Jun 212006

TechEd 2006 was quite an event.  Nearly 10,000 people converging on the new Boston Convention Center is a sight to behold.  I was at TechEd in part as a crash course to learn my team’s messages and the Microsoft messages, to learn how to use the other services in the Windows Live service cloud, and to interact directly with the IT decision makers that flock to TechEd.

After the first few hundred short conversations, the chatty tangents fall away leaving the 30 second elevator pitch.  Everybody starts out with the same questions, the same quizzical scrunched up eyebrows as they approach, so the faster we can get through that the faster we can get to what’s interesting to me:  which aspects of all this are interesting to them, and how they might use it.  Here are a few of the most common questions:

What is Windows Live?

Windows Live is the bringing together of Microsoft’s consumer-facing Internet services, including Windows Live Mail (formerly Hotmail), Windows Live Search (formerly MSN Search), Virtual Earth (still Virtual Earth), Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger) and Windows Live ID (formerly Passport).  Each of these services is getting infrastructure and feature upgrades as part of this rebranding.  A bunch more new and improved services are in the pipeline as well.  Windows Live aims to help everyday people build the online, connected lifestyle they want.

What’s dev.live.com?

Whereas live.com and Windows Live services in general are consumer-facing, dev.live.com is the developer-facing piece of the pie.  dev.live.com is where you go to find out how to use Windows Live services in your web apps and stand-alone apps.  dev.live.com is itself a mashup, drawing together content from MSDN, the various service teams, and the Windows Live Platform team.

Windows Live is distinct from Office Live, XBox Live, or Live Communications Server.  Clearly, there had better be links between the Windows Live service cloud and those other systems as well as any other products as they evolve and extend themselves from isolated desktop apps to internet connected and internet interactive apps.

For example, I would imagine that any Microsoft app that puts user data out on the internet for collaboration will use Windows Live ID as the login service to protect that data.  For a Microsoft product to introduce yet another identity system would be madness.

There ought to be gadgets to report and track XBox Live team scores and tournaments, hosted on Windows Live Spaces homepages.  My Outlook contacts ought to be synonymous with (or at least easily synchronizable with) my Messenger contacts, and my XBox Live buddy list, and my cellphones.  That’s the sort of thing we’re building towards – integration of services into people’s everyday lives.

Why haven’t I heard about this?

It’s no surprise to me that the number one question in the booth was “What is Windows Live?”  It’s a brand new name, a new initiative / direction for the company, and a new approach to engaging the consumer and developer community.  It will take many more months of getting the word out before the world at large begins to collectively recognize the name and have some (hopefully correct) inkling of what it’s about.

This is because “Windows Live” is an iconic name rather than a functional name.  Functional names tell you what they do, like C++ Builder or Internet Information Server or Word or International Harvester (farm equipment).  The name “Microsoft” itself is more functional than iconic.  Functional names also tend to be rather boring and institutional.

The most powerful brand names in the world are almost exclusively iconic.  They are words that you have to learn an association with product or idea.  Xerox. Nike. Delphi. Coca-Cola. Google.  Iconic names tend to be much more expensive and difficult to establish because the name is not self-explanatory, but once established tend to have very strong brand identity and differentiation from their peers.

If you know my background, you know I prefer iconic brands.  They’re just more fun.

How much does it cost?

Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.  Windows Live services are free to use in your applications for mid- to low- traffic volume.  What’s low-volume?  For incorporating Virtual Earth maps into your web app, I’m told the free ceiling is 5,000 transactions per day across all users of your app.

I’m not quite clear on exactly what a “transaction” is here, but whatever it is, 5,000 per day is a lot of ’em for tinkering around and experimenting with the services.  When you get beyond the tinkering stage and grow into real business/traffic, setting up the license should be a trivial formality.  (I am not a lawyer. Read the license agreement yourself)

What if your Virtual Earth mashup web app is an instant success and generates more than 5,000 transactions per day?  Contact us about setting up a volume license.  This licensing is mostly to let us know about your app so we can provision our servers to handle your traffic.  If the license ever becomes an arbitrary obstacle to adopting a Live service, somebody here should be fired.

What do I have to install to use Windows Live services?

Nothing.  Well, except for Messenger.  Messenger is the only piece of the Windows Live service cloud that needs something installed on the client beyond a modern browser.  Everything else in Windows Live can be accessed using a JavaScript enabled browser, such as Firefox (v1.5), IE (v6), Safari, and others, running on just about any platform or OS.  Several of the services are also accessible via SOAP APIs, and thus available to stand-alone apps written with tools that support SOAP, such as any .NET language, Win32 stuff like Delphi, PHP/Perl/Python on Linux, or whatever.

