HTML5? Ok, so let’s also deploy Microsoft Silverlight onto Android then…

imageAfter finishing a podcast discussing  Microsoft fumbled future developer story, has sparked a few threads in my warped perception of all things developer platforms.  Please go out on a limb with me here and let this one swirl around in the ol noggin for a moment or two (it’s Friday).

Let’s for arguments sake state that Microsoft bets quite large on HTML5 / JavaScript as being a pull-through for net-new developers of tomorrow. It is an easy asks, as most developers on the planet can code in HTML or JavaScript without an issue per say – whether they like to or not is a different story.

Assuming this is correct and assuming you have a solution where developers can conjure creations under the wing of ye olde HTML/JavaScript then my question to you all is this. Why not put Silverlight runtime on Android.

I know it’s been a question above most people’s heads inside Microsoft as to why they shouldn’t put the mutation of that which is a x-browser, x-plugin and x-device original story onto a competing phone platform? You are about to do this anyway the moment you unleash the HTML5 & JavaScript story unto the world. Developers will hack your garden walls and find ways to push out to the multiple devices so at best all you can really do as a company (Microsoft) is retain Tooling and Server Share(s). Operating system share is going to obviously tank because of a unified development platform such as the ye olde web browser on steroids – aka Windows 8 Covershow – aka Sidebar Gadgets on steriods – aka..wtf do you call it?.

That is until you decide to fork the HTML5/JavaScript story and start introducing your own additive components to the equation that allow developers to touch deeper into the Operating Systems thus bolting down the developer base back onto your platform.

Ok, so assuming that was the guess of all guesses, then why abandon.NET as a preferred approach? As now you not only have to keep the .NET oxygen flowing in a healthy direction to 6million+ .NET devs world wide – but – you also need to put in place sugar pragmatic coding trix such as JavaScript/HTML translative (is that a word?) instructions to a common language runtime….ie CLR????

The upside by putting Silverlight onto Android is you get to part of the two horse race – let’s face it Android and iPhone have the developer markets attention more so than WP7. Enabling developers to play in both streams could energize your base more and you can potentially regain net-new developer share the other way. If you are going to give your farm away, at least fight for a good price is my thinking.

The reality is this, the Silverlight teams are grabbing some pine right now, they’ve been benched until further notice so we are unlikely to see Silverlight move past version 5 until the dust settles on Windows 8 that is code-named Windows 8 (brilliant marketing guys, seriously, brilliant).

Its’ that stalling posture and that sense of “hang on this equation doesn’t add up” that is ultimately causing ripples in the Light-force (ie Silverlight/WPF/WinForms etc Communities).

Just my thoughts – but what do I know, its not like i use to Product Manage Silverlight…oh wait.. doH!

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The 6 things that annoy me when you design my software.

1. Stop making bottleneck software

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Technically you could write most software today as one big mega-class with loads of switch / if&else statements. If you did that, not only would every other developer you come across immediately punch you in the nose but it would also become hard to maintain over time.

We agree that would be stupid right. I mean one large file for all code! – yet why do I always see software designed in such a way that it becomes the Swiss army knife of all tasks associated to the user, in that it becomes feature-heavy based around feeble arguments of "but the user wanted.."

The user is 80% of the time a jackass.

You are armed with a plethora of programming models today, stop crowding (thereby creating UX bottlenecks) the user interface for every single role known to man. Figure out the "persona’s" attached to your software and if need be, make smaller contextually relevant versions of the software per person (whether it be modular or separate specific installations).

2. Third Party Controls do not negate the need for a designer.

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When I first left Microsoft and joined the working class (mwahah), I was often thrown into the deepened of projects that needed some UX makeovers. Given I have both a programming and design background it seemed a natural fit so sure, go with the flow I say. I’d walk into a typical gig and sure enough I’d see 3rd party controls lurking about (ie Telerik, Component One etc).

Nothing against these brands but if you are dealing with WPF or Silverlight then let me give you a heads up on why this is a bad idea. Firstly, the 3rd party controls are just a quick dirty fix to get around bad UI design, I get it, budgets are non-existent so you do the best you can. Secondly, these controls are made for multiple developers around the world, so there are many keys to turn on and off for them to snap together – which means your controls are not on a diet. Thirdly, you need to walk a mile in the shoes of say a C++ programmer or some language that used to have to play a game of memory Tetris to really grasp the concept of the second point.

Diet is the keyword. If you are dealing in Silverlight space the leaner and smaller footprint your code has, the snappier things are going to get. I am not talking about pure CPU no-holds bar processing time; I am talking about rendering pipeline time. I am yet to see an example of 3rd party controls improving performance and not subtracting them.

Stop outsourcing design for third party controls and I am looking at you graph boy/girl.

3. Every screen has a soul.

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In UI Principles space there’s this little concept call false affordance. It means something that looks like it was supposed to do xyz but does nothing (i.e. Push the button and all negative energy will disappear scams).

If you have some software that has a hierarchy of navigational elements, you click on the first node, and it does nothing but expand to the second node but at the same time shows a view with some "weak" summary (i.e. description etc.). Stop, you are doing it wrong.

Every click has a purpose of existence. If you have a dashboard, what is its purpose? Think about its relevance in the grand scheme of things. Should it be fresh content daily/weekly/monthly? Is a holding pattern screen necessary?  The screen, which is like the UX principles are buffering between two major waypoints – you know the one screen in the app that really has no purpose other than to get you from A to C but somehow you felt the need to keep B in place.

If you have a screen that is filled with say two Input controls and that is it. That is a freakin dialog box, it is not a screen. Stop being lazy and think about the problem not how easy it is for you to just whack up an app. It’s not about you, it is about them *points to the end user*.

4. You are not a magician so quit giving me the constant "surprise" moments.

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Ever used an application that when you click on something random inside a screen suddenly a piece of User Interface randomly appears somewhere in the screen? Maybe hidden inside a secondary tree node somewhere?

This is not a magic show and you are not a magician. Progressive Disclosure is great when done in a way that leads the user on a journey, no more "I’ve just modified the screen, if you guess what I just did you get a fluffy kitten" moments.

5. Humans are smarter than you think

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I have covered this quite a lot but let me re-iterate in the theme of this post. Over 90% of the world’s computer population right now has some piece of overly complicated unnecessary piece of crap software installed on their hard drive that they have somehow managed to figure out partially its inner workings.

The benchmark for success right now in this space is so low you could trip over it and still succeed.  My point is the end users are actually smarter than you give them credit for. If you are in a team and someone says, "Yeah our users aren’t smart enough to.." challenge that jackass upfront. As did he conduct a survey where One in Five housewives came back being dumber than he anticipated?

If an average worker-bee can sit through SAP ERP or any piece of software that Oracle/Microsoft throws at them, they can sit through your software as well.

The trick is to make it enjoyable for them, to be the software that does not feel like the others – the stand out. Rather than holding them hostage to complexity because of your own arrogance, try to think less about the complexity levels and more the enjoyment levels. Software should be enjoyable as we work WITH software – we do not USE it.

6. I did not buy a cat so it could be my master.

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My kids wanted a kitten and so me being the "fun" dad I bought one. Today that cat rules the house most of the time because we react to it, not the other way around.

In software, this often is similar to what happens. We buy software thinking it will save us time and money as it will improve the master/slave relationship to our daily lives. Instead, we become more enslaved in its processes.

An example. Today I went to my bank ANZ (which I am ditching – F*K you ANZ). I said, "I’d like a copy of my home mortgage statement to give to your competitor so I can leave your dumbasses – i.e. YOU ARE FIRED"

I watched the teller pound away at a keyboard for like 5mins before she arrived at a point of some kind that then needed her co-worker to give her instructions on generating a printable report.

I am sitting there thinking the following things:

  • Why are you typing so much?
  • Why can’t I do this online myself? You give me access to every other account functionality yet why not this?
  • Why am I giving you everything but a DNA sample to authenticate I am who I say I am still to this day?

My point here is that aside from a crappy online service from ANZ Bank, the teller herself should have a simple input control that has a button next to it. Inside that input control, she types, "Print <AccountNumberXYZ> Mortgage Statement as of Today"

The input box then does the following:

  • Looks up my account number and verifies it still is active.
  • Takes the verb Print to mean "fetch" and the words Mortgage Statement as being what should be fetched whilst the word "Today" meaning as in Now(). Then spit out a piece of paper with that information. In otherwords “PrintMortgageStatementWorkflow(custId, date);”

I think I make my point(s) in saying why are we jumping through hurdles to make software do the work when it feels like we are a separate background thread in the software’s world.

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Why Microsoft is failing at WP7.

It is easy to sit on the sidelines, point and laugh at how the overall Windows Phone 7 tire fire is burning daily. It is also greatly disappointing to see as whilst I had predicted from the start that Windows Phone 7 will fail with consumers but could win with business/enterprise it’s also bitter sweet victory in many ways to be right.

How did the product arrive at this state? Where a pittance of allegedly 1.6million units have been sold out of the 2million units known to be “in-market”. My thinking is as follows:

No Aesthetic Differentiation.

