Vista and Office 2007 spin tales from the Underground

Vision versus practicality

Warning: roundabout

Comment Microsoft launched Vista and Office 2007 at the end of last week to a gathering of developers in its UK headquarters in Thames Valley Park, Reading, and a couple of us from Freeform Dynamics were there to hear what the Redmond software giant had to say.

The event itself was typical of Microsoft, pretty slick and well presented. The over-arching message seemed to be that users have put up with poor or mediocre user interfaces for decades, but that this is no longer acceptable given the complexity of the modern information and communication landscape, the way in which user expectations are escalating, and the business requirement to maintain or increase end user productivity. Vista and Office 2007 as platforms for development were then positioned as key to addressing the challenge.

That's our interpretation of what we heard, anyway. There was, of course, lots of detail provided in terms of how Microsoft is going to take us all forward into the world of rich, integrated and highly interactive multimedia interfaces and applications. This was outlined at a high level during the key note speech by Sanjay Parthasarathy, corporate VP, Developer & Platform Evangelism, and expanded upon in later breakout sessions by other evangelists.

So was anyone converted?

Well, chats during coffee breaks seemed to suggest that what Microsoft was presenting resonated pretty well, and we heard general support for the notion of Vista and Office 2007 as targets for development.

Having said this, there were a couple of guys in particular from the London Underground who should take a lot of the credit for getting people really tuned in and turned on early in the day. They blew the crowd away with some proof of concept work they had done, showing how they were exploiting the potential of both Vista and Office 2007. The demonstration they delivered illustrated how much of their back end operational data could be tapped into and presented in a highly graphical and intuitive user interface in real time.

You really had to be there to appreciate what they had done, but imagine starting with the familiar tube map then being able to overlay data on tracks, signals, trains, maintenance, etc on top of that, with real-time updates, then having the level of detail changing automatically as the user zooms in and out. There were literally audible gasps from the audience when they flipped to a 3D view and you could see clearly how the tube dips under the Thames, along with the physical layout of locations for maintenance accessibility and planning purposes as you zoom in.

The point of conversion for some was undoubtedly when the London Underground guys said the whole thing had been put together by a team of four in two weeks. They did stress, however, that a lot of work had already been previously done on the project to construct web service interfaces to their back end systems as part of their move to SOA, so the eight man weeks related to the presentation layer only. Nevertheless, it was still very impressive.

So, how should we interpret what went on at the conference?

The first point to make is that the audience was probably already going to be receptive to what Microsoft had to say before they came along to the event – i.e. most of the delegates probably earn their living designing and developing applications in a Microsoft environment. Developers more into Java, dynamic scripting languages, dabbling with mash-ups, etc, may not have been so easily wowed. Of course, that's not to put a damper on things as the Microsoft developer community is one of (if not the) largest on the planet. However, it's worth pointing out that there's more than one way to skin a cat and "the Microsoft way" is not considered right by a large segment of the developer population.

It's also important to highlight that we picked up some reservations within the ranks of the converted – not so much in terms of what Microsoft is delivering, but with regard to how long it will take for the new Vista and Office environments to reach critical mass in the business sector in particular.

There is a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. When we caught up with Sanjay Parthasarathy for a chat later in the day, he highlighted in no uncertain terms that the anticipated drivers for Vista and Office 2007 adoption were the applications they would enable and the value of these to consumers and businesses. The view expressed was that the operational benefits of the new platforms, while significant, were secondary to this. Yet developers and IT departments will find it hard to justify committing to Vista and Office 2007 as targets for development if only a proportion of their potential user base is on these. The question then becomes how many snazzy new applications it will take to justify the cost, time, and risk of going through a desktop upgrade.

Relevant to this question is the fact that we still pick up quite a lot of scepticism within the broader IT professional and management community about the incremental value that the advanced user interface functionality of Vista and Office 2007 will deliver or enable. Even together with the operational benefits of Vista, the appetite to migrate still seems to be very limited, especially in the corporate space given the cost, risk and hassle of large scale desktop upgrades.

When we put this to Sanjay Parthasarathy, his response was that "end user pull" would overcome the IT reluctance, the premise being that once users get to see and experience what the new desktop can offer, there will be ground swell of demand that IT departments won't be able ignore. This is why Microsoft is investing so much time and effort in developer programmes, as the availability of a compelling range of third party applications, both for running on Vista and embedding in Office 2007, is seen to be an important catalyst here.

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