Microsoft Innovation. If it falls, does it make a sound?

New York Times has kicked up some serious dust in the Microsoft ethos around whether or not the company does innovate.

I often have found myself at a cross-roads of agreeing and/or disagreeing with people like Dick around the term "innovation". I say this as I pretty much agree with Dick's arguments in the NYT, but at the same time I can't but help remember the amounts of innovation I saw inside the company - especially in the last 3 years.

I look at Microsoft Surface and can't but help wonder at the actual spark of innovation around this product. I state this as I once interviewed Mark Coleran, a guy who's job was to build Fantasy User Interfaces for Hollywood.

In this interview I ask Mark about how he came up with the inspiration for the Surface like table in the movie "The Island" and his response was:

There has been alot of confusion over the table in The Island. Most people have no idea of developmental timelines and the table itself was not a guess at what might be. It was actually production themselves who had said it was going to be a table type screen. There was a guy called John Underkoffler from MIT involved as well working on how people might interact with such a device. No doubt some influences came from the work going on there, including that of people like Jeff Han. I myself when I got involved at the design stage, looked over a massive body of work previously done on these type of devices and desktop. It was a relatively easy process to draw elements together and combine in such a way as to make it look like a realistic device.

Mark was able to piece together what he found in the industry at the time to help shape the story of a futuristic movie like "The Island" well before the Microsoft Surface table was shown to the world. I ask the question, did Microsoft Innovate with the Surface table? or have they simply democratised the concept of Multit-touch to the unwashed masses?

I look at Silverlight and I know there is actually some pure amounts of innovation from my comrades in Engineering. I have personally witnessed these guys create life from 1's and 0's where its competitor, Flash, simply had no clue.

Is Silverlight innovation? I mean the actual name "Silverlight" (aka another word for Flash is ...a Silver Light...) is it really innovation or just really good at again, democratising something that most have had the concept of seeing before.

I look at the XBOX Natal and think to myself, ok that's innovative right? yet let's be realistic the concept of using your body and having a game react isn't anything new really (the concept in theory has been around) and would it of come about had it not been for the Nintendo Wii pushing that envelope further?

Innovation is a term I think gets lost in product shipment dates and timelines and there is a multitude of ways in which one could carve up Microsoft's history around innovation.

I think Microsoft does innovate but only from concepts that have been pioneered OUTSIDE the company. When they do produce results from these efforts they in turn democratise it to the millions of customers around the world that are typically held hostage by premium costs associated with the advancement in such technology.

To go back to Dick's article in the NYT, I think the problem isn't the innovation its telling the story around what Microsoft is doing in the market that's the over-arching problem here. I think splitting hairs on who moved first is simply academic, the problem I personally see being both inside and outside now is that decoding WHAT Microsoft is today and Tomorrow is getting difficult for customers to embrace.

Take this into account and it fuels a lot of ignorance and mistrust around the company, so that if one day it truly does purely innovate, nobody will notice. As it's getting lost in al the signal of "Look at me, Look at me" marketing from the company.

Is marketing to blame for lack of innovation?

Frank Shaw, VP of Comms replied to Dick's article, it basically is in my mind a "rar rar rar go Microsoft" response. I spoke to Frank via email just before I left Microsoft and told him why I left the company, as at the time he sent out an email to all of Marketing which basically was "Stop making cheesy dumb ass movies please, you're hurting our brand".

I think the problem with Microsoft is its marketing teams. The more I interacted with these folks the more I realised just how disconnected they are from their audience. In that, I've worked in Marketing before where we would meet with the customers we spoke to, we would analyse their behavioural patterns and lastly we would react to feedback from them daily if not monthly.

I simply didn't see this inside Microsoft marketing, especially in the Developer Division. When you'd ask folks about who the target audience is for Silverlight, you would get mixed responses. Responses that typically where buzzword bingo ...

"Technical Decision Makers are our guys!"
"Business Decision Makers..."
"Both, TDB and BDM...TDB for RIA, BDM for Video!.."

I simply would shake my head and look forward to my visits back home to Australia where I would jump on some planes, visit people from all around the country and just listen. I listened to how they got started, I listen to what they love and hated about Microsoft and lastly I listened to what they needed. TDB or BDM folks never reared their heads once so that for me was the first clue - lack of depth from team, noted.

This is important as if these folks are targeting the wrong style of audience or albeit, talking at them NOT with them, then in turn you loose the translation of "What Just Happened" - or in simpler terms "If a tree fell in the forest and nobody was around to hear it, did it actually fall?"

I know there is innovative things happening within the company and I could cite them until I am sick of the sound of my own voice. The reality however is 90% of my time outside Microsoft is telling people this message now that I am outside of Microsoft. I tell them and watch as they either argue the point or in turn show a facial expression of pure surprise and follow with remarks "Really? i didn't know that?"

I left Microsoft simply because my division is probably one of the best at celebrating mediocrity but also I feared what I would eventually turned into, a person who is at peace with "Good Enough".

That is the core to why Microsoft suffers from the lack of innovation label as in truth risky innovation is typically replaced by "Good enough" mediocrity - "Don't worry, we'll get it right in V3, just ship V1".

Apple is a company that strikes me as a brand that rejects "Good enough" it simple expects an end to end execution of an idea.

Microsoft differs, take a look at their websites. You have every team jockeying for your attention all being inconsistent and not helpful in the way they portray their messages around whats new?

Apple, you have one. If someone in iTunes team wants to create their own website? its simply "fuck off, and fall into line" and then its executed with precision as to what the story is behind the newest shiny object. It's competitor, Microsoft, simply fires up 3-4 websites all for the same concept.

Point is. Innovation happens, you just cant' seem to decode where it lives and I think a guy like Frank, VP of Comms needs to start firing people and soon as Innovation isn't the problem inside the company, its getting the message out which is.