 

Stating that is bold and a bit of an eyebrow raiser, as clearly the Metro UI is different to the rest right? Not really, as you are probably looking at this through the lens of a TechEd T-Shirt wearing c# ninja aka Microsoft “aware” perspective. The reality is if you go into a mobile store of any kind around the world, you just have to stare at the buffet of phones on display and cannot really help but notice one thing. They all seem to look kind of like the iPhone in terms of shape – keep in mind we humans are pattern people, we seek patterns first and then adjust to what the pattern is second.

If all the phones have similar shapes then what does that say? Does it feel like an iPhone knockoff? It has the similar price tag. So why pay for a copy of a popular device when you can have the real thing?

Assuming you get past that train of thought let us look at it from a different perspective. You are in the store, you get excited over the initial 10seconds of “Wow, nice UI” moment(s). The more you use it, the more you start thinking “meh, what kind of apps does this thing have?” so now you have to grasp the concept of the Zune Marketplace – assuming you’re outside of the US and the brand Zune is “What the freaking hell is a Zune?” moment(s). How do you grasp Zune Marketplace while in a store? You click on Marketplace but nothing happens as most phones have no internet connection(s) in stores.

I have seen many a “marketplace” on the ye olde phones that were run by carriers so what makes this different to those as again who is Zune? What apps do you have and do you have Angry Birds? Skype? Foursquare? Facebook (yes its built in, but are others outside the Microsoft sphere of influence aware of this?) etc?

Too consistent & poor quality bands.

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The differentiation is one thing but then comes the moment of too much consistency. All of the applications tend to blur into being the same old cookie cut style. There is not a real sense of change or theming in place other than games. Today’s twitter application looks like a thousand other twitter applications aside from some color changes. There is no real sense of depth and whilst the team has pushed for “authentically digital” which is a noble gesture in the art scene, it is but one lacking in the consumer space.

To put it another way, If I have a voice recording “memo” style application then please make it look like a recording application (i.e. iPhone uses this big Microsoft and it takes on this “theme” of being the app). There are some diamonds in the rough when it comes to the marketplace, not all are bad – most are though.

All it takes is any C# developer with some developer muscle and a lame brain idea around FlashLight, Twitter, Task list or Tip Calculator and pretty much soon you have a saturated idea brimming to the surface of applications made available to you for purchasing. The quality baseline for success in the market is measured around quantity not quality. iPhone is no different much like Android, the difference with those phones however is they aren’t the ones struggling to convince people that their old version isn’t the same as you see before you in the new version(s). They don’t have as big of a hill to climb back out of and arguing mediocrity in quality bands as an excuse as to why is plain stupid.

There is no switch up inside the phone, all apps tend to become the same look and feel repeatedly – so my point is this is not just a phone it’s a media device that should be filled with brainless eye candy as much as functional brilliance. Let the audience decide if Authentically Digital compositions are their cup of tea but forcing all to bow down to this mentality is simply locking you into a bubble of ignorance.

Dance with the girl you came with.

These are the end result of a local GOVT dept who bought HP iPAQ's instead of WP7 for development purposes? Sad?

Consumers are morons, and are easily tricked if you have a brilliant strategy. Urban legend of Colgate guy wanting to increase toothpaste sales that tried everything but in the end all he did was increase the diameter of the hole in which toothpaste pours out of by 3mm in the end sent sales through the roof (given we used more toothpaste unwittingly). It is a story I was told in my days of Marketing 101 training, but it stuck with me for obvious reason(s) – hopefully.

Microsoft is so preoccupied with “beating” the other guy (and we used to drink that compete rage elixir often) that its lost perspective on the places its getting success – Business/Enterprise. Go into a govt department, large mining company, finance sector the whole thing and ask them how they are coping with business related devices such as PDA’s and wanting field staff to do xyz. You would be surprised at the response you get – especially how iPhones, Androids and Windows Phone 7 are not even in the race. The reason being is simple – “How does one deploy a private app to my citizens?”

The reality is Microsoft’s spent the lion share of its marketing spend on US Consumers hoping that this like some kind of weird end of year Xbox style achievements metrics “Congratulations! You have Achieved Level 1 in sales!” moment(s).

Inside Australia for example the WP7 Marketing is a secret? As its rare you catch glimpses of its existence outside a mobile store and even then you have Windows Phone7 Logo right beside Windows Phone 6 devices.  Confused? I was.

The win here while it may not be loud (which sadly gets you career points in Microsoft) is that if Microsoft released an Enterprise follow-on with the WP7 devices focused on allowing draconian SOE overlords to brick the phones in such a way that forces its peon’s to adhere to the blah blah policy then you in turn would have a backdoor into consumer market.

The reason being is these are human beings the phones are being handed to during work hours. The more they use them, the more the grow accustom and forgiving towards the device you are giving your crack away via corporate mandates. Establishing a habitual usage amongst the business/enterprise community in turn creates natural evangelism, which in turn can either make or break you (if its crap phones it will be very loud as to why).

If you are in a meeting and you see many WP7 phones in the room, you cannot but help notice them – that is what they call “product placement” in marketing terms and you get it free amongst the business community.
Nobody is doing this right now, and I’ve witnessed thousands upon thousands of units of HP IPAQ like devices running Windows Mobile 6.5 as a result (right now I’m staring at a body of work I’ll need to work on soon in this space, simply because no Wp7 device is available for commercial usage).

Competitions are an act of marketing desperation.

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I was once told inside Microsoft that if you get to a point where you are running a competition to excite developers around a product, you have failed. It is the last desperate refuge for a marketing to try to regain some lost momentum around marketing a product that really needed more than a “Win a new phone?” moment(s).

When I was doing my interviews for Product Manager on the Silverlight team, my bosses boss (Dave Mendlen) asked me how I would handle a competition etc for a product if had $50k to spend? I guess he wanted to see me break it down into its overall pieces etc. My response was simple

“I’d take the $50k,  put up a 1x Page website and simply give away a CAR in any country around the world for the best and fairest blah blah”.

My point was simple; competitions suck firstly so I would rather get this fool’s errand out of the way upfront. Secondly, if you are going to have competitions then go big or go home. Don’t pussyfoot around with $1k or below offerings, you want competition right? You want people to take notice and work hard to fight to the finish then put a carrot that is big enough that it feels both reachable and enriching at once.

I see way to many competitions for developers to write xyz Windows Phone App around lately and it’s just sad to watch. Microsoft needs to raise its game and seed the product in much smarter ways then weak competition tactics. Evangelism needs to be smarter and the marketing spend / product placement campaigns need to be better than it is today. Seeing a Windows Phone 7 on a TV show is a good start but it lacks follow-up(s).

If I go to a geek conference of any kind I want to see Wp7 branding everywhere but I also want to see someone doing something interesting with the phone(s). I want sizzle and holding creations as if the one Brandon Foy hostage to “If you get 200k+ views I’ll let you do a commercial for real” is like asking Don Draper to audition for entry-level copywriter. You had talent in front of you and you still missed it.

In Summary

The phone is failing and it is not really the actual phones fault it’s more direction, understanding of who needs the phone and lastly ensuring the quality bands associated with the phone raise. If you are going to go head to head with Apple who have shown repeatedly that Industrial Design / User Experience is what consumers are really attracted to. Bring it fully do not “version three we will get it right / marathon speech” it to death.

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WPF lip service at it again

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I’ve been watching the WPF Disciples list regarding FIXWPF with some obvious keen interest. The thread has taken on an interesting level of discussion and guys like Pete Brown are doing the right thing, listening, responding and taking notes.

Jaime however has jumped on and given the – we’ve heard it all before – riot act around the UX Platform guidance. You know the one, Good, Great and Ultimate splits sprinkled with “it depends” and basically comes around to the pitch that Microsoft is probably best known for around commitment pledges.

This isn’t an attack on Jaime, I’ve worked with him before and I liked his work in the past, as all he’s doing is talking to party lines and it will be the same guidance you are given no matter who you talk to inside Microsoft.

That being said the bulk of it is lip service and i’ll explain why.

RE: HTML5 vs Silverlight vs WPF (Good, Great and Ultimate).

This guidance is probably the oldest response to keeping the three pillars apart. It hasn’t changed in over 3 years and is unlikely until you see some dramatic increase in footprint regarding Internet Explorer 9 + HTML5.

The idea is to provide developers a linked approach to how the three dovetail with one another and when you look at it from the right angle it almost looks plausible. The reality however is it is poor guidance for one and secondly it doesn’t address the question.

The question really being asked is “which should I bet on” not “which is the right technology for the right job” as quite frankly for 80% of solutions out there i’d confidently state that all three could achieve your needs for line of business applications. The three each have their own taxes  you will end up paying but welcome to software and that’s life.

Back to the question, which should you bet on and this is where the lip service falls short. As the question is also asking which is Microsoft likely to continue investing into – the fact that Jamie for example is no longer a full time WPF evangelist and is now in the Wp7 evangelism rhythms is an indication to that answer. No Microsoftie is going to come out and say “yeah, you better get off WPF unless your writing C++  bridges to .NET, as its going to get murky soon” as the last time a softie even hinted at that kind of raw honesty was Bob Muglia and he was a Senior Vice President – currently looking for a new job.

