Behind the scenes at Microsoft's Channel 9

As Microsoft prepares to reveal details about the upcoming version of Windows at its Build conference next week, it will rely on its in-house video unit to evangelize to developers.

REDMOND, Wash.--Microsoft's June rollout of a niche software development kit that lets developers create PC applications for its Kinect motion-sensing game was a breaking news moment for the tech evangelists of the tiny Channel 9 unit.

Microsoft's Jeff Sandquist with The Nine Guy Jay Greene/CNET

Channel 9 is a group of 10 full-time employees and dozens of volunteers from within Microsoft, who produce video programming for the Web to connect the company with the folks who write software applications that run on its platforms. When the Kinect for Windows SDK debuted , it was an all-hands-on-deck moment.

Channel 9 aired four hours of live video with how-to sessions for its coding followers. It ran features on the creations of teams at a code-camp, a 24-hour hack-a-thon where groups cobbled together new creations using the new Kinect SDK. Microsoft experts even answered questions posted via Twitter live on the air. All of this aired in the middle of a weekday morning and still 5,000 people watched it live online. Another 300,000 viewers caught it later, on-demand. It wasn't quite the Royal Wedding, but for the folks who run Channel 9, it was close.

Channel 9 is about to take center stage again as Microsoft readies its next big software push. On September 13, Microsoft hosts its Build conference in Anaheim, Calif. The event is a seminal moment for Microsoft, a time when thousands of developers gather to hear the company, for the first time, lay out its vision and share its code, for the next generation of Windows.

This meeting may be even more important than previous Professional Developers Conferences, which is what Microsoft used to call these gatherings. Software development is increasingly moving to portable devices, such as mobile phones and tablets, as well as to the Internet, where Microsoft doesn't have the same cache as it has in desktop and server computing. The company is hosting Build in large part to convince developers that the next generation of Windows offers them terrific opportunities to create applications.

"The big thing we need to accomplish is casting a wider net to a broader group of developers," said Tim O'Brien, general manager in Microsoft's platform strategy group and one of the leaders of the company efforts to evangelize its software to programmers.

To do that, Microsoft is expected to unveil an entirely new look as well as features such as smoother file management for Windows 8, the next version of its flagship product. The company has dribbled out a few details, revealing, among other things, images of the operating system that use the same Metro interface featured in its Windows Phone operating system. And Windows 8 will feature touch-screen capability, opening the doors for hardware makers to offer Windows tablets designed to compete with Apple's dominant iPad. With PC sales stagnating as growth shifts to mobile devices, it's critical for Microsoft to offer a compelling vision at the conference, lest it get left behind.

And no place will the company be making that case more than on Channel 9. The group will be in Anaheim in full-force. The keynotes will be streamed live. They'll discuss content from various conference sessions and air some prerecorded material. And they'll even set up a temporary news desk-like set, where they'll interview speakers about their talks to help developers make sense of all information Microsoft dishes out.

"It's a special moment in time for the community to get together," said Jeff Sandquist, senior director of developer relations at Microsoft, who runs Channel 9.

It'd be wrong to think of Channel 9 as some big-budget production or even high-gloss marketing from the PR machine in Redmond. Channel 9 a bit more like public access television. There are plenty of "ums" and "huhs" and awkward pauses during the programming. The sets are often a software designer's office, cluttered desks and children's artwork included. And if some of the videos look like they're using the latest shaky-cam techniques, it's only because the videographer, who is usually also the sound engineer, lighting designer and interviewer, wasn't able to keep his or her arm steady at that moment.

"It's geeky. It's authentic. It's human," Sandquist said.

Channel 9 was born from a different Professional Developers Conference, the one Microsoft held in 2003 in Los Angeles. At the time, Microsoft was coming off the battering it received in the federal antitrust trial. The company, perceived by many as an industry bully, didn't encourage rank-and-file employees to reach beyond the corporate walls, at least not without approval from the messaging bosses in public relations.

But Sandquist and his then-colleague Lenn Pryor marveled at how much they enjoyed making the connections at the conference with independent software developers. And they gravitated to blog posts from outsiders commenting on how Microsoft executives seemed like decent human beings at the meeting. The duo wanted to re-create those connections digitally.