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Adobe the platform company that relies on other platforms.


In my twitter feeds I’ve been reading a lot of mixed opinions on Adobe, and given I often weigh in on all things Adobe, I thought I’d write down a few of my ideas on where I would take Adobe if I were CEO of the day and was talking on stage to the staff within (now that I don’t work for Microsoft I can express these opinions more in the light of day).


We are tools based company at present, we can replenish our market every two or so years, but this isn’t going to sustain us for too long. We need to spear heard the Enterprise in a way that allows our file formats to take on more of a de facto standard, much like PDF has today. We can expand more on the concept of “what is a document” further through the use of Flash technology. We however, must approach this concept from a completely different angle.

We must consolidate the two formats into one, but we must also provide developers and designers a HTML like experience in producing these formats. Our mandate is not to pick sides on the plug-in vs HTML battle, our mandate is to absorb both ideas at the same time.

We can provide interactive documents to those who want to go beyond the limitations of HTML today. We also want to enable these same documents to exist on the internet for those who don’t subscribe to this philosophy and a degraded experience isn’t a bad thing, it’s a palatable compromise. In other words, we need to ensure our future file formats work in all devices but done in a way that our tooling is the most superior.

HTML is Flash’s friend.

Browsers are our biggest competitor and at the same time ally. Enabling Flash technology to be injected as the preferred rendering engine for HTML5 will require us to open the runtime more. Instead of all or nothing approach which we have today, we should instead provide a turnkey based approach to this equation. At a core level, Flash should respect the current HTML standards we have today but provide a hook point for us to make additional changes on that suite different file formats outside of HTML.

HTML is still not portable, providing companies the ability to take their web like experiences into other software is our mission. Again, our PDF methodology is much the same as what HTML is today, the difference is we provide a much richer experience in around presenting document based experiences. We stand a greater chance of allowing Microsoft Office works to produce interactive experiences that can work on multiple platforms and devices whilst stil adhering to intended experience being asked from such workers.

We must invite companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple to help shape this future as they do not want to be the tooling providers for our core audience – designers. They want the developer base and its a highly contest arena that we simply don’t have the manpower or finances to contest.

User Experience is our future.

Our customer base represent majority of all user interface design, we should and continue to own the way forward for these types of customers to move the human race forward. Our job is not to compete with Apple, our job is enable tools that empower companies like Apple to do better and more agile user experience assembly. If Apple want an Appstore, our job should of been to provide a tool that enables their customers to produce experiences for their devices – to a specification they need and we can respect. If Microsoft Windows Mobile 7 needs our help to enable their customers a tooling experience that helps design audiences create the next generation of mobile apps, we should be there. We shouldn’t be the platform in which runs these experiences, we don’t have permission to do so.

We are not a platform company. We are a creative experience company.

Our job is simple, provide the missing workflow required in order for platform companies to succeed, meaning we want to empower our design audiences to design for these platforms. Flash technology is simply our portable rich format, it is not a platform – it could be, but we aren’t able to sustain this investment for much longer if we should head down that path.


.When a company like Apple or Microsoft rejects us, act with humility. End the conversation with “I think we agree to disagree on this one”, finger pointing and passive/aggressive assaults will not yield answers to why they reject us – it simply puts more distance between us.

Instead, listen, understand why they are forbidden to use us in context to what we are doing above. Should Microsoft or Apple wish to compete with us in the tooling space around what we produce, then its clear we are doing something wrong. We are limiting their potential and that is the heart of where we must compete. Silverlight and QuickTime should never of existed, we should have had a solution in place that was palatable to their needs. We failed in that regard, none the less enabling Flash Tooling like experiences to produce Silverlight or QuickTime is where we can regain our strengths. Expression Studio is our competitor not Silverlight.


Adobe have squandered a lot of potential in the last 10 years (inclusive of Macromedia). Their staff are aggressive behind the scenes and they often remind me of the “old skool Microsoft” where Kill Sun Kill Sun type attitude ended badly for the said company. Their assaults on both Apple and Microsoft has continued to backfire, yet there doesn’t appear to be any outwardly change in behavior. It’s time they consolidated their efforts into a consistent message behind PR / Marketing spin.

They own the design audience' at the moment, this however is likely to change at the rate the current competitive climate is looking. Products like Acrobat and Flash are file format stories only, Photoshop, Fireworks etc are tooling to enable these file formats and others to succeed. LiveCycle and Coldfusion are a distraction and should be culled or handed off to the open source community grow on their own and in a manner that is passive to other brands.

Adobe are skating on some very thin ice with all the large powerhouse brands. They require permission for Flash / Acrobat etc to exist, and whilst on the PC there has been great success but those days are starting to wind down. Everytime an operating system is released on a device/pc, Adobe is not there. Customers are easily swayed to new things, and at the rate of where the industry is going, lock-outs are an acceptable process today.

Its easy for me to guess that Windows Mobile 7 will not ship Flash, it directly couter-acts Silverlight’s existence should it. iPhone/iPad/iNext will not ship Flash as Apple see no value in providing such experiences and more to the point video online is the contested space for Apple/Microsoft/Google – so sacrificing that for Flash isn’t palatable at this stage for all involved.

OSX, Windows 7 and beyond doesn’t come with Adobe technology pre-installed now, the saving grace right now is there is a deeply seeded saturation of file formats such as SWF on the web today. That being said, the more lock-outs that occur the less powerful this argument becomes – as it puts downward pressure on webmasters to start considering avoiding using these or albeit provide alternative file formats to solve the said problems.

Adobe need to now ready, aim, fire and less ready, fire, aim.

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Interview with Mark Coleran.

I just finished watching an Interview Adobe Evangelist Lee Brimelow put together around UI’s for the movie industry. It occurred to me tonight that I did an interview with the great Mark Coleran in Jan 2008 but never published it!. To help carry this insight into Hollywood and the software industry, i thought I'd publish it tonight.