Choosing between the three really is coming down to your team mates, your needs and lastly your personal investment in learning / continuance in your career. They are really the three core principles involved in making the choice between the three and the usual good, great and ultimate speech has never really returned any hint on success – I dare Microsoft to provide evidence of success here.

If your team mates are all HTML developers with ASP.NET Web Forms skills, then the question they are all having is around which is the easiest and best route to success next. WPF can provide you a core foundation for Silverlight/WPF development but it will test your patience and confidence levels greatly. There is a lot of information decay online around which version of the framework/API still work today vs when they did in the past and lastly WPF seems to have more questions than Silverlight go unanswered – according to StackOverflow.com.

Silverlight is still up for grabs although its clearly shifted its strategy from when I was on the team to be more of a Windows Phone 7 platform and less about the web more so as time continues to flow.

HTML5 is basically a bunch of new tags that are ready for browsers, but in the end you’re still hacking around in the weeds with JavaScript and CSS. To be fair, if you’re an ASP.NET WebForms team, then HTML5 would probably be the quick win – but – its not as much fun as Silverlight / WPF?

My point is, its confusing and the usual lip service really doesn’t bode well for Microsofties as they come off looking like they are a PR machines for one and secondly any trust within WPF vs Silverlight discussion has been eroded due to constant shifts in vision – clearly it highlights that this has been and will continue to be highly tactical reactive product management and less strategic.

RE: Customers want us to invest more into Silverlight.

Jaime goes on to say:

First of all,  a lot of our customers are telling us to invest more into Silverlight.  Let’s say (again made up) that demand is  4-to 1. How do we justify a revamp of the graphics architecture in WPF.  This is not trivial work; the expertise in this space is limited, we can’t clone our folks to 5x to meet everyone’s needs.  

Unless Microsoft’s feedback channels have gone through a massive upgrade / radical change in the last 6 months, I call bullshit on that one. The customers are likely to be folks like NetFlix or Vertigo? (we have no real tangible customer feedback pipelines in Microsoft. It was a nightmare to sift through the chaos to get such answers)  and secondly the reality of that comment is what I call “Oh dear, he didn’t say that” moment. If i was a journalist i would use that firstly as fodder for “See Microsoft just stated they have no interest investing into WPF” – not  only would it be fair game, it’s obviously correct so it’s also not healthy right now.

It’s important to also add that if you starve a product of its marketing budget, then your overall awareness for the product is going to drop dramatically. It’s also fair to state that if the bulk of your attention across the board within the company is on Windows Phone 7 and Silverlight, then its even more likely the customer focus is skewed towards what you’ve been waiving and shaking your hands at the most. To use a metaphor “It’s like giving a child candy and then asking if they should give you more vegetables?”

My only real response to that question is who’s going to walk up to AutoDesk and tell them “Well, we could fix performance issues in 3DS MAX 2010 with you, but sorry, Silverlight is our preferred bet… best you figure out an alternative route filled with C++ and roll your own rendering pipeline".

Jaime goes on to address the likely cost of WPF

Let’s assume we did take on the work.  My guess (again, I am not engineering) is that it would take two years to implement and thorougly test a release.  At the stage that WPF is at, a rearchitecture or huge changes on the graphics stack would be 80% about testing and 20% about the dev work.    It is not a trivial amount of work.   Would we get the performance you want across myriad of devices? We don’t know. WPF bet on hardware, and there is new devices out  there that are trading hardware for battery, weight, or simply for cost.  it would suck to do that much work, make you wait a long time, and then not get there. Let’s get real on the asks; you say “improve perf” but you are asking us to do a “significant re-write”; these two asks are different. 

He has a point, it would be a significant impact to the resources allocated to WPF to get it back to the core promise that was made in 2007 – trust us right? things keep changing? we don’t have a plan just right now, but as things happen we hopefully will!.

It’s a good thing that there are 200+ engineers right now ready to pounce on this problem so it should be a large amount of work, but with that many engineering cycles nothings not attackable according to Scott Guthrie, CVP of Developer Division.

That was a cheap shot Barnes! and it was. My response to Jaime’s remarks there would be “This affects me how?” as in the end you, Microsoft asked me to invest in you years ago. I did, and now you’re telling me its too hard and costly for you to invest back into me? how is that fair and again why am I trusting you over and over when you keep changing the rules? Is this not an abusive relationship now?

RE: We speak to customers.

Comments like this for me a red flags –

3)      You are asking us to listen to our customers.   We agree there and that is exactly what we are doing. Please keep in mind, you are not the only customer – even if you are my favorite one :)-.

image The reason they are red flags as the response at the end of the day says “trust us, we have this covered” as nowhere does Microsoft really ever decompress what customers they have spoken to and any substantial numbers to support it. For all you know, NetFlix and Nokia are the two customers they spoke to and NetFlix executive being on the board of Microsoft whilst Nokia’s new CEO was one of the ex-executives at Microsoft – well you can see how easily you could tear the argument apart if you set about doing so.

The point is, there’s no response you can give as the actual comment is supposed to make you feel isolated and that what you’re saying really is most likely a vocal minority.

Here’s the real deal guys and pay attention to this one as it will bake your noodles. Inside Microsoft there is no one team that handles customer feedback. Multiple teams do it and they approach it from a variety of angles. In the entire time i was a Product Manager and Evangelist within the WPF/Silverlight teams I never once saw or even heard of a central database of customer feedback. The closest we had was an annual survey / report that we collected which gave a health check of the entire Microsoft brand & its products. It was quite shallow in gauging what customers wanted and it’s main purpose was to be used as a large measuring stick for all roles almost in Microsoft to gauge success/failure was per year.

The only way you would get data from customers was if you invited them to Redmond (which is effectively the same as a band inviting a fan over for dinner and asking them what they could do better) or you outsource your needs to a company like Adaptive Path, Forester, Gartner etc to come up with a survey / research around the topic at hand (Don’t be shocked folks, but Gartner Research can be bought for the right price).

Having a listening post inside Microsoft around what customers want or need is chaotic at best and it depends on who’s listening and what the initial agenda is – more so how it maps across. It has nothing to do with constructive feedback or channels of delivery as the higher the decision making goes the further the customer feedback gets from these decision makers.

RE: Let’s compromise?

Jaime does go on to discuss the compromise:

he WPF has looked at the trade-offs, and risk many times.  We are also looking at what customers need. Jer, to you it is all about graphics.  To many others, it is about data.  So, how do we serve all customers??

The strategy is exactly what you have seen/heard:

1) WPF 4.5 is going to have some significant data binding performance improvements.  

2) We are not redoing the graphics framework, but we are doing a lot of work to let you interoperate with lower level graphics so that if you need more graphics perf you can get it, and still keep the RAD of the rest of the framework. 

I often see this style of response from Microsofties (hell, I used to give it). It’s one of those responses you just go “What the f… If you’re going to piss on my head from above at least have the courtesy of telling me its fresh water harvested from a pure spring – make an attempt to keep the illusion alive at the very least.” yes its colorful but the point is, please stop treating me like I’m an idiot as I’ve not given you any indication i think that of you have I?

Cheap shot again, sorry Jaime but we both know that’s a classic “let’s take this offline – abort abort” throw away pacification tactic. As what it really translates to:

“Look, we don’t have engineering cycles to really fix the core problem so what we are going to do is shift the focus in other areas in the hope you will just leave us alone long enough until we can regroup for a better story next year”

Cheap shots again.. but.. in my defense, I’m just thinking on both sides of this conversation. How would I react to the responses in WPF Disciples as a Product Manager / Evangelist and lastly how would i respond to the answers I just gave as a customer / adopter of Microsoft UX Platform.

Is this about Jaime or WPF though?

Now, normally remarks like the ones Jaime has given on a public mailing list are usually ones you give a free pass to with regards to most Microsoft staffers. As at times you find staff arm themselves in the riot gear and just bolt straight into the fray of civil geek unrest and try their best to calm peoples opinions from spiraling into a negative back to a positive.

Jaime, isn’t a young pup fresh out of Microsoft boot camp. He’s a seasoned Technical Evangelist at Corp, who over the years has had deep roots with the WPF team in terms of influence and awareness of their future(s). I’ve personally worked with Jaime a few times and he is very talented and smart person, so my point here is that what he’s just outlined was a slip between what he knows privately as to what’s going on vs what he shouldn’t disclose publically. Furthermore, he speaks for the WPF team and no matter how many times he can throw the prefix “personally, my thoughts are” to his remarks, if that’s what he’s thinking then its highly likely that’s the outcome you’re likely expecting or going to expect.

This isn’t about Jaime though, and I cannot stress enough that I have enormous respect for him professionally and personally. It’s about Microsoft and WPF, and this is simply a highly visible case of internal thinking spilling over into a mailing list. I cannot stress this enough, if this reads as me kicking the crap out of Jaime’s remarks on a thread then please can i simply say it’s not personal its the role Jaime is acting out that is up for grabs. You represent Microsoft, you speak as if Bill Gates himself sat in a room full of journalists and outlined his thoughts, there is no “but he’s a nice guy” moments.

