Microsoft, Developers, Designers and Bill Gates

I was part of a group that went to Microsoft to talk about the Mix 07 conference and we got a chance to meet Bill Gates and each ask him one question. There were a lot of great topics, and Bill touched on both web applications and the role of the operating system in the future. Here's what he had to say.

I was lucky enough to be a part of the group that went to Microsoft yesterday to talk about everything from the Designer/Developer workflow to their new XNA initiative and it capped off with a Q&A session with Bill Gates himself.

Bill and the Bloggers

From Back Left: Mike Arrington, Evan Williams, Tim Harris, Ryan Freitas, Tantek Celik, Jeremy Zawodny, Molly Holzschlag, Niall Kennedy, Shaun Inman
Front Left: Steve Rubel, Myself, Chris Pirillo, Bill Gates, Kelly Goto, Liz Gannes, Beth Goza (our fantastic hostess), Rael Dornfest

The very first order of business was talking about .NET and "WPF/E". Forrest Key and Scott Guthrie were the presenters and they did a series of demos (which people who read my post about WPF/E should be familiar with) and then we broke into a discussion about how all of these things fit together. They also talked some about their Expression Studio.

There was some confusion among the other attendees about what space WPF/E was supposed to fit into. People didn't seem to grasp the difference between Windows Presentation Foundation and the codenamed "Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere". I think most people who track the space understand, but for the people in the wider web world, there seems to be a disconnect. Microsoft realizes this and is working on making the message better.

The Expression Studio also got some great comments. It was great to hear Kelly Goto (who has an awesome writeup of the event) give her thoughts on the topic. I think people are pretty impressed with the idea of Expression Studio. No one in the room had tried it, which may say something, but Microsoft has paid very, very close attention to how designers and developers work and has tried to create a product that makes that easier. The other thing they've done well with the tools is to create something that someone who does both design and development can use and be comfortable with. In this respect I think they're ahead of Adobe (but we saw examples at MAX of this changing). I think people who are writing Microsoft off with the design market are fooling themselves. Microsoft is aiming for a niche that could become profitable and more important as web applications become richer.

The highlight of the day was the Q&A with Bill Gates. I was really surprised at how different the questions were. I think it speaks to how diverse we were as a group and it made for a fun time. There were two questions (including my own) that most apply to this space and show that even as he's turning over some responsibilities, Bill gets Rich Internet Applications.

I asked him how the operating system would change in 3-4 years and whether or not the consumer facing version of Windows would still be the core of the Windows platform at that point. His response:

"Well in three or four years the operating system can't change all that dramatically. It can change faster maybe than it has..certain elements of it, but it's not going to be artificial intelligence or some dramatic thing. Eventually it will be. The level of the platform just keeps going up, and so things like handling voice or handling ink. And all of that stuff, it's just in the platform and people expect it to be there. This thing about discovering different devices automatically and saying okay, this near by screen, should I project on it, how does that work? And it's just built in. Some of the stuff about replicating storage to the cloud. Being more user centric where, as you move from machine to machine, we just are replicating. By default, we know the set of machines you show up on and are replicating trivial stuff like your favorites, your fonts up to that [cloud]. And when you do search things, if there are certain sports sites you go to, you type sports words in, of course, we're surfacing either the correct answers or the choice of that sports site that you clearly have a particular interest in. And so cross PC and cross device, this move towards natural interface will be big over the next 3 to 4 years. The move towards user-centric cross device with these state replicators that are just free, cloud based services, that will be a very big thing.
The idea of being able to use different devices, Like you have your cell phone, in proximity to that device [my laptop], you should be able to take calls, have the calls routed over IP, make voice annotation. The whole desktop where you have a business phone today and a PC today, that shouldn't be necessary. Between your mobile phone and your PC, 100% of what you've done should be doable. It should be far more transparent, lower cost, more customized than it's been. One of the biggest revolutions is what's going on with telephony where we're getting rid of PBXs. And people are starting to see some of that from the bottoms up with things like messenger and Skype. The big deal is, as people like Cisco and Microsoft actually bring the kind of richness that they're used to from these mainframe type PBXs and say, hey, that's software. And then you integrate it into this full screen experience. And some things, I don't know if any of you have seen this ring cam thing we did as part of office, I think it ships in March, but you know, once you have software getting the video feeds and audio feeds, the ability to add value, in this case it takes a room like this and turns it into a flat video and it figures out who's speaking does the transcript. And it's cheap, even the most expensive version is $2,000 dollars. Just sort of take it for granted that all these things will be in their digital form and digitally processed. But it will be an evolution in a four year time frame."

The other question was one Liz Gannes asked about web applications. Liz asked what applications Bill saw running inside the browser and which would run outside the browser and how that would affect the online/offline issue.

"Well I think it's a silly distinction over time, this is a technical statement, that there's a notion of in the browser and outside, I mean that's just a bizarre thing. There are tasks that you want to get done and you want software assistance in doing. Those tasks involve getting information off the web. And so, take planning a trip with six people. Is that an in the browser application? Not in the browser application? One of the things that has actually held the industry back on this is that if you have an advertising business model, then you don't want to expose your capabilities as a web service because somebody can consume that web service without plastering your ad up next to the thing. And yet in terms of the kind of flexibility, customization, mash up type approach you want that thing to be a web API. So it's ideal if you get business models that don't force someone to say no, we won't give you that service unless you display something right there on that home page, the top level presentation.
Ironically there's no way of enforcing that so people can go and pretend to be a browser and get information, they can do a web service, scraping type thing that looks like a browser up to the other end. So most of the interesting applications kind of span that boundary and you want to get the best of what people think of in the browser where we need code that just sort of magically shows up, it's not too complicated, there's not this installation interference thing. you want what what's good outside the browser, which is you have access to your file system, you have the ability to customize and connect up to the rich applications and have that kind of interface. And you know, they're both moving towards each other but there is still a bit of a barrier there. Some of the new technologies we're working on really will change that."

I think MIX 07 is going to be a very good conference for Developers and Designers of Rich Internet Applications. Hearing Bill's response to some of the issues I spend so much time on was great, and I think if that vision continues to flow through the company, they will be in good shape. With Adobe, OpenLaszlo and Microsoft all offering RIA technologies and Ajax raising expectations, we should see a lot of innovation in the coming months and years.

Full Disclosure: After reading this post, I realized I should do a quick disclosure. I actually didn't get an airplane ride and I didn't stay in the hotel because I'm local here in Seattle. Microsoft did give me a Zune, but ridiculously it doesn't work with my Vista machines, so I can't do anything with it yet - so much for early adopters.