actual fact, as he goes on to explain, he runs the teams that produce pretty much the entire suite of applications that a web developer will use on the Microsoft platform. Being the star turn so-to-speak he was giving a session in all but one of the available time-slots, and even repeated one of the sessions during the lunch break for those who couldn’t get in the first time around. The fact that Scott repeated a session highlights perhaps the biggest problem with having such a star turn, a fact that Barry alludes to in this blog posting and also in his session this afternoon that was scheduled against one of Scott’s, everybody wanted to attend the Scott Guthrie sessions, effectively leaving many of the other speakers feeling like overflow for those people who couldn’t get in to see Scott.
Anyway, onto the day. Before I talk about the sessions, the first thing I have to mention is the new addition to the grounds of the campus – the ‘WOW’, part of the Vista advertising campaign. J-P Walsh snapped off a picture, so I’ll leave it to you to judge whether it is a good addition!
Session wise I kicked off with the two part Scott Guthrie session on End to End Websites, then after that Jon Harris talking about Expression Blend and Design. I saw most of the repeat run of Scott Guthrie giving a sneak peak of â€œOrcasâ€?, then Hristo Deshev speaking about Developing ASP.NET AJAX Components and finally Barry talking about Windows Cardspace.
Taking them in order, Scott Guthrie as you might expect given his position in Microsoft is an experienced speaker. The session was well put together, ran exactly to time, and worked pretty well flawlessly. As an introduction to building a website on the Microsoft platform it seemed to cover all the bases, and he was also able to answer detailed technical queries if he was asked. However one thing he said a lot was how super simple and straightforward everything was, and as was commented by a friend of mine who has also been developing on the Microsoft platform for a long time, experience tells us that what he is presenting is very much a sales and marketing presentation, and that in reality it won’t be quite as simple as it appears. Since Scott’s wages are paid by Microsoft, it is in his interest to present it well and make us keen to buy it. That caveat aside, it was an entertaining pair of sessions, complete with impromptu puns caused by someone close to the front suggesting names for variables during the demonstration – for example â€œsausageâ€? when asked for a name for a user role…
After the first two sessions, I thought I would go to one of the others in order to give others an opportunity to attend one of Scott’s sessions, and so I headed off for the Expression Blend and Design session in Memphis. I have mentioned previously that a colleague of mine refers to what he calls â€œThe Curse of Memphisâ€?, whereby every single session he has attended in the Memphis meeting room has had technical issues – and this one was no exception. Now it has to be said, that part of the blame for the technical issues should be laid at the door of the presenter, Jon Harris, who was using an unsupported beta product, in a configuration not recommended by the manufacturer to mount his presentation, in that he had a MacBook Pro and was using the beta release of Boot Camp to boot the machine into Windows Vista – which if you read through the Apple requirements article whilst it might work, is not supported. The general problem he had seemed to be driver related – someone had plugged in a USB Key earlier in the day, and neither it, nor the similarly configured MacBook Pro they tried as well coped overly well with the projector. All in it took a grand total of 38 minutes out of a 60 minute session to get a working demonstration of Expression Blend up on the screen. Incidentally, this is where the comment I used for the posting title came from – Jon asked his colleague if he had any pictures on his laptop that he could use for a demo, not the dodgy ones, to which his colleague responded that he didn’t, and that if he did, it would get blogged about anyway, and there would be ‘Microsoft Employee in Dodgy Picture Shocker’ postings all over the web. Happy to oblige. 😀
Whilst on the subject of the use of the MacBook Pro it is worth highlighting what Jon Harris does for a job – he is ‘User Experience Evangelist’ for Microsoft. According to his colleague, who provided the second MacBook Pro, they are using Apple machines because customers quite often assume that Microsoft technology won’t work on non-PC browsers – not surprising considering some previous software from the company. However with the MacBook Pro they can just boot up into MacOS X to demonstrate that things working on another platform. Interestingly, whilst the problems were being sorted out, Jon also commented that he’d been a Mac user for fifteen years – perhaps thanks to his previous life as an employee of Macromedia.