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This is why i have created FIXWPF.org and will work night / day to expose this kind of lip service but instead of opinionated pieces or argumentative out of context text grabs, i instead will hope to back it in a more factual manner with real-world data, so situations like this aren’t a case of constant streams of :-

“trust us, we have it covered”.

No you don’t have it covered, as it costs to much remember?

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The principles of Microsoft Metro UI decoded

The phrase “authentically digital” makes me want to barf rainbow pixels. This was a quote pulled from a Windows Phone 7 reviewer when he first got a hold of the said phone. At first you could arguably rail against the concept of what Authentically Digital means and simply lock it into the yet another marketing fluff to jazz a situation in an unnecessary way.

I did, until I sat back and thought about it more.

Issues Presented.

Metro in itself has its own design language attached, they cite a bunch of commandments that the overall experience is to respect and adhere that is to say, someone has actually sat down and thought the concept through (rare inside Microsoft UX). I like what the story is pitching and I agree in most parts with the laws of Metro that is to say, I am partially onboard but not completely.

I’m on board with what Metro could be, but am not excited about where it’s at right now. I state this as I think the future around software is going through what the fashion industry has done for generations – a cultural rebirth / reboot.

Looking back at Retro not metro.

Looking at the past, back in the late 90’s the world was filled with bold flat looking user interfaces that made use of a limited color palette given the said video capabilities back then wasn’t exactly the greatest on earth. EGA was all the rage and we were seeing hints of VGA whilst hating the idea that CGA was our first real cut at graphics.

EGA eventually faded out and we found ourselves in the VGA world (color TV vs. black n white if you will), life was grand and with 32bit color vs. 16bit color wars coming to a conclusion the worlds creative space moved forward leaps and bounds. Photoshop users found themselves creating some seriously wicked UI, stuff that made you at the time thank the UI gods for plug-ins like alien ware etc as they gave birth to what I now call the glow/bevel revolution in user interface design.

Chrome inside software started to take on an interesting approach, I actually think you could probably trace its origins of birth in terms of creative new waves back to products like Winamp & Windows Media player skins. The idea that you could take a few assets and feed them into mainstream products like this and in turn create this experience on the desktop that wasn’t a typical application was interesting (not to mention Macromedia Director’s influence here either).

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I think we all simply got on a user interface sugar induced high, we effectively went through our awkward 80’s fashion stage, where crazy weird looking outfits / music etc was pretty much served up to the world to gorge on. This feast of weird UI has probably started to wind down to thanks to the evolution of web applications, more importantly what they in turn taught us slowly.

Web taught the desktop how to design.

The first lesson we have learnt about design in user interface from the web is simple – less is more. Apple knocks this out of the park extremely well and I’d argue Apple wasn’t its creator, the Web 2.0 crowd as they use to be know was. The Web 2.0 crowd found ways to simply keep the UI basic to the point and yet visually engaging but with minimalist views in mind. It worked, and continues to work to this day – even on Apple.com

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Companies like Microsoft have seen this approach to designing user interface and came to a fairly swift rationale that if one were to create a platform for developers & designers to work in a fashion much like the web, well desktop applications themselves could take on an entirely new approach.

History lesson is over.

I now look at Metro thinking back on the past evolution and can’t but help think that we’re going back to a reboot of EGA world, in that we are looking for an alternative to design in order to attract / differentiate from the past. Innovation is a scarce commodity in today’s software business, so we in turn are looking at ways to re-energize our thinking around software design but in a way that doesn’t create a cognitive overload – be radical, be daring but don’t be disruptive to process/task.

Inside Microsoft what I can presume, the ECG group found a way to hijack existing patterns in terms of user recognition and make use of modern signage found inside bus station, railways, elevator marshal areas etc and declared this to be the way out of the excess UI scourge.

I like it, I like this source of inspiration but my first instinct was simple – I hope your main source of success isn’t the reliance on typography, especially in this 7second attention economy of today. Sure enough, there it is, the reliance in Windows phone 7. Large typography taking over areas of where chrome used to live in order to fix what chrome once did. The removal of color / boundary textures in order to create large empty space filled with 70px+ Typography with half-seen half-hidden typography is what Microsoft’s vision of tomorrow looks like.

Metro isn’t Wp7, Metro is Microsoft Future Vision.

My immediate reaction to seeing the phone (before the public did) back inside Microsoft was "are you guys high, this is not what we should be doing, we are close but keep at it, you’re nearly there! don’t rush this!". This reaction was the equivalent of me looking at a Category 5 Tornado, demanding it turn around and seek another town to smash to bits – brave, forward thinking but foolish.

This phone has to ship, its already had two code resets, get it done, fix it later is pretty much the realistic vision behind Windows Phone 7 – NOT – Metro.

Disbelief?

Take a look at what the Industry Innovation Group has produced via a company called Oh, Hello. In this vision of tomorrow’s software (2019 to be exact) you’ll see a strong reliance on the metro laws of design.

The Principles of Metro vs. Microsoft Future Vision.

In order to start a conversation around Metro in the near future, one has to identify with the level of thinking associated with its creation. Below is the principles of metro – more to the point, these are the design objectives and creative brief if you will on what one should approach metro with.

Clean, Light, Open, Fast

  • Feels Fast and Responsive
  • Focus on Primary Tasks
  • Do a Lot with Very Little
  • Fierce Reduction of Unnecessary Elements
  • Delightful Use of Whitespace
  • Full Bleed Canvas

You could essentially distill these points down to one word – minimalist. Take a minimalist approach to your user interface and the rewards are simple – sense of responsiveness in user interface, reliance on less information (which in turn increases decision response in the end user) and a reduction in creative noise (distracting elements that add no value other than it was cool at the time).

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In Figure 1, we I’d strongly argue you could adhere to these principles. This image is from the Microsoft Sustainability video, but inside it you’ve got a situation which respects the concept of Metro as after all given the wide open brief here under one principle you could argue either side of this.

Personally, I find the UI in question approachable. It makes use of a minimalist approach, provides the end user with a central point of focus. Chrome is in place, but its not intrusive and isn’t over bearing. Reliance on typography is there, but at the same time it approaches in a manner that befits the task at hand.

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Microsoft’s vision of this principle comes out via the phone user interface above (Figure 2). I’m not convinced here that this I the right approach to minimalism. I state this, as the iconography within the UI is inconsistent – some are contained others are just glyphs indicating state?. The containment within the actual message isn’t as clear in terms of spacing – it feels as if the user interface is willing to sacrifice content in order to project who the message is from (Frank Miller). The subject itself has a lower visual priority along with the attachment within – more to the point, the attachment has no apparent containment line in place to highlight the message has an attachment?

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Microsoft’s original vision of device’s future has a different look to where Windows Phone 7 today. Yet I’d state that the original vision is more in line with the principles than actual Windows Phone 7. It initially has struck a balance between the objectives provided.

The iconography is consistent and contained, typography is balanced and invites the users attention on important specifics – What happened, where and oh by the way more below… and lastly it makes use of visuals such as the photo of the said person. The UI also leverages the power of peripheral vision to give the user a sense of spatial awareness in that, its subtle but takes on the look and feel of an “airport” scenario.

Is this the best UI for a device today? No, but it’s approach is more in tune with the first principle then arguably the current Windows Phone 7’s approach which is reliance of fierce amounts of whitespace, reduction in iconography to the point where they clearly have a secondary reliance and lastly emphasis on parts of the UI which I’d argue as having the lowest importance (i.e. the screen before would of indicated who the message is from, now I’m more focused on what the message is about!).

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Celebrate Typography

  • Type is Beautiful, Not Just Legible
  • Clear, Straightforward Information Design
  • Uncompromising Sensitivity to Weight, Balance and Scale

I love a good font as the next designer. I hoard these like my icons, in fact It’s a disease and if you’re a font lover a must see video is Helvetica. That being said, there is a balance between text and imagery, this balance is one struck often daily in a variety of mediums – mainly advertising.

Imagery will grab your attention first as it taps into a primitive component within your brain, the part that works without your realizing its working. The reason being is your brain often is in auto-pilot, constantly scanning for patterns in your every day environment. It’s programmed to identify with three primative checks, fear, food and sex. Imagery can tap into these striaght away, as if you have an image of an attractive person looking down at a beverage you can’t but help first think “that’ person’s cute (attractive bias) and what are they looking at? oh its food!…” All this happens despite there being text on the said image prior to your brain actually taking time to analyse the said image. To put it bluntly, we do judge a book by its cover with extrem amount of prejudice. We are shallow, we do prefer to view attractive people over ugly unless we are conveying a fear focused point “If you smoke, your teeth will turn into this guys – eewwww” (Notice why anti-cigarette companies don’t use attractive people?)

Back to the point at hand, celebrating typography. The flaw in this beast despite my passion for fonts, is that given we are living in a 7 second attention economy (we scan faster than we have before) reliance on typography can be a slippery slope.

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In Figure 6, a typical futuristic newspaper that has multi-touch (oh but I dream), you’ll notice the various levels of usage of typography (no secret to news papers today). The headings on purpose approach the user with both different font types, font weight, uppercase vs lowercase and for those of you out there really paying attention, at times different kerning / spacing.