Coleran Reel 2008.06 HD from Mark Coleran on Vimeo.

1, Who are you? And what is it you do?

Hi, I am Mark Coleran. I am a visual designer who has worked over the years in graphic, motion and interface design. From print work  through to television and film. These days I am working in software development for a small company in Canada, Gridiron Software.

The primary are that I specialized in over the years, has been to design and animate the computer screen displays, that either look like real computers or non real interfaces, on anything from hand held gadgets to huge wall screens in movies.



2. How did you get into the Movie side of things in terms of UX Design?

Completely by accident. I was a graphic designer, and dabbled in 3D. I was working for a special effects company at Pinewood studios, visualizing stunts as 3d animatics. We had a few devices to build that required interfaces on them and it introduced me to the area. They were being built by another group called Useful Companies and I pestered my way into a job with them.


3. Your work is something that is easily considered bleeding edge, the future if you will. How do you even begin to architect the design for this and does the Movie folks brief you on this?

I am not sure it is as bleeding edge as it may at first appear. By the nature of most of the films and the requirements of the interfaces in those films, we do make them look a lot better than they might look if they were a real device. It is a visual medium and your primary task is to tell a small part of the story, sometimes very quickly. For that reason they can be very graphic, more so than real systems and work in very dynamic ways.

The design and architecture tends to come out of those requirements, combined with the requirements from production as far as styling and story telling are concerned.


4. Pablo Picasso reportedly once said “Good artists copy. Great artists steal”, I’m sure many interactive artists around the world have stolen a piece of your idea’s via Movies into real world software? How do you feel about this and does it motivate you?

I have no problem with it at all. Any designer has done this themselves (if they are being honest). If you can provide a small bit of inspiration to someone then that is fantastic thing. We are all influenced by each other and most people don't 'steal', they borrow, combine, adapt and craft until they come up with something new. Then I see that and take inspiration (or steal) from it myself. I do object to straight plagiarism. Not so much in what it is itself, but that it is a lost opportunity for someone to do something creative, even if it is heavily inspired.

It does motivate you, to keep at it, knowing that.


5. In the movie “The Island” Sean Bean sits over a table like surface and interacts with it, this was the movies yet Microsoft has surface which is real? Did you see this coming, if not does it freak you out that some of your work has come to real life?

There has been alot of confusion over the table in The Island. Most people have no idea of developmental timelines and the table itself was not a guess at what might be. It was actually production themselves who had said it was going to be a table type screen. There was a guy called John Underkoffler from MIT involved as well working on how people might interact with such a device. No doubt some influences came from the work going on there, including that of people like Jeff Han. I myself when I got involved at the design stage, looked over a massive body of work previously done on these type of devices and desktop. It was a relatively easy process to draw elements together and combine in such a way as to make it look like a realistic device.

There is never anything particularly prescient about most of this faux technology. It is all out there, but just not widespread. I look at what labs and hobbyists are doing in basements. We get to make it up and make it look real a few years before it hits the shops. It is just there for the looking.

It was already real life, but perhaps with a few rougher edges.


6. Following on from that question, where should UX head tomorrow? In that a lot of our interactive models follow some pre-set formulas, what should we do unbalance this further in order to push ourselves harder to do better?

Now there is a question!

As I am now involved heavily in real UX/UI work, so I have developed an intimate and sometimes painful understanding of the area.

If anything I think UX should become as divorced from engineering as possible. Not in the sense of not working with engineering, but that solutions should not be defined by engineering parameters.

It should also become divorced from the systems that it runs on. Why should people learn a system rather than simplify a task they want to do (the original point of computers?)

It should become about creating something that people should never be aware of. Each and every 'experience' (I hate that word!) should be a non experience. It seem to have been forgotten that we are building a tool to perform a task and that the task is everything. I don't have a good experience with my hammer. I just hit a nail with it and a good hammer doesn't make me think twice about doing that. The tool should be almost invisible in relation to the thing that people are trying to achieve. Simplicity and transparency.

Focusing on the task at hand and nothing else is the key, not a model, pattern or formula. If you try and fit the task to any of those rather than the other way around, you have failed.

There will always be compromises but my guess is that the real progress will come when those compromises are no longer tolerable.


7. Where do you get your inspiration from?

Many different places. Games, film, graphics, engineering, architecture... it is a list that could go on for ever. The key for me has always been to look beyond the project and process that I am currently engaged in.

I also try and engage in other activities that have a certain synergy with what I am doing. In particularly photography. To look, see and compose can teach you a lot that you can employ in other areas.


8. What are some things that irritate you with Software UI today? What are some things that you love in Software UI today?

For the sake of diplomacy, I am not going to name names!

Some of the things I dislike...

Complexity, unnecessary decoration, high contrast, bells and whistles, RTFM, software that makes me feel like an idiot - that blames me for its designers mistakes, imposition, bad metaphors... or just metaphors, implementation models.

Metaphors in particular. A metaphor nearly always feels forced. A real world equivalence that does not always work. There have been great examples of their use in the past but they seem to be regularly over used these days. Stretched almost to breaking.

What do I love... that there is a whole new wave of people creating well crafted simple applications, focused on doing a few things, very well. They are showing a lot of established people better ways of doing things and I hope they get the success they deserve for that. Key elements would be focus, environment, simplicity and context.

I unfortunately can't put a single mainstream tool that I use on a day to day basis in that second list.


9. I believe that a good UI will invoke an emotional connection that far exceeds function. What is your belief?

I agree and disagree with that. As I stated before, I think that the UI, as well as the UX should be almost invisible in comparison to what people want to do.

The simple fact is that the user is in an environment and that environment has to be a good one. A nice place to be. People spend a lot of time and effort on the physical environment that they live and work in, yet have almost zero control of the one they do the vast majority on their work. It is supremely important that we get that right and make it  good place.

