This year, Razorfish sent several of our people to MIX 11, the annual Microsoft sponsored conference in Las Vegas for developers and designers.
So much happened during our week at MIX that it is difficult to summarize it all thematically. There were announcements and sessions on several major topics: IE9, HTML5, ASP.NET MVC 3, Silverlight 5, Windows Phone Mango release, and the Kinect SDK. In addition, there were also appearances from MS Surface v2, Windows Azure, oData and Sharepoint as well as a remarkable set of UX presentations.
The word on everyone’s lips seemed to be fragmentation, whether in reference to the expected HTML5 compatibility issues between future browsers (which the emphasis on the IE9 “native” browser experience only exacerbated) or to the greater array of Microsoft development technologies fighting for developers’ attentions.
What the four Razorfish attendees at MIX saw, on the contrary, were patterns of evolution. The much ballyhooed struggles between the Windows Team and the Development Team inside Microsoft for the future of HTML5 and Silverlight indicate to us that Microsoft can still respond to a rapidly changing worldwide technology ecosystem. When a product is struggling in the niche it was doing fine in a year ago, it can be refitted to survive in a new niche. Such is the case with Silverlight, originally intended as a Flash-killer. Silverlight developers never truly adopted the original Flash-killer strategy and instead used Silverlight to develop more sophisticated and interesting line-of-business applications. The problem is that LOB applications do not really belong on the web. They belong behind firewalls. The lack of casual games written in Silverlight likely affected the ability of Silverlight to force downloads and gain browser share. So instead, the strengths of Silverlight are being moved to the desktop as well as specialized platforms such as Windows Phone, the XBOX (?), and possibly Windows vNext.
WPF, which was once the pre-eminent desktop development platform, is in turn becoming a specialized tool for NUI development for multi-touch, Surface and Kinect. The announcement of the Kinect SDK itself demonstrates Microsoft’s continuing ability to innovate and surprise. It is, in the best sense of the term, a fortuitous mutation.
This all leaves HTML5 as the preferred technology for the web. We of course see the early signs of browser compatibility issues. At the same time, though, we have each been through this before and survived. The extra gyrations developers will have to go through will, in the end, provide the illusion consumers desire – that the same application can run similarly on any operating system and any device. As one MIX speaker put it, “The technology you use impresses no one. The experience you create with it is everything.”
Speaking of devices, we are excited to see that the WP7 team is not only going for parity with other smart phones but is firing warning shots across their bows with the much touted Mango release. Features we’re used to like multitasking are being expanded beyond current implementations with updating live tiles and “Live Agents” which allow for more full-featured multitasking.
There was naturally some complaining about the placement of various keynotes and sessions. With the multiple announcements and cross-blocking sessions, isn’t there a danger that individual messages will get drowned out in the general cacophony? We find that the panoply of conflicting viewpoints is one of the chief charms of MIX. Microsoft is not Apple. To borrow from Isaiah Berlin’s famous title, Apple is the hedgehog that does one thing well; Microsoft is the fox that explores all avenues and experiences. The great strength of Microsoft is its ability to challenge developers and create new harmonies out of these encounters. Should MIX ever be split up into different web, Silverlight, Windows Phone and UX conferences, we would all be poorer for it since all we would ever get would be our own opinions reflected back on ourselves – an echo chamber effect that will only serve to make us all deaf.
The overall quality of all sessions and boot camps were extremely high this year. In the past, we have been happy with a 60% success rate on talks. This year roughly 85% of the talks rang our internal bells. Certain sessions deserve a special shout out, however.
While all the UX lightning talks were extraordinary, August de los Reyes’s 21st Century Design (10’ 45”) talk took it to a different level. In the live session, the slide deck itself was the star with the brilliant August narrating it much as Peter Jones was the voice of the book in the old Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy television series.
Despite its inauspicious title, Ivan Tashev’s talk Audio for Kinect revealed what a truly remarkable device the Kinect really is. We honestly didn’t understand half of the technical stuff and we became queasy when formulas started flying across the screen. What we learned, though, was that only a fragment of the Kinect’s full audio capability is currently being used. Dr. Tashev demonstrated the ability of the Kinect’s audio algorithms to pick out two separate speakers, one reading Chinese and the other reading Korean, and separate them into different channels. All of this cool functionality will, moreover, be handed over to developers when the Kinect SDK beta is released at the end of spring.
Finally, we cannot say enough good things about Luis Cabrera and his willingness to demonstrate the Surface 2 at work in A Whole NUI World. Razorfish, of course, has a special affinity for anything Surface. What was outstanding in this presentation was not only the beauty and power of the new Surface devices but also the amount of thought that has gone into the tooling. Kudos to the Surface team, they’re reaching for a goal that is more than just a new technology but a new way for people to interact with computers and each other.
By the end of MIX, we were all quite exhausted mentally and physically. It may take us a full year – until the next MIX – to finish ingesting everything that we learned and experienced at MIX11.
So long, Microsoft, and thanks for all the Kinects.