The point being, the objective is that typography is in actuality processed first via your brain as a glyph, a pattern to decode. You’ve all seen that link online somewhere where the wrod is jumbled in a way that you first are able to read but then straight away identify the spelling / order of the siad words. The fact I just did it then along with poor grammar / spelling within this blog, indicates you agree to that point. You are forgiving majority of the time towards this as given you’ve established a base understanding of the english language and combine that with your attention span being so fast paced – you are more focused on absorbing the information than picking apart how it got to you.

Typography can work in favor of this, but it comes at a price between balancing imagery / glyphs with words.

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The above image (Figure 7) is an example of Metro in the wild. Typography here is in not to bad of a shape, except for a few things. The first being the “Pictures” text is making use of a large amount of the canvas, to the point where the background image and heading are probably duking it out for your attention. The second part of this is the part that irritates me the most, in that the size of the secondary heading with the list items is quite close in terms of scale. Aside from the font weight being a little bolder, there is no real sense of separation here compared to what it should or could be if one was to respect the principle of celebrating typography.

Is Segoe UI the vision of the only font allowed? I hope not. Is the font weight “light” and “regular” the only two weights attached to the UI? what relevance does the background hold to the area – pictures? ok, flimsy at best contextual relevance but in comparison to the Figure 3 above a subtle usage of watermarks etc. to tap into your peripheral vision would provide you more basis to grapple onto – pattern wise that is. Take these opinions and combine the reality that there is no sense of containment and I’m just not convinced this is in tune with the principle. It’s like the designers of metro on windows phone 7 took 5% of the objectives and just ran with it.

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Comparisons between Figure7 and Figure8, the contrast in usage of typography is different but yet both using the same one and only font – Segoe UI. The introduction of color helps you separate the elements within the user interface, the difference in scale is obvious along with weight and transforms (uppercase / lowercase). Almost 80% of this User Interface is typography driven yet the difference in both is what I hope to be obvious.

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Don’t despair, it’s not all dark and gloom for the Windows Phone 7 future. Figure 9 (Above) is probably one of the strongest hints of “yes!” moment for the siad phone I could find. Typography is used but add visual elements and approach the design of typography slightly differently and you may just have a stake in this principle. The downside is the choice of color, orange and light gray on white is ok for situations that have increased scale, but on a device where lighting can be hit/miss, probably need to approach this with more bolder colors. The picture in the background also creeps into your field of view over the text, especially in the far right panel.

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Alive in motion

  • Feels Responsive and Alive
  • Creates a System
  • Gives Context to Improve Usability
  • Transition Between UI is as Important as the Design of the UI
  • Adds Dimension and Depth

I can’t really talk to these principles via  text on a blog, but what I would say is that the Windows Phone attacks this relatively ok. I still think the FlipToBack transition is to tacky and the reality between how the screens transition in and out at times isn’t as attractive as for example the iPhone (ie I really dig how the iphone zooms the UI back and to the front?). The usage of kinetic scrolling is also one that gives you the sense of control, like there are some really well oiled ball bearings under the UI’s plane that if you flick it up, down, right or left the sense of velocity and friction is there.

If you zoom in and out of the UI, the sense that the UI will expand and contract in a fluid nature also gives you the element of discovery  (Progressive disclosure) but can also give you a sense of less work attached.

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Taking Figure 11 & Figure 12 (start and end) one could imagine a lot of possibilities here in terms of the transition were to work. The reality that Reptile Node expands out to give way to types of reptiles is hopefully obvious whilst at the same time the focus is on reptile is also in place (via a simple gradient / drop shadow to illustrate depth). Everything could snap together in under a second or maybe two but it’s something you approach with a degree of purpose driven direction. The direction is “keep your eye on what I’m about to change, but make note of these other areas I’m now introducing” – you have to move with the right speed, right transition effect and at the same time don’t distract to heavily in areas that aren’t important.

Content, Not Chrome

  • Delight through Content Instead of Decoration
  • Reduce Visuals that are Not Content
  • Content is the UI
  • Direct interaction with the Content

Chrome is important as content. I dare anyone to provide any hint of scientific data to highlight the negative effects of grouping in user interface design. Chrome can be over used, but at the same time it can be a life saver especially when the content becomes over bearing (most line of business applications today suffer from this).

Having chrome serves a purpose, that is to provide the end user a boundary of content within a larger canvas. An example is below

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I could list more examples but because I’m taking advantage of Microsoft Sustainability video, I figure this would be sufficient examples of how chrome is able to breakup the user interface into contextual relevance. Chrome provides a boundary, the areas of control if you will in order to separate content into piles of semantic action(s). Specifically in Figure 15, the brown chrome is much like your dashboard on the car ie you’re main focus is the road ahead, that’s your content of focus but at the same time having access to other pieces of information can be vital to your successful outcome. Chrome also provides you access to actions in which you can carry out other principles of human interaction – e.g., adjustment of window placement and separation from within other areas offers the end user a chance of tucking the UI into an area for later resurrection (perspective memory).

Windows Phone 7 for example prefers to levearge the power of Typography and background imagery as its “chrome” of choice. I’m in stern disagreement with this as the phone itself projects what I can only describe as uncontained vast piles of emptiness and less on actual content. The biggest culprit of all for me is the actual Outlook client within the said phone.

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The Outlook UI for me is like this itch I have to scratch, I want the messages to have subtle separation and lastly I want the typography to have a balance between “chrome” and “whitespace”.

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Chrome can also not just be about the outer regions of a window/UI, it has to do with the internal components of the user interface – especially in the input areas. The above (Figure 17) is an example of Windows Phone 7 / Metro keyboard(s). At first glance they are simple, clean and open, but the part that captures my attention the most is the lack of chrome or more to the point separation. I say lack, as the purpose of chrome here would be to simulate tactile touch without actually giving you tactile touch. The keyboard to the right has ok height, but the width feels cramped and when I type on the said device It feels like I’m going to accidently hit the other keys (so I’m now more cautious as a result).

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The above (Figure 18) offers the same concept but now with “chrome” if you will. Nice even spacing, solid use of principles of the Typography and clear defined separation in terms of actions below.

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iPhone has found a way to also strike a balance between chrome and the previous stated principles. The thing that struck me the most about the two keyboards is not which is better, but more how the same problem was thought about differently.  Firstly as you type an enlarged character shows – indicating you hit that character (reward), secondly the actual keys have a similar scale in terms of height/width proportions yet the key itself having a drop shadow (indicates depth) to me is more inviting to touch then a flat – (its like which do you prefer? a holographic keyboard or one with tactile touch, physical embodiment?). If you were to also combine both sound and vibration as the user types it can also help trick the end users sense into a comfortable input.

I digress from Chrome, but the point I’m making is chrome serves a purpose and don’t be quick to declare the principles of Metro as being the “yes!” moment as I’d argue the jury is still not able to formulate a definitive answer either way.

Authentically Digital

  • Design for the Form Factor
  • Don’t Try to be What It’s NOT
  • Be Direct

I can’t talk to this to much other than to say this isn’t a principle its more marketing fluff (the only one with a tenuous at best attachment to design principles would be “design for the form factor” meaning don’t try and scale down a desktop user interface into a device. Make the user interface react to the device not the other way around.

Summary

Metro is a concept, Microsoft has had a number of goes at this concept and I for one am not on board with its current incarnation inside the Windows Phone 7 device. I think the team have lost sight of the principles they themselves have put forward and given the Industry Innovation Group have painted the above picture as to what’s possible, it’s not like the company itself hasn’t a clue. There is a balance to be struck here between what Metro could be and is today. There are parts of Windows Phone 7 that are attractive and then there are parts where I feel it’s either been rushed or engineering overtook design in terms of reasons for what is going on the way it is (maybe the design team couldn’t be bothered arguing to have more time/money spent on propping up areas where it falls short).

People around the world will have mixed opinions about what metro is or isn’t and lastly what makes a good design vs what doesn’t. We each pass our own judgement on what is attractive and what isn’t that’s nothing new to you. What is new to you is the rationale that software design is taking a step back into the past in order to propel itself into the future. That is, the industry is rebooting itself again but this time the focus is on simplicity and by approaching metro with the Microsoft Future’s vision vs the Windows Phone 7 today, I have high hopes for this proposed design language.

If the future is taking Zune Desktop + Windows Phone 7 today and simply rinse / repeating, then all this will become is a design fad, one that really doesn’t offer much depth other than limited respite from the typical desktop / device UI we’ve become used to. If this is enough, then in reality all it takes is a newer design methodology to hit our computer screens and we’re off chasing the next evolution without consistency in our approach (we simply are just chasing shiny objects).

I’ve got a limited time on this earth and I’d like to live in a world where the future is about breaking down large amounts of unreadable / unattractive information into parts that propel our race forward and not stifle it into bureaucratic filled celebrations of mediocrity.

