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Microsoft remixed at Mix '08

It's probably not a wholly accurate description, but to call Mix conference for "the new Microsoft" doesn't seem that far off.

It's probably not a wholly accurate description, but to call Mix '08 the conference for "the new Microsoft" doesn't seem that far off. Perhaps even more apt would be to think of it as the show for Microsoft as it aspires to be. Other possibilities? Well, if one were cynical, maybe "the conference for Microsoft as it wishes others to see it." Or if one were sympathetic to the travails of companies with large, and fundamentally conservative, installed bases how about this for a tag line: "If only change were easy as giving a slick conference."

Yet, for all that, having attended numerous Microsoft events over the years, the gestalt of this one was palpably different. One would never mistake Mix '08, held in Las Vegas earlier this month, for a Tech-Ed, much less a WinHEC. It's not just a case of different session tracks or appropriate obeisance to the rise of network-based computing in a Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie keynote, though those were certainly present. Rather it was an infusion of different attitudes and behaviors--and software releases that offered evidence of at least nascent change.

Silverlight, Microsoft's Rich Internet Application (RIA) framework, makes a good study point. Silverlight is most notably a competitor to the Adobe Integrated Runtime (aka AIR, nee Apollo). It's essentially an approach to using the horsepower of a "thick client" PC to allow applications being delivered over the network be as responsive and immersive as they would be with a typical client app.

I bring up Silverlight for a couple of reasons. The first is that Mix '08 saw the release of Silverlight 2 beta 1, which is really the first full release of Silverlight. (Ray Ozzie referred to it as "delivering on Silverlight's potential.") Whereas Silverlight 1 was narrowly focused on media, Silverlight 2 is a subset of the full desktop Windows Presentation Framework (WPF) UI framework, and also adds networking and local storage options.

In any case, Silverlight was clearly one of the stars of the conference. (There's a lot of information and some very cool demos in the conference sessions--videos of which are all posted online.) I took the opportunity to sit down with Brad Becker, Microsoft's Group Product Manager for the UX (User Experience) & Tools Marketing Group to discuss a it in a bit more depth. We talked about how HTML and JavaScript are being forced to fill roles they were never intended to fill at the same time that user richness and usability expectations are growing. About how Flash was originally "designed to bring Mickey Mouse to the Web"--not interactive, high-resolution media. About the blurring lines between design and development (another interesting thread but out-of-scope here).

And then Brad pulled out a MacBook (running OS X). "Cross platform is a reflection of reality," he explained. A calculated stunt? Hardly. I won't say that Mac's were commonplace among the Microsoft employees at the event. But they were hardly rare (although a few of the big Apple logos that dominate a MacBook's lid were papered over with Silverlight stickers.)

I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that you wouldn't have seen Microsoft employees, including execs, casually carrying around Macs at a conference a few years back. Winds of change are welling up. However faintly.

Does this mean that Microsoft is agnostic about whether developers develop to Windows and .NET? Of course not. But it's worth noting this week I'm in Salt Lake City at Novell's Brainshare user conference. (Yes, it has been a busy month.) Novell execs such as CTO Jeff Jaffe make no bones about their preference for a J2EE on Linux software stack. Yet, Novell remains a major force behind the Mono Project that allows .NET applications to run on Linux and other non-Windows operating environments. And Novell is doing the Linux port of Silverlight ("Moonlight").

In other words, in this day and age, expressing interest--even a strong one--for a given development stack increasingly doesn't translate into prohibiting any sort of interoperability or compatibility with the "enemy." The on-the-ground reality is naturally much messier than executive-level shows of mutual love and respect, but it's still a qualitatively different reality from the old days when walled gardens had high walls indeed.