Oh, and an Internet connection might help, too.

Ok, so you need: an Internet connection and a JavaScript enabled browser for everything except Messenger, which requires the Messenger client.

Other random notes from TechEd:

Do you have that in XL?

It’s weird (and a little disturbing) how no matter how many shirts you have for handouts at these (U.S.) shows, it seems size XL is always what you run out of first.  By Friday, distributing our dev.live.com shirts became something of an absurd comedy – “Sorry, we’re out of XL and L.  How about one of these for the little people back home?  Take two, they’re small!

The Convention Center

Wow.  This place is big.  Think Victoria Station.  With 2nd story habitrail tubes crossing the cavern.  With 10,000 hamsters scurrying around.  Wearing BlueTooth headsets.  Yeah, it was exactly like that.

The Staff

The dining hall event staff at this conference have been really pleasant.  Smiles, greetings, and spontaneously fetching a replacement for a defective can of soda.  None of the grumpiness of BorCon99’s Philadelphia staff.

Most Popular Session

Excluding keynotes and evening events, the TechEd session with the highest attendence for the week had to be…  the World Cup Soccer lounge!  Kudos to whoever thought to set up chairs and a big plasma screen to show the soccer matches during the conference.  I passed by that impromptu theater a dozen times a day, morning, noon and night, and it was never empty.  It’s good to see that folks were able to squeeze a little bit of TechEd into their World Cup business trip!

Six Degrees

A significant part (some might argue the biggest part) of attending conferences like TechEd is meeting people.  Keynotes and technical sessions are great venues for unidirectional sharing of information, but probably as much interesting information is exchanged in the hallways and lounges as in the formal sessions.  If all you do is run from room to room for sessions, you’re missing a lot.  Even if you don’t have any specific follow-up questions of your own, a lot can be gleaned by listening to other people’s follow-up discussions on the topic.  Other people’s questions, insights, or misunderstandings often broaden your own understanding of a topic.  Don’t worry about offending anyone by eavesdropping – if what they’re talking about is private, they should “get a room!” instead of blathering on in a public area.

Given that Borland tools have supported Microsoft platforms since before Microsoft had tools, it’s no surprise that I ran into a lot of folks at TechEd that I know from Borland circles.  I bumped into Atanas Stoyanov of AutomatedQA while checking in at the TechEd registration desk.  I ventured into the expo booth maze to find the Falafel booth and see how much heckling I could get away with before they ran me off.  While I was looking for the Falafel booth, Lino and the guys were heading to the Windows Live area with the same objective in mind!  We met in the causeway on the way back to our respective corners.

I cruised past the DevExpress booth and succeeded in derailing Mark Miller‘s train of thought just by staring at him from the back of the crowd.  He was speechless for, like, milliseconds. (dude!)  Which, if you know Mark, is a really long time. ;>

John Lam stopped by the Windows Live booth and we had a long chat about development tools.  It sounds like he’s incubating some interesting ideas that could reignite the “fun” in programming.

I finally had to break off the chat with John to address two gentlemen who had been hovering for ages, somewhat antsy.  I half expected they were about to ask for directions to the men’s room, but actually they were two Delphi guys from Brazil who wanted to say hi.  Good thing, too, because the men’s room was at least a 6 minute walk from our booth.

I also met a bunch of new people (well, new to me) that I look forward to crossing paths with again through work or travel or work travel.  I could swear that I’ve met Julie Lerman before, but neither of us can remember when.  She introduced me to “Dr Neil” Roodyn, the creative force behind viavirtualearth.com and a lot of other stuff.  Funny guy, great to hang out with.

A subtle secondary benefit to Microsoft hosting huge conferences like TechEd (with legions of Microsoft staff on deck) is the networking that the event enables between Microsoft’s own employees.  That number one question “What is Windows Live?” wasn’t coming from just puzzled customers!  There are millions of things going on inside Microsoft at any given moment, and keeping up with even a little bit of what your organizational cousins are doing requires continual contact.

Rob Relyea and I chatted literally for hours about some stuff he’s wanting to get off the ground in the Avalon (er, WPF) space.  We camped out at a table in the mess hall, which caused a quiet flurry of discussion among the catering staff as to how they would discreetly extract the lunch-soiled tablecloth from us to prepare for the dinner round.  They opted to pass us by.  So, if you were wondering about the crumbs on your dinner table Tuesday night, that was our fault.  Please disregard the crayon scribbles, too.

Originally published on my MSDN blog.