Apple as a company has kick started a design evolution, and say what you will about the brand but the iphone has dared everyone to simply approach things differently. Windows Phone team were paralyzed at times with a sense of “not good enough” when it came to releasing the vnext phone, it went through a number of UI and code resets to get it to the point it’s at now. It had everything to do with the iPhone, it had to dominate its market share again and it had to attract consumers in a more direct fashion. It may not have the entire world locked to the device, but it’s made a strong amount of interruption into what’s possible. It did not do this via the Metro design language, they simply made up their own internally (who knows what that really looks like under the covers).

Microsoft has responded and declared metro design as its alternative to the Apple culture, the question really now is can the company maintain the right amount of discipline required in order to respect the proposed principles.

I’d argue so far, they haven’t but I am hopeful of Windows 8.

Lead with design, engineer second.

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MVP – Most Valuable Professional. Is it or isn’t it?

David Woods wrote a blog post earlier this week which he outlines his thoughts on the MVP Program(s) at Microsoft – specifically the lack of value he finds in it.

Here are some notes if you will on some types of questions I’ve witnessed or have sensed gone unasked over the years inside Microsoft.

Is the MVP Program useful?

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It is and isn’t. Its an important concept to have attached to a Product within any company, as the idea in itself is righteous. An MVP is someone who can influence others to explore a given product within Microsoft and that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. The MVP doesn’t have to be the worlds best expert at the said product, in fact a lot of MVP’s are far from that – they are however someone with whom makes an impact within the community.

Impact and influence is why the MVP Program is useful, now the problem with it today is that it’s not consistent in its approach and lastly there are quite a lot of “fanbois” in the program that can at times disarm the program’s true potential – as everyone may paint all with the same brush “bah, bunch of Microsoft yes men, who cares about them..”

MVP Program is broken because Product Teams never tell you anything.

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Yup, they often will keep you in the dark about the product’s next roadmaps and at times treat you as if you were just a TechEd/MIX attendee instead of an MVP. It’s nothing personal, it’s nothing to do with you as a group it has everything to do with the word momentum.

Inside Microsoft when you own a product, you have to fight to get a launch buzz going. You fight because every other team inside the company is pretty much either getting ready to ship or talking about what could potentially ship. You in turn have to fight your way to the top of the headline heap for tech buzz.

I state this as when you have to go through this, telling an MVP is somewhat harmful to your upcoming surprise party as all it takes is an MVP to give Mary Jo / Tim Anderson (Tech Journalists) a heads up and boom not only did the surprise party fall flat but you’ve also given your competitors for the said product a heads up on talking points.

Talking points are important for competitors to know ahead of time, as when the journalists etc. get the said product briefing they in turn look for quotes / sound bytes from the said competitor (just like a political campaign). It pays to be ready.

That’s at the core of why you are probably kept in the dark about products. You got an MVP nomination because you can influence, nobody actually said you’re the chosen one and that all state secrets within Microsoft will fall before you. You need to make peace with that and more importantly you also need to understand that even Microsoft staff don’t get as much information as you do, so that is the reality an MVP today probably needs to come to grips with.

Not true, for example XYZ product team tell me stuff all the time!

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Yeah, I don’t doubt that each product team has their own unique communication pattern with the said products MVP’s. It comes really back to your individual relationships with the said product team. It also comes back to the competitive threat levels attached to the Product(s) you evangelize.

An example is that in 2009 the MVP summit within Redmond, the Windows Mobile team kept their cards close to their chest and it this really pissed off the Mobile MVP’s. I remember at the time thinking “yeah, that’s not a fun team to be in right now” but to be fair, Windows Phone 7 needed to be kept locked down as much as it could be. It was a dangerous secret to let loose given its importance to the device market. Some knew, most didn’t and it was a deliberate decision.

At the same summit, we also wanted to keep features within Silverlight/Expression secret. I remember our team made a point of keeping everyone in the dark. Then Scott Guthrie got on stage and pretty much told everyone everything, so we then in turn went “well, he’s the executive in charge, I guess its out now” so we in turn reacted to this and started the communication pipelines again.

That same year, 3 MVP’s also leaked information around the products and as a result at the time of the summit journalists pickedup on the information and ran with some stories – again, partially deflating the momentum we worked months building behind the scenes for MIX?

I also in that same time fought to NOT have those three MVP’s banned from the program for the said leaks – despite the witch hunt within gunning for them. My rationale was simple, they are excited about the product why do we punish them? isn’t this what we are supposed to do ? Two MVP’s were warned one was banned (simply because he named Kittyhawk aka now as Visual Studio Lightswitch publicly).

Do MVP’s influence the features then?

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In my experience they do. It’s not always obvious but there is definitely influence from MVP’s in most Microsoft Products. The problem I see in this question is I think MVP’s want a direct “you created this xyz feature, well done guys” moment. In reality it can be a small tiny spark of an idea that an MVP threw out there into the void, the teams then digest the concept and come up with some ideas similar to it etc – next thing you know, you have functional specs written and maybe the next release or thereafter, the said spark mutates into a feature.

Point is, you’d be surprised at what influence occurs via the MVP program and how it translates into a feature, its just not always obvious.

Give me an example of MVP influence?

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One year, I had an MVP stay with me for a week in Redmond. He at the time didn’t’ feel as if he got much value out of the MVP summit and had a lot of questions regarding the future of ASP.NET and problems within. I figured, this guy is an MVP who is deserving (he’s good at what he does, he does a lot for the community and most of all he’s quite a humble person to know), so with that, I personally walked him around to as many people within Microsoft campus as I could at the time. We had meetings with the ASP.NET teams and he hung out with the devdiv product managers as well.

I remember one question he asked was “which should I talk about, WebForms or MVC?” and our typical response to that question was “It depends”. This wasn’t helpful for him, so we talked it out more and as a result I watched my team members at the time see first hand that “it depends” response, was bogus. They could see this guy in front of him giving them the raw data that basically WebForms and MVC adoption decisions were a confusing story.

It’s also worth pointing out that during his time with the ASP.NET team a few specs were written based off the chat and as a result I think he made impact beyond what he or I could really measure first hand?

This MVP now works for Microsoft and I think him seeing first hand the internal culture within Microsoft campus influenced not only his expectations of Microsoft but also is likely to have ripple effects for quite some time.

Nobody knew this happened, so my point stands – influence at times isn’t always as obvious and that’s why the MVP program is healthy, despite its many flaws.

Can you help me then to become an MVP?

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I’ve personally been asked a few times to become an MVP since leaving Microsoft and I’ve turned them down. I don’t think I’m better than the program etc, I just don’t think I add value as to me an MVP is someone who is actually genuinely surprised at the recognition. If they wanted to make me an MVP, then it better be because I had influence or did something for the greater good.

Asking or proactively making yourself loud and obvious so that you can game the concept of becoming an MVP for me personally sours the program’s potential. It’s not about having the MVP badge on your resume, it’s about doing all the requirements of an MVP because you firstly enjoy it regardless of the title and secondly you create a two way dialogue with the very people your influencing. I grow weary of seeing the same muffin eaters at the same conferences talking the same crap over and over just so that they in turn can get the local Microsoft Evangelist’s attention in order to get a MVP nomination.

Don’t get me wrong, that formula will yield you a nomination but for me it’s the Microsoft folks who are proactive about the product that one day get an email / tweet about them being nominated as an MVP – to then have this expression of “really, wow, I hadn’t thought I meet the grade”.

Humility is needed more in the MVP ranks and ass kissing / cheer leading within the program is something that needs to be weeded out. An MVP should be also someone who’s not afraid to say “this sux, but this rox” in the same breathe.

Blind loyalty in a MVP is useless.

Never listen to critics, as they are never going to be happy with you, that’s why they’re critics. Never listen to your fans, as they are to busy being happy with everything you say. Listen to the ones that haven’t made up their mind, they in turn will help you more!

How should the MVP Program be reformed?

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Don’t know, all I do know is that its broken at this point. I think it has to do with Microsoft Developer & Platform Evangelism (DPE) has lost its way since Walid (CVP) took over years ago. The DPE guys are all over the place and often their budgets are cut so short that boarding a plane can be an exercise of begging / frustration. I spent over $50k+ in my first year at Microsoft in travel  + expenses alone, even though at the time our T&E budget was around $20k per person. I think its now much less.

Evangelism is important to the MVP program, as they are the ones who should find ways to work with the MVP’s in order to scale the evangelism rhythms. I just don’t’ see that right now.

Its broken, and it needs investigation as to why it’s broken in order to reform it. I think the answers are to few to formulate an actual plan right now.

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Microsoft’s Behavioral Patterns.

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I’m often engaged in a variety of conversations regarding Microsoft, obviously because I’m opinionated about the company – more to the point, its almost become a niche thing I seem to tap into. In that, I could talk about Google or Adobe but often I get the “that’s your opinion” vibe. If I talk about Microsoft in the same way, i get the “Oh really?!!” interest vibe.

That’s often fueled allot of my soap boxing as i feed off that quite happily and its not that I want the 5sec of fame, its more that I feel I am adding an insight or value to a conversation around me, like I have this small pocket of information that enables someone beside me to unlock a pattern or compounding issue relating to Microsoft and its technology / culture. It’s hard to put into words, but in reality the more people I interact with the more I get this overwhelming sense of “yeah, you’re right, I couldn’t figure out how to say that but yes, that make sense now” moments.