However, that must never become something in itself. Personally I think the creation of an 'Experience' is a failing. It must be good as such, but once something becomes an experience rather than just a part of the process, it starts to get in the way of the task and goal at hand.

If we can create something that never gets in the way of what people want to do, without encumbering them and where appropriate helping them, then we will naturally get that connection.


10. If I were able to assemble every single UI/UX Designer/Developer in the world into an area where you could tell them something, what would you say?

Users will rarely ever be designers, but designers always have to be the users. Without an intuitive grasp of the problem you are trying to solve, it will always be a best guess no matter how much you listen to the end user.

More of Mark:

I have many more interviews like this that I did in 2008 that I'll publish online. Lee’s inspired me to tackle this area head-on as no matter what brand of tool you opt for tomorrow, interactive design is really about the work guys like Mark produce. It’s the part in a movie where you go “damn that’s freakin nice”.

ILM, Pixar, OOOii etc are all companies I’d leave Microsoft in a heartbeat to work for – as these brands are my main source of muse.

Thank your for you time Mark!

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Revolutionary Incremental UX Going unnoticed.

Friday I was on a flight from Perth to Melbourne and was watching the movie IRONMAN on my iPhone (3hr flight – welcome respite from Qantas’ usual propaganda TV). I love this movie for a number of reasons mostly because every time i see the FUI (Fantasy User Interfaces) it just gets my creative mojo going again. I find these types of Hollywood movies inspirational and firmly believe they bleed out into real life and affect UX designs world-wide.

One scene did catch my eye, it was a scene where the guy from Mad Money tells everyone to sell stocks in Stark industries.


I chuckled at seeing this scene, as for me I can’t but help laugh at the fact here we have this fantasy based device that 3 years ago, made people drool at the very idea of its existence. Fast forward to today, Apple announces the iPad which is probably the closest looking device of this kind on the actual market and has received mixed reviews, mostly how it lacks innovation.


Innovation, what does that mean? Wikipedia says:

The term innovation means a new way of doing something. It may refer to incremental, radical, and revolutionary changes in thinking, products .

Incremental and revolutionary are often not allowed to be used in the same sentence as they kind of fight with one another in terms of adhering to people expectations.

image For instance, I’ve often heard Microsoft Surface table being declared a “missed opportunity” and I can’t but help disagree with that remark. Today for instance I ordered a Dell Multi-Touch monitor and a new Dell Laptop with Windows 7. 1 year ago, it didn’t exist, today it does. Microsoft Surface did it’s job, it dared the mainstream hardware manufacturers to beat it in an open market place, it provided the necessary research and development skills to the Windows team to ensure multi-touch was baked into the next operating system (which has recently reported enormous growth potential). It’s expected by 2012, multi-touch devices are going to be as normal as a mouse/keyboard – yet, 5 years ago, it didn’t exist.

10 months ago, Silverlight was just a plug-in, today it’s a plug-in that sits within a browser but also has the option to pop out of the browser, sit on your desktop and then get this – have a browser within itself. It’s fast becoming a concept where you have browser meets desktop and the division between desktop client and browser start to blur.

Approx 2 years ago, Steve Ballmer wrote off the iPhone as just some luxury device that wouldn’t sell as well as folks believed it to. He was partially right, the iPhone hasn’t sold as much as people think, but what it did do was light a huge fire under the mobile device markets butts. Now, today, you’re being bombarded with “iPhone” envy based devices.


My overall point is this, somehow we are owed more yet we don’t seem to take time out to pause and reflect on what we have before us. User Experiences is a prominent fixture in our daily lives now, the “good enough” approach is fast becoming taboo, we are innovating and we are doing it via revolutionary increments. The software industry is probably at its most exciting point in time, its the time when operating systems and devices need to bring more to the table than they have that or find ways to expose what they have in a more UX favored light (innovation is often also hidden deep within the bowels of existing technology, waiting to be exposed).

Steve Jobs this week allegedly called Adobe lazy and in the same breathe cited HTML5 as the future. I agree Adobe have been lazy and immature for quite some time (its the core of my frustration with the brand) but I disagree with HTML5. The reason I disagree with HTML5 as i feel it goes backwards in innovation and not forward, its an incremental growth spurt that is taking forever to land. What happens with HTML5 thereafter? what’s next?


I’ll buy an iPad for the same reason it was shown in the movie IRONMAN as for me its going to be my interactive tv and newspaper in one. Fit for initial purpose to be exact. I bought a multi-touch capable computer now, because i want to implement some ideas I've had for quite some time, albeit implement my Fantasy UI.

I’ll continue to look at every device I can find that touches on User Experience and look at it from the lens of “What does it do? and what will it inspire its competitors to do?” and then judge it a success or failure. Incremental change needs to come from lessons learned.


Links you should click on:

Learn to Appreciate Technology

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iPad is still missing iPlugin due to Compete wars

image I am currently sitting in a hotel in Perth, working on a presentation about Silverlight and at the same time like most people around the world, listening or reading as much information as I can find regarding the new Apple iPad.

Firstly, I like the device and it fits my needs well given I travel a lot and often want to read, watch movies and play stupid games like “Dig It” in Airports or Planes etc. It’s a great device fit for purpose with me, others may find it useless.

How you feel about the device aside, the part that left me uneasy is simply that this will be yet another device to ignore outside technology like Silverlight or Flash. My first instinct is wave my fist at Apple and plead with them to please allow a more open after-market add-on access much like Apple OSX does today.

