Microsoft

Future Visions

by Joey deVilla on October 28, 2011

Welcome Daring Fireball readers! In case you were wondering if I’ve prepared a response to the article titled The Types of Companies that Publish Future Concept Videos, take a look here.

Pictured above is Microsoft’s most recent technology concept video. Here’s their description:

Watch how future technology will help people make better use of their time, focus their attention, and strengthen relationships while getting things done at work, home, and on the go.

As you might expect, John “Daring Fireball” Gruber, who’s often been called Apple’s freelance PR guy, viewed it with a jaundiced eye:

This video encapsulates everything wrong with Microsoft. Their coolest products are imaginary futuristic bullshit. Guess what, we’ve all seen Minority Report already. Imagine if they instead spent the effort that went into this movie on making something, you know, real, that you could actually go out and buy and use today.

Of course, he’d never say such a thing about Apple’s classic Knowledge Navigator video, which at the time it was made – circa 1987, when the Macintosh II and SE, IBM PS/2 series and Amiga 500 and 2000 were brand new machines – was at least as pie-in-the-sky as this newest Microsoft video. It’s contained within one of the segments of the video below, which features videos by Apple:

Now I’ll agree with Gruber that by and large, Apple technology is generally more enjoyable to use and feels more like “the future”. I will also agree that my former employer, whom a former coworker recently referred to as “The Fail Ship Microsoft”, seems a shadow of its former self and far less likely to be the company to create future industry-defining products than Apple — or at least the incarnation of Apple with Steve Jobs as Chief Tastemaker. Today’s Microsoft doesn’t have a keeper of the vision: Bill Gates has left to focus his on saving the world, Ray Ozzie, the guy who took on the role of “chief visionary” at The Empire, resigned last year along with the Entertainment and Devices division’s last, best hopes, Robbie Bach and J Allard. The people who remain are extremely skilled techies, astute suits who can continue to drive sales and “keep their managers’ scorecards green” (that’s a common expression within the company) and an evangelism team that’s second to none and of which I was a proud member, but they’re all hamstrung by decision-makers with the sense of vision that God gave oysters. That’s one of the reasons I left the company: to be an evangelist, you have to believe, and I didn’t believe anymore.

I part ways with Gruber in his declaration that Microsoft should spend more effort making some cool stuff today and less on creating concept videos. Concept videos aren’t promises of products coming in the next one or two years, but act as a star by which people can navigate the future and an inspiration to invent it. Working with technology means dealing with overwhelming amounts of minutiae, and it’s all too easy to get lost in the technology for technology’s sake and forget about what it’s all for. I would argue that if Microsoft wants to rehabilitate its image and regain its relevance in the hearts and mind of both the alpha geeks and the public at large, they should probably make more of these videos, not only for the public, but for their own benefit as well. Without visions like concept videos to guide them, especially with the lack of someone in the visionary role, they may remain stuck on their current course: doing well but effectively coasting, content to make incremental improvements to already successful products or playing catch-up as with Internet Explorer, phones and tablets in efforts that are in danger of being too little, too late.

Some other concept videos worth watching include these old AT&T ads from that played all the time between shows in the early 1990s. Many of the predicted devices and services in these ads came to be, but AT&T had little to do with their creation:

Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini was a user interface guy at Apple from 1978 to 1992, after which he worked at Sun and created the Project Starfire concept video, a little drama that illustrates his vision of the office of the future. Just as Apple’s Knowledge Navigator has the 1980s all over it, this video has all the earmarks of early 1990s television, right down to the incidental synth music that’s straight out of the better, earlier seasons of Beverley Hills 90210.

Here’s part one:

The first thirty seconds of the video shows how risky it is to try and add little “realistic” touches to a story about the future. In the first thirty seconds, Princess Di is mentioned as having joined the British House of Lords; in real life, she died seven years prior to the story’s setting of 2004. Also sad is the fact that while Sun existed in 2004, it would be absorbed by Oracle six years later.

Here’s part two:

Compare the Starfire video with this “vision of the future” video that Microsoft debuted at the TechReady conference in early 2009. Popular Science said that "The 2019 Microsoft details with this video is almost identical to the 2004 predicted in this video produced by Sun Microsystems in 1992." I’ll leave it to you to make the call:

This article also appears in the Shopify Technology Blog.