Let me attempt to articulate the flaws I am seeing inside Microsoft as a brand that I personally have found reflected back at me via these conversations (you are feeding my addiction hehe).

Scarcity.

Often Microsoft when they launch a product alert the masses well in advance around what’s coming. They endeavor to flood the market as fast and aggressively as they can with the said product. It often gets to a point where they effectively buy there place in your memory through constant rinse/repeat approach to alerting you. If they don’t get you on the first pass, they’ll get you on the second or third etc. Its an old tactic and with the budgets that also get allocated to various teams that are enough to keep 5-6 startups a live for years, it often comes with a sketchy at best yield.

The problem with this tactic is we as consumers at times are great at ignoring this as we’ve spent a large amount of our adult lives watching this same formula repeat itself over and over. We often can predict its movements ahead of time and so when we see the pattern emerging its easy to then point out the flaws and faults (often allot of the tech journalist profit from this). Those who aren’t used to it see others doing this and go “wow, its like you’re able to see the future!!!” and so this in turn fuels the engine.

If you however, look across the skirmish lines to Apple or Google. They really often more than most, don’t do this. They are often associated with this sense of surprise effect and more to the point they give you this other sense that “while stocks last” or “you better hurry now and get it before others find out and no stock will be left” kind of moment(s) at launch / announcements.

Apple is by far the most effective in the way they announce “new”. Microsoft staff often see this and try a lot of the times to emulate that success but they do so in a way that’s inconsistent at times or often messy / half-done. Yet when ones do succeed (much like a group of tree’s all fighting for sunlight over one another, one will eventually emerge) the said success breeds more “see, it works” momentum and thus the cycle internally repeats itself.

Microsoft has this flaw, they tend to not comprehend that in order to win the masses over one needs to create the element of rarity, there’s no sense of prized ownership or differentiation in their approach. The only time I would argue this has come to the surface – hehe – is well with concepts like Microsoft Surface, XBOX and in many ways with Windows Phone 7 – although that funnily enough is a problem.

I digress, but with Windows Phone 7 I watched the launch with interest in that to me Microsoft was looking for ways to sell the vibe “while stocks last” and “get one now ahead of everyone else” momentum, and they almost had it but for some reason, it was a fizzle effect. They didn’t in a nutshell sustain that momentum, it was a sense or rarity and then it was gone just as fast as it came.

Commitment

If you’ve been a devoted customer for quite some time to Microsoft you’d be hard press to find the said customers to argue that Microsoft is always committed to one particular goal or idea. The reality is, it is often a company that abandons ideas faster at times than they were projected. It has to do with the culture within the company mostly which then spills over into the customer / product lines.

I often make remarks about Victory Emails and how they are so wrong for the company but I don’t articulate why. Here’s why.

Microsoft staff are like abused children in some parts, in that they seek affection / attention through what I would call “ACE” dropping. In that, abused children often do this as a copining mechanism to emulate affection or love given they have often had this part of their lives destroyed. What happens is the said child will wow everyone around them with the first ace up their sleeve and everyone suddenly goes “that’s amazing” and the said child then basks in the glow from this effect.

The effect however only lasts for so long and so they need to keep that momentum alive by dropping their second ACE and again, it happens again.. This pattern repeats itself for an average of 4-5 times at most before the said child starts making plans to abandon these sets of folks and seek out new people to wow / win over.

Inside Microsoft, this is a surprisingly consistent pattern I observed. You’d see these rising stars come in fast and hard, only to fizzle out around the first year maybe second year and then just as fast as they came they’ve left. Think of this like watching a bunch of fireworks come and go and then quietness follows. Its in the quiet times that you peel away the covers and start seeing staff ping / pong around teams via internal transfers and commitment calibrations etc.

There is never really a consistent holding pattern and when you do find that consistency its usually owned by a personality who’s found a way to just sustain the calm effect (under the radar) or is a complete jackass and dominates through power-politics – never really is there that spark of “Wow” in that seat.

If staff can’t commit to a set idea or goal over a large body of time, then how on earth can a product ever remain consistent and focused? If Microsoft were to announce tomorrow that staff transfers were to be put on hold for minimum 5 years – I’d wager you’d see a high exit rate of staff for one and secondly you’d see an entirely different marketing and engineering effort from within the company itself.

The reason being is the rising star’s can’t keep doing their 4 ACE pony tricks to wooo over others and as such you’d likely see a steady / calm growth from within around planning and focus. Victory emails themselves would have less of an effect as “congrats, you did a great job, but, you can either get a promotion or a pat on the back, either way you’re not moving out of this team buddy, sorry!” moments.

Internally until this is solved, Microsoft will always come across externally as a company that lacks depth in terms of commitment.

Clarity

I’m not going to beat on this drum to loudly, but I’d wager i’d be hard pressed to find a single person outside the company that would argue strongly that the company seems to have clear definitive goals around what they do (ie taps into commitment). The problem an internal one yes, but externally they don’t have a sense of clustering or grouping in that their pattern is inconsistent and often hard to parse.

If I were to put a bunch of XX’s on screen right now like this:

XX  XX  XX XX

You would typically see the X’s in groups of two? In that the clarity around that pattern is simple. It’s information if you will is broken into a consistent but clearly defined pattern.

If I were to take that same concept and apply this formatting to it:

XXxXxXXxx

The pattern isn’t as clear and for those of you paying close attention, you may also notice I added an extra “X” without others probably realizing it.  The point here is simple, Microsoft’s approach to product positioning and placement isn’t consistent and as a result you have the secondary effect vs.. the first. You can’t get behind the information as you’re too busy in your own mind, trying to separate the X’s into clusters that enable you to digest the information more closely.

This is how I would illustrate the massive amounts of bad information / inconsistent look of Microsoft’s entire approach to everything it does. There’s not really one person or person(s) being the gatekeepers of the said pattern in terms of how the company saturates the market with new information. It just seems to be a case of inconsistent X’s and at times some other letters mixed in.

Too many Options

I mentioned earlier that Victory Emails are a dangerous beast within. The other reason to this reason is the inherit concept of what success is or isn’t within the company. Popularity wins first, yield comes second is probably a pattern i’d argue as being “yup, that’s about right

If you were to look up research around how humans deal with options, you’d probably settle on the concept “less is more”. On one hand we humans are attracted to options, we all actively want more options than we can handle but in reality we rarely ever agree with the options and furthermore in a consumer driven situation – we often more than most don’t buy more as a result.

In that most research I’ve read on the subject highlights that if customers were given 100 items to choose from, the said customers who were initially attracted would be quite high. If the said situation was reduced to 30 items, the attraction would be much lower than the 100 but the purchasing or acquisition behavior would be actually significantly higher than the initial 100 🙂

Inside Microsoft I often would notice quantitative  analysis was often used as a metric of success “congrats, you’re popular!” where as if you were to peel away the word success here, and study the qualitative analysis of the said “success” you’d find the yield to me much lower.

An example:

“All the major journalists are talking about a products, they reach millions on our behalf, success is ours!”

In reality

“All the major journalists who reach majority of the same customers talked about our products but not in a really in-depth way and often more than none had a negative remark about us or two”

Inside Microsoft you have a PRIME score which keeps track of positive/negative PR, but the point here is that whilst yes you had the journalists from around the worlds full attention – the reality is what does that actually mean? you reached a larger customer base then say your random blog post? but what did that reach mean? and more to the point what effects has that reach on the purchasing or adoption behavior of your customers. Furthermore, how can you then map this against other products in the market and where is the overlaps occurring and lastly who’s really competing for attention – external companies or other teams internally?

Inside the company there’s really no conductor or movie style director who’s keeping a steady handle on how information flows in and out of the company. It often comes in large volumes and is spread far and wide with often no real data to support success or failure – more perception.

Summary.

The point to this post isn’t to beat the crap out of the brand – yet again – it’s more to clarify the patterns I personally see in the way the company approaches us, the consumer. It also taps into conversations I’ve had over the years (employee and ex-employee) with how the products and customers are bonding. The company itself has a large amount of problems that often just don’t seem to finding any hint of remorse or success in stemming the tide of failure.

What I am seeing is an exodus of some no-name on the blogsphere staff shifting over to Google or other. If you look at these staff leaving as isolated “oh, darn xyz left” then it’s not so bad. If you start adding them up and back tracking what they did for the company and more specifically the products they managed or ran, you start to see – well I do anyway – a pattern emerging of “oh wow, this is quite bad as the successors are def not as capable and what does that mean for that xyz work they were doing?”

Staff are important and the end final point I have to say is the above is simply a dump of patterns I see and how the on flow from the centre out is what is causing the most pain for the company. The products themselves will have a bumpy lifespan over time and sure the community surrounding the products will also share the same amount of turbulence. The actual cause of all these bumps though start with the above, these are the engines if you will producing the chaos.

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The rise and fall of Microsoft’s UX platform – Part 4

 

WPF Time of Death.

Time to call it, December 2nd 2010. Seriously, I have thought about the Silverlight Firestarter event for a few weeks now with a focus on reading how the rest of the world kind of digests the vNext of Silverlight.