It however isn’t really just Apple, its pretty much the entire industry today. There is such a competitive marketplace now in around folks trying to dominate the web for profit, that it’s in turn kind of stifled a lot of potential experiences that we as consumers could have.

iPad for example has a nice comfortable looking “surf the web on your couch” feel to it, but you’d probably spend about 20mins on the device before you start seeing a lot of whitespace with this little box in the middle, which represents “oops, this site uses Flash..oh well..” mentality attached to it.

Already your experience is reduced and is this the website it self's fault or is it Apples?

I’d argue its both these two entities and also Adobe’s – and Microsoft's etc.

I think what needs to happen going forward is a turnkey functionality approach to the plug-ins, in that unless something like this happens Apple will continue to protect their backyard from invasion of 3rd party plug-ins; it invites a lot of competitive threat to their vision. Microsoft will do the same with devices like XBOX 360 etc and Adobe will push Flash’s agenda well beyond the “it’s just a plug-in, honest” agenda as its no secret they want to own the UX Platform for the web – albeit SWF is the vNext HTML in allot of their eyes ( A vision which concerns Google, Apple and Microsoft).

Google just want you all to stay out of the plug-in space and stick to HTML as it’s more palatable to their business goals. HTML Zealots will cheer but I can’t but help think that HTML is so 1990’s and lacks depth around engaging experiences.


This is all grand and its interesting to once be in the thick of this competitive nonsense, but in reality we are suffering from a technology stand-off. A lot of great concepts are being presented to the world today, but they are being narrowed down to an obvious competitive stink – disallowing the consumers to gain a richer experience with their chosen purchase.

I think the only way that this can work going forward, is that the plug-in providers such as Microsoft and Adobe probably need that turn-key approach to the products. In that instead of getting the whole hog Flash or Silverlight, you in turn get partial bits instead.


This enables companies like Google/Apple for example to show face and sacrifice a little to gain more, while at the same time it underpins Microsoft and Adobe’s vision further than what they have to play with today.

It also still allows websites like MSN, CNN etc to still have plug-in experiences and should have little or no impact to what they use the plug-ins for today. As lets face it, most of the broken experiences that you are blocked on in mainstream sites like this are either Video, Informative Slide like experiences or Ads. Are they using webcam? pixelshaders etc? no, not really.

It won’t happen though, as companies like Apple will continue to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It just is a shame that an opportunity like the iPad gets fumbled due to the current competitive landscape. As personally, I really don’t care if Flash, QuickTime or Silverlight wins out in the end. I just want to enjoy the experiences.

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Adobe Open Screen Project – reality check.


Despite what some folks in the Adobe community think, I’m actually still a big fan of Flash and what it represents. I do however hold Adobe up to a much higher standard than I did with Microsoft, as for me they have shown endless amounts of potential but have in my opinion squandered through either in-fighting or misalignment with the rest of the industry.

I’ve read a many a post on the “Open Screen Project” and whilst the concept of putting Flash Runtime on multiple devices etc is quite an appealing concept, I just don’t see them pulling it off beyond a few million units here and there. It’s a reality check that I think a lot of the Adobe staff need to take a step back and review.

Putting Flash on the iPhone or vNext desktop device is the easy part and I don’t think a lot of companies are realistically against that idea on it’s own. They would be typically skeptical of the technical dependency when you start too look beyond the “Open” PR spin and start focus on the tooling and ecosystem surrounding it.

Adobe just don’t have the developer numbers to support a sophisticated ecosystem it requires. There are a lot of exceptionally talented programmers in the Adobe community, some of which are fighting well above their weight – these however aren’t the majority. Adobe needs more of a groundswell of developers, ones that typically hail from either .NET, PHP or JAVA as their previous breeding ground. To date, they haven’t yielded that as fast as they should/could.

Adobe have been plagued with getting their community to move from ActionScript 1.0 and 2.0 over to ActionScript 3.0 and for the past 2-3 years that’s been a campaign of there’s in motion (i.e. being a little more aggressive in ensuring future roadmaps lock the next generation of ActionScript etc into place, essentially what I call a “duress adoption”). They’ve also recently started picking up on the reality that Microsoft fears daily, PHP has become the 800lb gorilla. There are quite a groundswell of PHP developers out there who don’t typically favor Adobe or Microsoft in a lot of ways and are more than happy to punch out solutions built in a HTML/CSS/JavaScript sandbox.

So why me, someone with little PHP experience? I’ve always felt like evangelism is about growing your developer community and developer relations is about helping the community you have – Ryan Stewart, Adobe Evangelist.

Adobe needs to court these folks and fast, as if they can get these folks to switch gears into the Adobe community lifestyle, they in turn and increase there developer base in a much more significant way than they have in the past by pounding at the Java and/or .NET developer doors.

Assuming they fix the Developer base, they next need to convince OEM manufacturers that their tooling isn’t the liability in this equation. I say that, as whilst its fun and 10x more productive to build Flash based solutions via Adobe specific tooling, this in turn creates effectively a liability in around the concept of being “”Open”. It’s not really Open, its more of a half-hatched Open concept, as producing a SWF outside Adobe tooling is actually not a likely thing to occur in the industry. The reason being is, whilst you can technically make your own SWF, you are still required to fall into line with Adobe’s roadmap and vision of where it all heads.

Implementing software which creates SWF files has always been permitted, on the condition that the resulting files render "error free in the latest publicly available version of Adobe Flash Player." –

Point is, that whilst their intentions are righteous and feel open, you have to face reality that this is just shifting the boundaries on a total lock-in and instead of declaring the Runtime and File Format as completely locked, its really the tooling story behind it is where the money tree begins. After all, Adobe aren’t in this business for free, they have shareholders and a $3billion+ fiscal profit expectation to meet.

The tooling component to this equation is really the bottleneck as could you imagine what would happen if say ActionScript 3.0 and Flash were solutions that a Visual Studio .NET developer could write inside the said tooling? It would have a huge impact on both sides of the isle roadmaps that’s for sure.

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Controlling your Silverlight Installation Experience.