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Dear Microsoft: Just Update My Photo and We’ll Be Cool

by Joey deVilla on September 21, 2011

If you were to go to Microsoft Canada’s blog for mobile developers as of this writing, you’d still see my photo in the banner:

canadian mobile developer banner

I really have no complaints about still having my face there, even though my last day at The Empire will be five months ago tomorrow. Being the Windows Phone guy was one of my favourite parts of my stint as a developer evangelist at Microsoft, and it’s always an honour to share a banner with Frederic Harper.

My real complaint is that the picture they’re using is from two years, and more importantly, twenty pounds ago (about the weight of a full-sized accordion).

Hey Microsoft: keep my picture up if you must, but could you at least use a newer, somewhat skinnier one? Perhaps one with me sporting my new, fashionable, I probably-paid-too-much glasses with Philippe Starck frames?

Self-portrait of Joey deVilla, taken in a mirror, showing off his new glasses

(By the bye, that’s my bathroom in the photo. I have a damn fine “re-bachelor” pad.)

If you’d much rather have a photo keeping with the mobile theme, may I suggest this one, where I’m posing with a phone and a wacky phone accessory? The pink says “Metro” – in every sense of the word!

"Moshi Moshi Metro!" Joey deVilla at Cafe Novo, holding Verna Kulish's pink iPhone connected to a pink Moshi Moshi handset.

That’s my friend and fellow ex-Microsoftie Verna Kulish’s Moshi Moshi Retro POP handset, which plugs into just about any smartphone. Feel free to Photoshop out Verna’s iPhone and replace it with an appropriate Windows Phone device – perhaps a Samsung Focus (my Windows Phone) or whatever Nokia’s releasing this fall.

Feel free to use either pic, Microsoft – as long as it’s current and skinnier, we’ll be cool.

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

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Steve Jobs: King of All Tech Media

by Joey deVilla on August 25, 2011

Here’s a testament to Steve Jobs’ influence on the industry: a snapshot of the tech news aggregator site Techmeme, with the stories about Steve Jobs, his resignation and Apple highlighted. As I wrote this post, the answer to the question on everyone’s mind, the “Tim Cook: Apple is Not Going to Change” story, became the headliner.

Steve jobs on techmeme

Also notable: at the bottom of the story pile: a story about Microsoft. The Techmeme page used to be peppered with them, but they’ve become increasingly rare over the past couple of years. If it weren’t for the sponsored BizSpark articles in the right-hand-side column, there’d be times throughout the day when there were no Microsoft-related stories at all. In the meantime, I can’t recall ever checking into Techmeme and not finding an Apple-related story.

Keep in mind that this is all based on casual observation and not from carefully logging the contents of Techmeme over the past few years. However, I’m there fairly often as a practitioner of the Global Nerdy technique for using Techmeme to drive more people to your blog.

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Brandon watson

Good on Brandon Watson of the Windows Phone Team for seizing an opportunity offering free Windows Phone 7s to WebOS developers. I may occasionally complain that Microsoft has trouble trying unorthodox things or deviating from MBA-proscribed plans, but that’s rarely been the case with the Windows Phone 7 team and the Windows Phone 7 Champs (of which I was a proud member).

It looks as if Brandon’s quick thinking paid off: WPCentral reports that he’s received over 500 email responses.

He’s also fired off a quick email to greet people who responded to his offer. In the email, it includes email addresses for Windows Phone Champs in several countries. The problem is that one of the Champs listed for Canada is me, and I don’t work at Microsoft anymore.

If you’re a Canadian developer looking to get into Windows Phone 7 development, drop me a line at joey@joeydevilla.com and I’ll connect you to the right people. I may not be in the Windows Phone Champ game, but I’m always happy to help developers out.

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Fabulous Parting Gifts from Microsoft

by Joey deVilla on May 16, 2011

In recognition of some damn good evangelizing, and to make sure I don’t forget about all the .NET developers out there, Microsoft Canada sent a big package to me at the Shopify offices containing some fabulous parting gifts, including a Dell Latitude E6500 with 8 gigs of RAM and the large battery:

My Dell Latitude E6500 laptop

…along with the Samsung Focus that was assigned to me, and DVDs for Windows 7 Ultimate and Office Professional 2010

Windows Phone 7 (Samsung Focus) box, Windows 7 Ultimate DVD, Microsoft Office 2010 Professional DVD

…and last but certainly not least, an MSDN subscription, which gets me all kinds of developer goodies including Visual Studio (still the nicest IDE out there, in my opinion):

MSDN logo

I’d like to thank Microsoft Canada (and Damir Bersinic, who made the arrangements) for these fabulous parting gifts. They weren’t under any obligation to send anything other than my final paycheque and expense reimbursements, but they’re taking a page from Gary Vaynerchuk’s The Thank You Economy, and I greatly appreciate the goodies. I was wondering how I was going to continue with Windows Phone and XNA development, but thanks to my old employer and coworker, that question’s been answered. I salute you with a filet mignon on a flaming sword!