Its very clear if you read between the lines that Silverlight is shaping up to replace the WPF workload, and whilst Microsoft will roll out the engineers + shipping routine its pretty much all they aren’t doing before WPF is officially declared dead. Shipping is realistically the one thing they have left and even that’s looking a bit sketchy and cumbersome to watch.

It’s clear with Silverlight5 my old comrades in arms at Redmond have even stopped paying lip service to the x-platform discussion with many of the new features being Windows specific. It’s also clear given Windows Phone 7 failing in the market that now is not the time to give Microsoft’s biggest competitor, Apple momentum or face an internal career firing squad.

WPF has enormous amount of hidden potential, its not marketed but its there. It’s not a bad desktop platform to build against and majority of the issues that I have personally faced with the product are due to basically quality assurance sloppiness. Its still got work-around solutions though, so you in turn forgive it’s sins.

Technically being ok is not enough though, you need to go wide and far in promoting its existence and the return on investment you could potentially yield from the platform. That’s not happening and its also clear that there’s zero paid community evangelism efforts in market right now to uphold this line of thinking.

An example, Where is the WPF fire starter Microsoft? where is any event for that matter that focuses on exploring the bounty of WPF?

Scott Guthrie’s blog is typically a marketing announcement channel given his geek-fame over the years. It’s often we in marketing would joke (sarcasm) “its a good thing we have ScottGu’s blog, as boy we almost needed an official marketing site for Silverlight” – jokes aside, Scott doesn’t talk about WPF at all (check out the below tag cloud)

WPFDead

If i were to audit Microsoft today online and tally up WPF vs. Silverlight, which would win? Argue with the notion that something is dead or isn’t but its definitely clear that WPF hasn’t a bright future as its technology cousin – Silverlight.

Windows Phone 7 – Fail.

I have predicted that I think WP7 is going to not win consumers over but I figured that it would take a couple of years before that is realized. Hearing reports that the device has small units of sale and now some resellers are slashing prices in a hope to stimulate the market to buy, is just downright disappointing.

Its not that the phone is bad, its actually got a load of potential. As whilst I’m a WPF fan at heart, I do still also enjoy working with Silverlight (which has this kind of polarizing effect on me). I just think that the Metro User Interface is simply killing the products potential.

It’s important to call that out, given this is the “face” of the brand. It looks tacky, not well thought out and clearly lacks usability principles needed to navigate a small device. It puts to much emphasis on typography and downplays visual elements to provide structure and grouping to the components within (ie Extraneous Cognitive Load).

The keyboard is to primitive and the keys are narrow. I’ve sat down and looked at the iPhone and Wp7 keyboards and for me the WP7 looks like a prototype version of the concept. The keys don’t necessarily guide you to aim for the middle, where as the iPhone keys are spaced but at the same time the hit area isn’t exactly confined to that space. You in turn are more likely to focus on your target even though the spacing is artificial.

Typography is weak and at times doesn’t even do the basics – in outlook a list of bold means new, unbold means read, yet you still don’t even get this? The menu system is a endless vertical nightmare, as whilst its great to list things its important to also balance out your screen between scrolling and displaying. I find the constant scrolling down to be cumbersome and annoying especially when you’re debugging an Application you’re writing for the phone.

I could list more and I’ll be talking 1:1 with Wp7 Product Management, but i think my point here is made, this phone needs more energy and focus. It has enormous potential ahead of it but for the space price or thereabouts as its biggest 800lb gorilla competitor is simply unrealistic. Lower the price or fix the UI, make a choice as the UX for Microsoft is dying as-is. Which brings me to my next point.

Designers aren’t interested anymore.

If you look at the AppStore market place, majority of the apps are visually engaging and have definitely some design bloodlines in the room. If you look at the Microsoft marketplace its pretty clear that designers aren’t in the room in large quantities.

No designers means wasted technology, wasted technology means some team internally right now is coming up with the “fix” for this (which in their minds is an engineering problem not an engagement problem). The reality is you can throw all the tools you want at this problem as well as the platforms, but unless you truly evangelize in a non-aggressive way to this market. You’re just wasting good money on technology that goes nowhere.

If you were to compare 2007/2008 Evangelism efforts to present, You would see this massive disconnect between strong in your face marketing to the art community to today being a bunch of engineers high fiving one another about how awesome things are.  The reality is, unless you can add some design blood lines to this new UX driven world, your technology hasn’t moved forward, you’re just rebadging old technology with much weirder UI.

Summary

Silverlight 5 is WPF’s new replacement, and I really don’t have that much of a problem with this other than if you’re going to make this the vNext desktop focus, then commit. Don’t do it half-assed, get those 200+ engineers and get your butts into gear and open it up more. If you aren’t going to do this, then take 100+ engineers out of that 200 and get them to focus on doing more with WPF so that the two are more aligned to save cross-targeting related issues – as news flash Redmond, nobody really thinks that far ahead as to which technology is likely to give them an outcome they desire. Choosing Silverlight first then hitting a wall and retreating back to WPF is unrealistic as it means people need to know its faults completely end to end and how these map to their business constraints upfront? sorry no.

Windows Phone 7 needs something. It needs a more structured approach to user experience and it needs to solve WPF and Silverlights initial problem – how to get designers to the cause. Unless Microsoft gets off their butts and re-invest into the designer focused communities, these products are destined to follow the same non-starters as previous incarnations of the Windows Phone operating systems as well as the low saturation levels in the wild of both Silverlight/WPF publically.

“There are certainly some functionality shortfalls, and we are going to work to address them,” – Joe Belfiore  / Microsoft.

Microsoft needs to get back to evangelism 101 and more importantly the notion that just because you ship doesn’t mean you’re committed to the future. Creating features and releasing them isn’t enough, unless you broadcast and win the hearts & minds over all you’re effectively doing is having a bunch of engineers in Redmond high five one another over a release that could be epic if it got momentum – FAIL.

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Windows Phone 7 – A phone without individuality and coming soon music?

Microsoft has announced the Windows Phone 7 officially, it’s the coming out party for this late to the market device. I’m on record saying that I think it’s a “meh” release, in that its rushed and not cleanly delivered as it could of been had there more time, but given SteveB underestimated the true potential the iPhone had on the market – here we are, today, new phone.

The phone itself technically has a lot of potential in terms of what i can and can’t do, I for one am going to buy one because this is the space I dwell in. As for consumers, i don’t see it being a rush to buy thing given a few issues with the phone that i’ve noticed already.

image

The first issue is lack of individuality, as i scope out the various hardware manufacturers idea of what their Windows Phone 7 world is going to look like there is clearly a lack of remarkable differentiation between the said devices. In that so far, there’s not a lot of personality to the phones other than some minor slide-outs (some opt for physical keyboards etc) but overall it seems very lack luster in range.

Having not a lot of sizzle outside the operating system to me is an early sign of caution, as phones are really part function but also equally part form (it’s a fashion item as well as a worker focused technology).

The most important aspect that I felt the phone has definitely come up short on is the lack of Zune subscription world wide. I’ve got a Zune subscription in the US via my US Credit Card, so for me I’ve been leeching off this cheap approach to solving my music issues. I pay approx $15 USD a month or so, and I get all the music i want for free via my Zune Device and Desktop (It’s DRM and expires in 3 months unless i reconnect to the Zune Marketplace with a content sync).

Not having this subscription channel straight out of the box basically makes the phone part-brain dead as for me this and XBOX-lite games are probably the two focal points of differentiators for “reasons to ditch Andriod/iPhone” for average consumer.

Why is Zune Music subscription important to Windows Phone 7

It firstly seeds an entrenched market, iTunes currently holds supremacy over our music purchases online, and having to pay $2 per song basically creates a polarizing effect on individuals as on one hand buying the album is cheaper than a physical one in stores but on the other hand why buy when you can pirate?

Piracy is an issue that has a lot of tentacles but one component of piracy is lack of access to a credit card. I mean, take an average 15 year old kid who no doubt is into music to get them through puberty blues. These kids don’t have access to credit cards all the time, so the moment they need to buy a song or two, its a case of bugging parents for the said funds. I’d wager most parents give the kid the brush off and so they are left to pirating off their friends etc for the said songs.

Zune subscription however allows parents to buy a monthly/yearly subscription model. This in turn can then be a gift based approach which in turn can also mean the whole house not just the one child can access the said subscription.

It gets better, having this one child gain access to a library of music is one thing but then freely being able to send the said music selection to other friends is also a potential body punch to piracy amongst this said target audience. It also creates a natural evangelism for Zune subscription and if marketed and managed well it basically can put some much needed pressure on Apple iTunes etc, point is this story can be told in a number of different ways all pointing towards an interesting differentiation between Apple and Microsoft.

Combine the subscription model with Microsoft Points (ie XBOX Live etc) and you also have an abstracted currency exchange that can mask users from emotive based purchasing (who knows how much 923pts translates to in real dollar terms off the top of their heads!)

image

Zune needs to go global first time out, it sends a strong message about being feature complete for version 1. Failing to do so and via the usual trickle in late to the party progressive disclosure marketing – aka Microsoft Marketing 101 – simply fails to gain awareness as much as it could or should.

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