I’ve been doing plug-in development & design for many years, and often I've seen many a battle around this space. It typically starts with ubiquity, once that is overcome it then settles down at abandonment rates and from there the curse of the dreaded plug-in ends.

The reality however, no matter what plug-in you choose is that in actual fact ubiquity isn’t the sign of displeasure, it typically starts with how the entire package is presented to the end user.

Fatigue Point 1 – Do I want the full Experience?

image If you build a Silverlight experience for example, and all you put in place of the viewer whom doesn’t have Silverlight is the typical generic “Get Silverlight” medallion. This will basically be your first failure point  (depending on the power of word-of-mouth).

As put yourself in the end users shoes. I’ve arrived at a site, and it has nothing but a “Get Silverlight” button.

Well, what does that mean? and more to the point do I really want to go beyond the button? why..why should I get Silverlight!

Irrespective of what plug-in you choose to build with, this initial hurdle is not just solely related to the plug-in but more to the point around what it is you’re trying to entice the end user to actually experience.

Have you explained what it is you have to offer clearly? is there a sense of reward for them should they agree that getting Silverlight is worth it.

Fatigue Point 2-  Do I want to install?

image It’s easy to push away and declare ubiquity as being the sole reason as to why any plug-in fails or succeeds. It’s only 1/3 of the battle ahead, as there is more beyond the “Get Plug-in XYZ”.

For instance, Installing plug-in have become a tax we willingly pay each day online, often enough in your lifespan online you’ve most likely downloaded plug-in like Flash, QuickTime etc approx 8-9 times a year. All users online do it, so the old myth around folks being plug-in fatigued is actually not a reality at all.

Fatigue Point 3 – Do I want to stick around.

image The final but crucial point of fatigue is, well, do I actually want to stick around?

If you have a 5mb+ payload (ie .XAP file) the end user has to download and all they want is the first 100k, think about the tax you’re imposing on the end user.

Splash Screens are effective here, you want to keep the end user locked on the job at hand and re-assure them the experience is highly worth the wait.

It’s also important to note your mileage in terms of broadband access online will vary and despite the fact I’m sitting on a 30mbps cable link at home others aren’t on high speed broadband.

Have a read of this great article:



Think about your end users pain, understand that ubiquity is definitely a hard psychological barrier to overcome, at times people put to much stock in the idea of what success here looks like. They also don’t pay attention to their abandonment rates as they should, and watching people drop off can mean many things (i.e. is your intended experience built for the right audience? I'd argue a RIA based blog isn’t appropriate, given HTML is simply just better suited – unless, you’re doing something more compelling than the HTML iteration has to offer).

We’ll explore more of this going forward soon, as we’ve got an upcoming announcement around this space. I just wanted to highlight early the notion that having a Silverlight experience for an external site has many fatigue points associated to it, and it’s something we should all take responsibility to ensure is enticing beyond the off the shelf default experience.

It’s not just solely about “do they have plug-in yes/no”.

We’ll continue to partner with OEM providers and grow Silverlight installs to reduce the ubiquity barrier of entry, however it’s still up to you to handle the rest, no matter what plug-in you adopt.

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RIA: 10 Questions on Icon Design – I ask our Microsoft Design folks to respond.


I have an Icon fetish that is disturbingly wrong. In that I collect them, horde them and would happily spend Microsoft's good hard earned money on as many of them as I can find - if allowed.

Yet, what makes Icon's so special? in that why do they enhance an applications user interface to the point where it almost is lost without them. Why does Microsoft and Apple spend a lot of money and time ensuring that menu navigation and icon's are done in a manner that's not only attractive to the eye, but enhance a users experience?

Well, I decided to ask our UX folks, the same folks whom chose Icons for our operating systems, software applications and so on. I had one intent, to get to the bottom of this whole Icon business and more to see where Icon's can play a role in tomorrows RIA. RIA is going to embrace the icon market, something I have now doubt and so with this, onto the top 10 questions with Frank Bisono & Brittnie Hervey (UX demi-gods).

Top 10 Questions for the Icon Ninja's here at Microsoft.

Q1. What is an icon?, in that we all see them daily in software but what does the icon represent to the end user? 

Brittnie: An icon represents an action a user will take.

Frank: For our purposes, an icon would be a graphical representation (small picture or object) for a file, application or command (action).  For the end user it should be an easy way to quickly identify what product they are in and what action they could take on a given object.

Q2. When you choose an icon, what is the process that you go through in selecting the right one?

Brittnie:         In Vista there is set usages for every icon that we define when created.  We align the concept of the functionality the user is taking to the best visual representation we can get based on elements rather than words.

Frank:          So generally you don’t just have the luxury of choosing a pre-existing icon here.  For most products or features, we create a custom icon.  On the server side, this means literally THOUSANDS of icons.  We follow the same process as Brittnie described above.  That generally means meeting with a PM and translating the description for this icon into a graphical representation.  Sometimes we have existing elements that we re-use to create an icon, other times, it’s a completely custom concept and we start from scratch.

Q3. Microsoft has released some guidelines around designing icon's, do you feel that the icon design community adhere to these? 

Brittnie: I believe it depends on group and situation.  Our current guidelines do not map 1 to 1 to what MS sets as guidelines.  I think we adhere when appropriate.  This is a harder question to answer.