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

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Office 365 Public Beta: Available Now!

by Joey deVilla on April 18, 2011

office 365

The news is all over online – perhaps you saw the PC World article or the official Microsoft announcement – Office 365 is out as a public beta and ready for you to take it for a spin! It’s the successor to BPOS, Business Productivity Online Suite and gives you productivity goodies such as:

Here’s a diagram that gives you the 10,000-foot view of what Office 365 can do for you (click to get the full-size version):

office 365 poster

If you’d like to get the public beta of Office 365, office365.ca is the place to go! You’ll find out more about the various packages available for business, from small businesses who want to get stuff done but don’t have the IT department or infrastructure, up to the biggest enterprises looking to integrate Office 365 with their own infrastructure for that special you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter IT goodness.

There’s also the Office 365 Blog and the Office 365 Technical Blog, which show you how to best take advantage of Office 365 tools as well as performing advanced tasks and troubleshooting issues. If you’re the competitive type, there’s the Ready for Work contest where you can win $50,000, a one-year subscription to Office 365 for your business and more – and all you have to do is share your Office 365 success story on our Facebook group.

win 50000

Go for it – sign up for the Office 365 beta now!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Getting Paid to Work for Ballmer is Pretty Nice

by Joey deVilla on June 5, 2010

Joey deVilla and Steve BallmerMe and Ballmer at the Microsoft Town Hall in Toronto, October 2009.

David “DHH” Heinemeier Hansson recently wrote in the excellent blog Signal to Noise (add it to your reading list if it isn’t there already) that he’d never work for Ballmer.

Since he’s DHH, he doesn’t have to – he’s a principal at the development firm 37signals, whose web apps I like to cite as examples to follow, and the creator of the web framework Ruby on Rails. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t DHH: we can’t all be brilliant game-changing programmers who are also photogenic enough to have the option of becoming a male model when this computer fad blows over. When a Sith Lord from Microsoft comes a-calling with a job offer, we don’t automatically turn it down; we have to mull it over.

Darth Vader makes his offer: "Join me...we have a good dental plan!"

I’ve been working for Ballmer (quite indirectly: I’m a fair number of degrees of separation below him on the org chart) for the past twenty months. I can say with complete certainty that out of all the jobs I’ve held – from the job right out of school building multimedia CD-ROMs in Director to working with Cory Doctorow in his dot-com’s evangelism office in San Francisco at the height of The Bubble to various coding jobs from my own consulting shop to Toronto’s worst-run startup to that very brief stint as a go-go dancer at a nightclubmy current gig as Developer Evangelist for The Empire has been my all-time favourite of the bunch. I get to do two things I absolutely love – working with technology and schmoozing with people – and with a fair bit of autonomy: in the setting of my choice, with a set of priorities that I negotiate. I also get to work with some of the brightest and most passionate people I’ve ever met, both inside and outside the company, and it doesn’t hurt that the pay’s quite nice (although, as Dan ink will tell you, money isn’t the primary motivator in this line of work).

Joey deVilla playing accordion in front of the RailsConf logoPlaying accordion onstage at RailsConf 2007.

Until 2008, I’d worked mostly for small companies, many of whom you could fit into a minivan. I might not have considered working for Microsoft, or any large corporation for that matter, had it not been for a little moment that I internally refer to as “The Abercrombie Epiphany”. And oddly enough, it happened at RailsConf 2007, a conference devoted to DHH’s creation Ruby on Rails, where I played an ode to DHH onstage with Chad Fowler at the start of the evening keynote (that’s what’s pictured above, and there’s even a video of the song).

The second day’s opening keynote was about Ruby, Rails and the enterprise, and the crowd was not impressed. A good chunk of the IRC backchannel chatter was devoted to saying “enough with the enterprise already…who cares?” I distinctly remember someone referring to one of the presenters as “trying to be the Rachael Ray of enterprise computing”. The guy leaning against the wall behind me (I’d arrived late, having taken part in the previous night’s bacchanalia) in an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt started putting on a hoodie with the letters “A & F” on it and packing up his laptop. “Who uses this stuff, anyway?” he said to me as he picked up his Starbucks cup and walked towards the door. “I’m going back to the Marriott.”

