SAN FRANCISCO--Long Zheng has had what would be a pretty impressive last couple of years for anyone at Microsoft.
In one 24-hour period last April, the 22-year-old built a version of Bing that offers instant results quite similar to the instant search results that Google introduced last week. He also created Metrotwit, a slick Twitter client for Windows using the Metro styling used in Windows Phone 7. All the while, he has maintained a well regarded Microsoft blog, I Started Something.
But Zheng doesn't work for Microsoft. He's a hobbyist. His impetus for building Metrotwit was that he wanted to try out Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation to see how straightforward it is. As for the search project, he said he had never built a Web application using a public API (application programming interface).
"If something new comes out, at least I check it out," said Zheng, who was in town last week for the launch of Internet Explorer 9. "I try to understand it, get a grasp of the fundamentals at least."
What's more, Zheng isn't even a computer science guy, having gotten his degree last year in business from an Australian university.
Zheng was born in China, where he played with his first computer at age 7 or 8. In 1997, at age 10, he moved to Australia, without speaking a word of English, though he quickly picked it up in through an immersion program for new immigrants.
"Fortunately in Australia there's a lot of really good programs for children coming over," he said.
Zheng has since mixed his studies with his love of computers and his interest in all things Microsoft. As for his hobbies, Zheng isn't sure whether they might some day turn into a business. With Metrotwit, for example, Zheng said he is more interested in the technical challenges than turning a profit.
"We have a few ideas on how we can try and add some monetization strategies," Zheng said. "But currently we are just trying to make a really cool application for Windows."
The question I have is why it appears this Australian business major is more interested in creating consumer programs using Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation than the company that created it. I'm still shocked--as is Zheng--that years after its debut, we still have yet to see any real killer apps created on the graphics foundation that debuted with Windows Vista and continues in Windows 7.
Most of what has been shown, Zheng said, are splashy demos, often from big-name companies, that make headlines at tech conferences but rarely see the light of day.
"We wanted to build something that wasn't a tech demo," Zheng said of Metrotwit. "We just wanted to make something practical as well as elegant."
Zheng admits being a little surprised Microsoft never ever ran with his instant search concept.
"I thought that maybe Bing would at least see it was interesting and try to do something with it," he said. But after a year, nothing really happened. "I didn't really contact them either so it might have been my fault as well."
But his app, which is still running on his Web site, shows that its entirely possible to create an instant search tool using Bing, even with just the public APIs. Plus, he said, "The performance wasn't too bad."
And while Bing might yet add such a concept, Zheng laments that they have lost the chance to be first. "Unfortunately now, it might make people have that Microsoft doubt," he said. "Oh, they copied Google."
So, I had to ask. Has Microsoft ever tried to hire you?
No, Zheng says, though Bing product manager Stefan Weitz did note in a USA Today interview that Zheng's stock at the company rose after the Google Instant introduction.
Zheng says he's not sure if he would want to work at Microsoft, though he has considered the prospect.
"It depends on the position I guess," he said. "Because I am not a computer science guy, I wouldn't have much luck programming, but trying to bring it altogether, the design and programming, like I do with all these projects I do, might be kind of interesting."
That said, he's not sure he's a big company type.
"I definitely like the start-up idea more than (to) go working for a big company," Zheng said. "It's very much in my nature to do something different all the time."