Frank:          If you mean the design community OUTSIDE of Microsoft, well – it all depends.  We haven’t put out the most robust set of guidelines I’ve seen, but they are generally a pretty good start.  The main problem I have seen with regards to icons is that sometimes the importance of an icon is overlooked.  There are the obvious visual aspects of creating an icon, but then there are also things to consider such as geopolitical issues that can come back to haunt a developer or studio.  The last thing you want to do is insult a particular culture with the use of an icon that has a detrimental meaning to them.  I’ve also seen updates to products that continue to use icons developed for an older platform like XP.  If you are targeting your application to run in Vista, then you need to refresh the icons to match the visual style we have set for Vista (the aero style).  The last thing I’ll note is that all too often I’ve seen folks take a shortcut and use an icon designed for use at say 256x256 and they scale it down to fit a 16x16 block.  Or even worse, they upscale an icon.  That just doesn’t fly.  There are a number of reasons why you can’t just shrink an icon in Photoshop and call it a day, and the same goes for sizing an icon up.  At the end of the day, it just doesn’t look good.

Q4. I've always said that the icon market is ripe for the picking giving the technology going forward, where do you foresee this market going and is there room for icons in formats such as XAML? 

Brittnie:         I foresee icons becoming less important and the UI itself becoming more self explanatory.  With that being said I don’t think icons will ever go completely away, just less needed. 

Frank:          The icon market is definitely getting more advanced.  We are now seeing icons as large as 512x512 directly in the UI and with much richer detail than ever.  I totally see a future with dynamic icons that change as the application’s state changes.  As the graphics engines in our OS get better, so too will the use of icons and the value they can bring to the OS or application.  That’s just one example.  As far as XAML, there’s definitely something to be said there as well.  Right now if you take an icon created in Illustrator, you could export that as XAML and drop that right into code using Expression Blend. After all, a vector is nothing more than a mathematical computation rendered as a graphic right?  But another way to drop that into XAML is by defining a brush in Blend with an icon image and then using that brush in Blend (this is for when you only have a bitmap icon for example).  The “icon” does ok at scaling, but there is room for improvement using that technique.  XAML is definitely going to present some interesting possibilities moving forward with WPF applications.  We are still WAY early in defining that, but as we move more towards a WPF based environment, you will see more attention being given to XAML Icons.

Q5. I have an icon fetish, i just seem to store them, 1000's of them. Do you also have hordes of icons tucked away on your hard drive and what is it you look for in the design styles?

Brittnie: No, I do not have many different icons I store on my hard drive but we do have thousands tucked away on a sever/share.  The design style is the same for all the icons we create, as we have the Vista guidelines we follow.  I only collect those icons. J

Frank:          Well, I’m not going to lie here, I am a total icon fanboi  🙂 I literally have TENS of THOUSANDS of them hoarded away on my drives at home.  I’ve been collecting them for years.  I just love customizing my desktop and folders using custom icons.

Q6. OSX and Windows Vista have a unique design style to both, and lately the "Glass Effect" plays a role in design style(s). Why is this so? and do you have any thoughts on the next upcoming fashionable style? 

Brittnie: I believe this is because it is a new visual style that you don’t see in a lot of places, and it gives the icons an extra bang.  They feel more like a piece of art work then they do just a simple icon and glass adds some elegance.  I can’t predict the next trend, but if I had to guess, I would think it would be a hybrid between the MSN style of icons and the current Vista style, giving a little less importance to the icon, and more importance to the UI.

Frank:          Hmmm, the glass factor.  Yeah, this is all the rage and trend lately, but I think we’ll see some evolution in the coming years.  The glass thing is just a little too shiny and a little too frosty in places and I think you will start seeing that get toned down a bit.  The big effect there is transparency.  Like anything else though, too much is a bad thing.  I would totally tell you what I think the next trend in icons will be, but I’d rather keep that a secret and let you see it when we release it.

Q7. What is the biggest mistake a developer or designer can do in choosing an Icon for their applications? 

Brittnie:         In our world they could use the icon incorrectly, which then breaks the users understanding of what that icon does.  Windows, Windows Live, & IE all use the same library of icons so using them correctly helps the user to immediately identify what action is going to be taken when the icon is clicked, thus enhances the User experience.   The second thing they could do wrong is size an icon up from a smaller file, pixilation then occurs in the image.

Frank:          Totally in sync with Brittnie here.  An example of using an icon incorrectly would be choosing an icon that has traditionally had a different metaphor to mean something else in your UI.  This is BAD…REAL BAD.  It’s hard to retrain people to think about something in a different way and if your use of an icon gives the user a result other than the intended result because of a bad metaphor, well then you just hosed the usability of your product.  Metaphors in general can be a bad thing and should be avoided unless it is universally known.  You have to think about localization here and what the icon could potentially mean in another culture.

Q8. What advice would you give to the design market around producing a set of icons? given that most software vendors require a themed approach? 

Brittnie:         I guess the advice I would give would depend on what style they were trying to create an icon in.  If they were trying to create an icon in the Vista style I would say the most important thing to do is work closely with the library owner so they can understand what is already built, and how to visual represent something that needs to map into our icons, and to make sure the style guide is being followed.

Frank:          For designers outside of MSFT, the #1 thing I’d say they need to know their target audience.  Sounds stupid, but if none of your users are running Vista (which we all know they should right? J), then you shouldn’t be using the Aero theme for your icons or your UI will look like butt.  This is where proper research comes into play.  Know the limitations of your product.  Think about WHERE the icon will be used, platform, form factor, etc. (mobile device or a huge honkin projection screen in a NOC center).  Think about the environment in which your icon will be seen (potential lighting situations, types of display technology).  We all like to think we are designing icons that will be used on a Windows box in a home or office environment, but the reality is that your icon could end up in a place you never expected it to.  You have to think about a lot of factors when choosing the right design.  Think ahead, anticipate the unexpected and ask a lot of questions.

Q9. Icon's typically have two states associated to them (eg: recycle bin, full/empty). Yet some (Audim on OSX for example) are now using animation to represent status change, what advice would you give around keeping that from getting out of hand? 

Brittnie: I would say each situation needs to be addressed case by case.  I avoid using animation or multiple states of icons unless there is a status to an icon that needs to be represented for its functionality.    I think the cost of making second/third icons and the additional cost of animating those icons will keep us from doing it too often.  That is usually where I push back from when an icon of this type is requested.