It was probably the fact that he was wearing all that Abercrombie & Fitch – the company vaguely annoys me – that got me thinking about his question, “who uses this stuff anyway?” It turns out he did: he’d flown to Portland, stayed at a chain hotel, used a laptop and conference wifi, drank coffee from the shop with a branch in every mall and seemingly on every corner and bought clothes from a century-old retailer – and the cycles that enabled all that didn’t run two-week-marathon-written code living on 10-dollar hosting, but invisibly and everywhere on systems he didn’t think anyone used.

I wouldn’t give the incident any thought until just over a year later.

An office chair, a computer and some boxes lined up against an interior brick wallPacking up my stuff after getting laid off from b5media, September 2008.

What got me thinking about that little Abercrombie & Fitch experience was my getting laid off from b5media during the econopocalypse of summer 2008. I’d been interviewing with a number of companies, all of them small, and blogging the experience as a means of amplifying my job search efforts.

While working on a blog entry, I got an IM from Adam Carter, a tech evangelist at Microsoft. It went exactly like this:

Ever thought about working for The Empire?

(Yes, he referred to Microsoft as “The Empire”.)

Every culture has certain tendencies, and the “I build on Mac OS and deploy to Linux” culture of which I was part led me to instinctively dismiss the idea at first blush. Ridiculous, I thought, and besides, why would they hire me? I haven’t coded any .NET since those trivia games for MAXIM in 2002.

(Yes, I really did that, in an office across the street from the downtown Toronto Hooters. It was like working inside a beer commercial.)

But when my friends John Bristowe (who I’d have voted “most likely to work for Microsoft”) and David Crow (who I’d have voted “most likely to take a dump on Microsoft’s front door”) were making suggestions within the company that they hire me, I had to give Adam’s out-of-the-blue IM a little more thought. And in that thinking, I was reminded of the Abercrombie incident.

Archimedes moving the world with his lever

Many people would (and did) see working at Microsoft as “the safe move”, but to a guy from the culture of DHH, who’s always worked in all small companies and one medium-sized one and hadn’t used their development tools in over six years, it’s the scary one. When word got around that I was interviewing at Microsoft, I heard a small chorus of voices – one of them that nagging voice of doubt – saying the same thing: “You couldn’t pay me to work for Ballmer”.

But I took the job, anyway. It offered the most challenges, the greatest learning opportunities, a journey to places well outside my comfort zone, and I hadn’t done anything like it before. It was a window into a world I’d only seen from the outside, toward which I’d only made snarky comments from the peanut gallery. It offered me the lever that Archimedes talked about – one big enough to move the world – and a chance to see this computing the Abercrombie guy thought no one used.

(It even gave me the perfect excuse to pull out the Jean Cocteau quote at parties, when explaining my change in career direction: “Since it’s now fashionable to laugh at the conservative French Academy, I have remained a rebel by joining it.")

HacklabTO work table with my laptop plugged into a monitor, mouse, "Coding4Fun" book and can of Diet CokeYesterday’s work enviroment – my setup at HacklabTO.

What is working for Ballmer like? I can’t speak for all of Microsoft’s 90,000 employees, but this Developer Evangelist job is pretty sweet. I’m classified as a mobile worker, which means no cubicle – I’m either working out of the home office, a select bunch of work-friendly cafes, or quite often at HacklabTO, the “hackerspace” in Toronto’s colourful Kensington Market where I’m a member with 24/7 access. Every day’s work environment is different (the picture above shows yesterday’s, at the Hacklab), and this constant flux keeps me going.

I get to noodle with all sorts of interesting tech, from dev tools to cloud computing to game consoles to phones, and I have a hardware guy stocking me with the latest gear. I get to shape the content of a cross-Canada conference that thousands of professional developers across Canada, whose work makes your money move, your electricity flow and your favourite retail stores stay stocked. I get to participate in all sorts of fun stuff, from holding a pre-conference in a train car to having a little fun with Richard Stallman. I get to inspire students as they start their search for jobs in a shaky economy. I get to concentrate in the web, mobile, and open source — fields where the company’s traditional strengths aren’t.

Simply put, I get my shot at changing the world. That’s what DHH is also trying to do – he’s just working it from a different angle. If you want to do that as well, I’m sure you’ll find your own angle, whether it’s homesteading in your own indie software company working out of a cafe to doing it as a part of a Fortune 500 company. DHH is DHH, and you are you, and while he could never work for Ballmer, you might like it like I do, and that’s okay. After all, that’s why the saying goes “Do not follow in the footsteps of the masters; seek what they sought instead.”

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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