Lots cooking at Microsoft

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There’s been a lot of general head nodding on the web in reaction to Paul Graham’s essay titled Microsoft is Dead.

Paul’s assertion is not that Microsoft is out of business, of course, but that it’s not a serious contender in the development of new technologies that matter.

After some of the things we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks my opinion is that, like Mark Twain, the reports of Microsoft’s demise may well be greatly exaggerated, though I do have to agree with Tim O’Reilly’s comment that MS’s recent assertion that Linux violates 235 Microsoft patents without being willing to name them is totally reminiscent of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s famous claim about communists at the State Department, and Tim’s right-on when he says: Whether or not it’s true, citing such a number without providing any detail is such a classic FUD move that, to me at least, it just makes Microsoft look ridiculous.

Last week we had George Moore and Walter Harp from Microsoft out to talk to our campus web services discussion group. George is the group manager of the Windows Live platform, and Walter is the Product Manager for Windows Live@edu (Microsoft’s online offering for universities). George showed recently announced developments, including Sliverlight, a new platform for developing rich Internet applications. If I understand it correctly Silverlight combines methods for combining video (including high definition video) and interactivity controls into applications that render within a browser – think of it as a competitor to Adobe’s Flash. It’s use requires a browser plug-in, which Microsoft has made available for Firefox and Safari as well as IE. In addition to the base technology, MS is also offering the Silverlight Streaming service, which offers 4 GB accounts for free to host Silverlight applications, with outbound streaming quality of up to 700 Kbps. That speaks of a very hefty investment of resources by Microsoft.

The best explanation of Slverlight I’ve seen so far is the post in Scott Guthrie’s blog. Scott also talks in this post about the implementation of a Dynamic Language Runtime to .NET that allows people to program >NET apps in popular dynamic languages. Microsoft is releasing DLR support for Ruby, Python, Javascript, and something new they’re calling Dynamic VB. Perhaps most interesting, the DLR can be used in cross-platform Silverlight application in the browser.

As Tim O’Reilly notes (in a different post than the one I quoted above):

The RIA game really is heating up. Macromedia (now Adobe) started evangelizing this idea a long time ago, but it was Ajax that made it on the tip of every industry strategist’s tongue. It’s going to be very interesting to watch whether Silverlight and Sun’s JavaFX make headway against Flash and Ajax in this space, or whether it’s already game over.

In addition to showing us Silverlight, George also demonstrated some of the APIs to Microsoft Live services and the easy-to-use drop-in controls they’re making available that build on those controls. The idea is to make it easy for people to build mashups of the various Live services. One of the most interesting controls is one that allows you to see your Live Contacts (think buddy list) dynamically within a web poge.

The very next morning after George and Walter were on campus Microsoft released the Popfly alpha. Popfly is a new service that allows you to visually construct web mashups within a browser by dragging controls onto a canvas and connecting the dots with a mouse. George kindly arranged for me to be invited to the alpha. I haven’t had time to play with it much yet, but I did walk through the excellent tutorial, which walks you through creating a mashup that displays the location of new Twitter posts in Virtual Earth. I then tried to create my own mashup of showing where the closes Metro bus was in relation to my house, but I couldn’t get it working in the fifteen minutes I had available to mess around so far. I was, by the way, working in Popfly in Firefox on my Mac, which worked fine. Popfly strikes me as similar in concept to Yahoo! Pipes, and it will be interesting to contrast the two and watch them both evolve.

So while I haven’t always been a big fan of either Microsoft’s software nor its business tactics, I do think that there is evidence of a whole new generation of talented people there who really get the Internet and Web 2.0 and are working hard to create some new and truly useful and interesting software there. While it’s undoubtedly harder to refocus the huge corporate empire of Microsoft than it was in 1995 when Bill Gates issued his famous Internet Tidal Wave memo, I think there are definite signs of new energy emanating from Redmond. There’s some life left in the old corporation yet!

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