"We're all developers," Sandquist recalls thinking. "We said, 'Let's build a place where we'd want to hang out."

With so much video content on the Web now, it may be hard to appreciate how novel the idea was. Back then, there was no YouTube, which debuted two years later. Twitter was still three years from its birth. Blogging was emerging, but it was hardly real-time communication. What's more, no other company had done anything like it--building what amounts to a TV network to help its vendors and partners understand, rather than fear, Microsoft's product strategy.

Getting past that fear was huge. And the technique Microsoft was employing--giving its audience unfiltered access to the people who created those products--was similar to the way Pryor learned to address his fear of flying. Rather than worrying about what disaster might befall him, a United Airlines pilot suggested that Pryor listen to the audio feed of the conversation between the cockpit and air-traffic control. On United flights, passengers could tune into the audio for those conversations on Channel 9.

"Some of the smartest people on the planet work here," Sandquist said. "I want people to see that those people are working on some of the biggest challenges we face in technology."

The group has evolved, picking up new cameras, lighting, and editing equipment along the way. It now has two studios, tucked away in one of the dozens of office buildings scattered around Microsoft's Redmond campus. It's even hired real on-air TV talent, including Laura Foy, who joined Channel 9 almost six years ago from G4, the cable network dedicated to tech and gaming content. And it helped launch the career of Web celeb Robert Scoble, who worked on Channel 9 from the start before leaving Microsoft in 2006.

But even the more polished programming skews geeky. The inspiration for Channel 9's first stab at real entertainment, rather than just developer relations, came one weekend when Foy penned a music video homage to Microsoft's Xbox video game console, set to Justin Timberlake's SexyBack. Foy changed the lyrics in the chorus to "I'm bringing Xbox back" and added lines such as, "PS3, you're not compatible backwardly. You cost more than a brand new SUV. Don't get me started on Nintendo's Wii." Then, a punked out Foy, unbeknownst to Sandquist, filmed the video, dubbed in the music and came up with 2 minutes and 26 seconds of goofy fun, a spoof video that's a lot less lame than it could have been.

"I posted it and I didn't tell anybody," Foy recalled. "I didn't know how it was going to go over."

Nearly four years old, the video still has fewer than 2,000 views. But Sandquist loved that it humanized the people at Microsoft. Since then, Foy has written and starred in Channel 9's annual Halloween video, a tradition she started in 2008. The tech-themed horror spoofs include last year's "The Killer App" about a Windows Phone 7 application that takes the life of anyone who uses it. The video has generated more than 86,000 views since its debut last October.

"Laura got me believing we can entertain. We can do some personality-driven things," Sandquist said.

Most of the time, Foy works on Channel 9 staples, shows such as Hot Apps, which features popular Windows Phone 7 applications, and Ping, which focuses on the hottest topics of discussion within Microsoft. Along the way, she's helped bring a bit of professional polish to Channel 9.

Most of Channel 9's programming is far more mundane. Some of the more popular shows include Silverlight TV, a program dedicated to explaining how to use the software to create rich applications that run on the Web. There's also Cloud Cover, which explains the latest features and announcements about Microsoft's Azure Web platform. The most viewed programs are always the deepest technical dives, such as "ASP.NET MVC 2: Basics, Introduction by Scott Hanselman," a 1 hour and 13 minute explanation of the Web application framework that's had more than 640,000 views since it debuted on April 16, 2010.

Just as Sandquist knows what Channel 9 needs to focus on, he is absolutely clear about what Channel 9 should avoid. The site never runs a video that will upset its subjects. It won't jump the gun on product announcements. And it's not angling to get high-profile interviews merely to generate hits.

"I'm not a news organization," Sandquist said. "I'm a developer outreach organization. Traffic is not the be-all, end-all."

That said, Channel 9 gets more than 6 million visitors each month. The site even has its own mascot, the Nine Guy, a robot-like creation with a rectangular body in the shape of the number 9 and a perfectly round head, complete with smiley face and headset microphone. Sandquist estimates that he's given away "hundreds of thousands" of squeezy versions of the mascot at trade shows and to viewers that mail him a postcard asking for one.

They are popular because Channel 9 remains authentic. The people who create the programming are coming up with ideas that they would enjoy watching.

"We're geeks too," Sandquist said.

 

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