Anyway, once he got the demonstration going, it was quite interesting seeing the latest build of Expression Blend, which I had seen previously under it’s code name of ‘Sparkle’ back at DDD3. What is perhaps most interesting is that Microsoft appear to have been removing features from the product – apparently because they are trying to focus it more closely to a particular role. Features that are gone include a number of the more Photoshop like features, and also the in-built C# editor. However many of the features that are in Expression Blend are destined to appear later on in Visual Studio. The discussion of focusing products on particular roles came up again in some of the questions from the floor, which focused on the decision by Microsoft to exclude the Expression applications from the MSDN subscription. The opinion amongst the people I spoke to seems pretty well universal that the decision is a crazy one. With these products, Microsoft is trying to attract a group of people who already have a pretty entrenched set of tools. True they may not be quite as integrated as the new offerings, but they will need evangelising all the same. To many of the developers, it seems that including them in the subscription is the ideal way to get the products used, and establish a user base, hopefully attracting the target audience to the product, although alongside that there is probably at least a little bit of frustration that these new features won’t be available to developers until the next Visual Studio release!
Apparently this was the latest build, hot off the press so-to-speak, and it did seem to have some cool features, although he did spend a lot of time looking at LINQ, which I had already seen demonstrated at previous events. Having said that, the question I always find myself asking is quite when we’ll be able to use the new features in-the-wild. Although some of our projects are in Visual Studio 2005, we still find ourselves using Visual Studio 2003 and Visual Studio 6.0 a lot of the time, indeed our core product is still written almost entirely in Visual Studio 6.0.
After the Orcas session I stayed put in the room for Hristo Deshev speaking about Developing ASP.NET AJAX Components. Now I’m not sure what his public speaking experience has been previously, but he seemed decidedly nervous when he started. This coupled with the pretty heavy technical content, just after lunch and the fact that he was giving the presentation in English when it obviously wasn’t his native language made it decidedly difficult to follow the session. This certainly seemed to be the impression I got looking at the other people in the session as within a few minutes many people had switched off. Whilst I am well aware that one of the great things about the Developer Developer Developer events is to encourage people to present – putting someone who is nervous like this, in the difficult post-lunchtime slot, with a technical talk, especially after such an experienced presenter such as Scott is a bit mean… It is very hard not to draw a comparison between the two, which is totally unfair to Hristo , who when you look at his blog clearly knows his stuff.
Essentially, Windows Cardspace is another attempt by Microsoft to support digital identities and authentication, an area to some extent an area they touched before with Microsoft Passport, something that will be familiar to anybody using MSN Messenger amongst other things. Significantly it addresses a number of the issues with Microsoft Passport, including the issue of people being unwilling to trust Microsoft with data (Windows Cardspace is more open).
To some extent, part of the fun of going to one of Barry’s sessions is the man himself. We wisely sat a few rows back, so the focus of jokes was Pat a colleague of his from work who was sat in the front row, right in front of the the lectern, and who was the target of several cracks over his love of Microsoft technologies – at one point Barry even referred to him as a Microsoft Fanboy – although from his computer history on his blog his computer history is rather similar to mine, going via the Spectrum and the Amiga. Anyway, Barry also frequently commented that most of us were only there because there was no room in the Scott Guthrie session next door – partly true, although myself and my manager from work were there because we wanted to see whether Windows Cardspace would help us with authentication for some of our projects. All in all it was a pretty informative talk, and perhaps the biggest thing to take away from it was that Windows Cardspace is perhaps not quite ready for the big time – but it has definite possibilities.
Finally, on to the important issues of the day, the loot! They had a raffle running during the day – unfortunately my ticket, 178, wasn’t drawn – although annoyingly 177 and 179 both won prizes. 🙁 Barry has highlighted the T-Shirts over on his blog, but perhaps the biggest giveaway was the free copy of the retail release of Expression Web, the replacement for FrontPage for every attendee – this is currently retailing on Amazon for a penny under Â£260 – and remember we paid absolutely nothing to attend the event. Alongside this they also had a copy of Microsoft Visual Web Developer Express Edition (which is free anyway), and the latest beta releases of the other Expression applications. Not a bad haul really, and certainly some stuff that I will look at over the next few weeks.
So worth the effort? I certainly think so. The main issues that need to be addressed though are having a star turn. I’d suggest that if a similar situation were to occur again, they’ll really need to set it up as some sort of keynote address, or try to introduce some sort of better crowd management or ticketing to avoid the crushes every time the doors to those sessions were opened!
Update: Ian, who was one of the select few allowed to take pictures at the event has posted his review of the event together with a great selection of pictures.