Frank:          I would actually argue that it ISN’T typical for an icon to have 2 states.  There are definitely times when this is the case however.  Status change and animation are two separate things.  You can have one without the other.  I think that having status change is an effective way of providing feedback to a user for certain things.  Animation is where things would tend to get out of control if not done correctly.  In the case of an object that is synchronizing something or transferring data, I can see the value of adding animation to an icon because it’s representing that there is a task in progress. It’s live feedback letting the user know something is happening. But gratuitous animation for the sake of animation is where you start getting into the cheese factor.  How long did those flaming .gifs and websites with music last back in 1995?  Yeah…

Q10. Why can't we have a universal icon format that fits all platforms, devices and other digital surfaces. 

Brittnie: I think it would be AMAZING to have all platforms support then same file type/format, but I don’t know if this would ever be possible considering the constraints on the web that don’t exist in the OS.

Frank:                   I also think that the idea of a universal icon format would be ideal.  Unfortunately we live in a world where everyone wants to be king and nobody wants to concede to the other player.  You can say that about almost any format on the market.  Blue Ray vs. HD DVD /  PDF vs. XPS /  RAW vs. DNG, the list goes on.  Then you have the issue of maintaining backwards compatibility and re-engineering existing apps to take advantage of a universal format.  Then who owns it?  I think people are just set in their ways and on the grand scheme of things, a universal icon format isn’t at the top of the list of priorities for most folks.  It’s a shame really, but I guess that’s life in the 21st century.


I think that there is going to be a very lucrative market ahead for Icon Designers, especially as RIA begins to heat up more and more as technology gets advanced. Themed Icon designers, and quality ones will be in high demand along side UI designers - in fact - one could argue that a good UI designer for applications should come in armed with Icon Design capabilities. As you can then complete the entire themed experience in a way that others may not be able to.


XAML, is also something in which I think there is could have stronger potential. The ability to transfer icons back and forth amongst designer & developer workflow will also work towards reduction of having to design icon's for different scales (16,32,48 etc).

This is also something which probably doesn't get discussed enough, in that Microsoft Community can offer a lot of maturity in this space going forward. We have exceptionally talented, intelligent and extremely focused User Experience folks on our ethos. I expect as time passes we will continue to see some of this thought leadership and maturity help shape the Microsoft version of “Next Web”.

Also we have  icon design guideline(s) which others may find useful:

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Interview with Laurence Moroney and Silverlight 3


Just before I left the Silverlight Team, I managed to convince Laurence to give me an adhoc video interview in my office regarding his latest book titled “Introducing Microsoft Silverlight 3”.


The sound isn’t the best but keep in mind it was done on a Flip Video camera and as I said – adhoc moment just before Laurence moved out of his Tech Evangelist role into a Product Manager role.

I should also point out a few days later our entire building was flooded with water and my office got trashed, omens anyone?

His Book is this one:


Buy it here: Introducing Silverlight 3

Laurence contact details:

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Silverlight is creating a mutant designer who can code.

I look over the past 3-4 years in around the RIA industry and just chuckle at times to myself. I say this with all the appropriate levels of respect attached.

The reason I chuckle is that prior to Microsoft i was laser focused on getting developers to adopt Adobe Flex as we had an abundance of Designers in the Adobe community but less developers. Once I joined Microsoft, I was then focused on getting designers to join the Microsoft ranks as we had an abundance of developers.


Today, nothing really has changed much. As when I was a Product Manager for Silverlight, I think we last announced there was around half a million (there about) Silverlight developers, which for a product that’s roughly 20+ months old, is about 4:1 on Flex Developers give or take. Yet, before we all start whooping and high fiving one another about the success of SIlverlight over Adobe’s products, they would have about 5x as many designers in their ranks compared to Silverlight which would have probably a design audience measured in thousands and not hundreds of thousands.

I’m yet to see any evidence that this stand-off is likely to change radically in the next 2-5 years either, except there seems to be a change in the wind that I was hopeful would happen but skeptical at the same time. It turns out Silverlight is igniting a lot of design passion within the ranks of the Silverlight developer community – meaning, I am seeing some interesting signs of developers wanting to learn “design” albeit also “user experience”.

Can they design though?

Everyone can design, as when you were children you were told to draw a house with clouds, you did so and sure it made your parents happy enough to put it on the family fridge, but is it a realistic house that can withstand the elements such as a sun with eyes?…no.. but you designed. As you began to age towards adulthood for some reason you stopped drawing. The passion in a nutshell, was depreciated from within you.

Designers however kept it alive and continued to learn new techniques and slowly over time mastered ways to explore the concept of design more. That's why they see things differently in the world than most and can bend your ear on the subject in ways you think they are likely smoking crack.

Today, lets face it, the design audience isn’t exactly pounding down the Microsoft Expression door, this in turn has created a discipline that needs to be filled and as such more and more developers are stepping up to fill it. They will in turn need guidance and better techniques on how to pull off the design part and it will take some time for them to master this art form. In the process I think this will also be a more vibrant unbiased beacon for the design audience to flock towards as in order for the developer audience to fill such a position, they will seek out more designers for help. As the design audience begins to help them, they will in turn also begin the journey of understanding what's before them and hopefully it will stick.

Thus as Yoda would say:

“the cycle it will, repeat itself it may”.

Point is, at some point we will have a displaced audience that sit between the words design and develop they in turn will be the influencers on why Silverlight should be adopted. Today's developer is tomorrows designer, so we who consider themselves of the design lineage need to show kindness and patience towards these folks. As they in turn will also show us faster and more efficient techniques to also carry out interactive design.

Next time you hear a developer say “I can’t design” correct them and say “You mean you haven’t the passion to try design” as this is a more correct response.

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