Post Microsoft MIX 2008 Thoughts

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Making the Business Case to Attend MIX 2008

Last December, I was invited to Microsoft to get a preview of what Microsoft was working on and would showcase more so at MIX 2008. They are definitely doing cool work, and I’m sure will have a lot of great things to showcase.

Now that I’m W2, I have to give my CTO a list of conferences I’d like to speak at this year. I negotiated 1 per year as part of my hiring agreement. Since I don’t see the need to be uber-engaged in selling myself when I’m 100% focused on my at work endeavors, that seemed fine as opposed to the regular 2 or 3 per year. I figure I can possibly finagle 1 more in if I play my cards right. The worse he can say is no. 360Flex doesn’t count because it’s in my backyard… well, sort of. Closer than Italy.

If I attended MIX, it’d be the first conference I’ve attended where I didn’t actually speak. I learn a ton at conferences in between the sessions; I don’t actually like attending sessions as much as I like engaging people outside the sessions. Either way, both are great places to learn. However, speaking at a conference allows you to be perceived as an expert at a subject matter, even if you really aren’t (same as writing a book). Further, it builds credence to your personal brand and thus makes you a more desirable candidate for hire. You get to learn, you build brand awareness about yourself, and you get to practice being a better public speaker. Therefore, it’s pretty easy to justify the money for travel & accomodations since if you speak, you don’t pay for conference admission tickets.

Not speaking at MIX 2008 isn’t such a bad thing; I’m a n00b in the Microsoft world. I’m a Silverlight n00b as well. Therefore, going to a conference out of my comfort zone, yet still relevant immensely to my industry, still seems like a good thing.

From a business perspective, there are a lot of reasons. First, I work for an online video company. We make money in allowing customers to have video on their websites and used in their software. They can deliver 24/7 networks, on demand video, syndication, and live broadcasts. Silverlight’s trump card, which its using to pole vault quickly into relevancy, is its cross platform angle at delivering windows video. This is important for a number reasons. My company has a significant amount of investment in Windows Media forming an end to end solution for live, 24/7, and on demand video with support for remote locations.

The technology that supports this based on what I’ve seen is way more mature on the back-end with regards to transcoding than Flash video. No one uses Spark anymore. On2’s price and back-end encoding solution examples are a joke and thankfully will hopefully get annihilated pretty soon by the tidal wave that is H.264, aka MPEG-4 Part 10… assuming licensing doesn’t spook people away. Thankfully, I have the luxury of bitching about those back-end solutions, but not actually having to code nor maintain them.

After seeing a 2 meg bitrate H.264 video stream from a secret FMS3 enabled-Akamai server today with no hiccups, I’m chomping at the bit. And so are our customers. Yes, they want to pay the extra bandwidth fee’s that are associated with the higher bandwidth consumption of H.264. Why? ‘Cause it’s the hotness! Curious if they’ll do so for VC-1?

To be fair, we debated getting 15 of us to all do it at once to see if we could clog our 30 meg pipe.

All you Net Neutrality people need to give up. H.264 content, and thus its immense file size, is yet another reason why telecoms and cable networks need to charge by bandwidth to make any money off of their, currently, dumb pipes. While I’m a major fan of flat fee’s as a consumer, I have a feeling that as businesses pay companies like mine to deploy H.264 content, millions of consumers will consume it. That is also consuming a TON more bandwidth when you look at it in scale. Mark my words, Texas is only the beginning.

As more and more customers ask for Flash video, both open source and commercial institutions are releasing a lot of better support for getting Flash transcoding solutions into a back-end work flow. That’s great, but there’s still a lot of great code deployed on Windows Media, today. The front end is the only problem. Silverlight hopes to remedy that with not just a solution to the suck that is using Windows Media on the web, but also a multimedia client technology to build atop of.

Some customers will ask for both as the marketing machine continues to crush all in it’s path. Therefore, Silverlight and Flash cannot be viewed as solutions unto themselves, but merely a solution for a particular customer’s need. Aka, you need to support both. This isn’t to return to the horrid HTML window pop-ups of the past where you chose what plugin to use. Rather, it’s to take advantage of already coded and working back-end services, additional codec options, and the fact that Silverlight is a rich internet platform just like the Flash Player is.

That last part is the main key here. We are using Flex and Flash at work for both PHP and .NET and so are a variety of other companies. However, I have a feeling a lot of companies that are either using .NET exclusively, or are associated with firms that use .NET for specific services will want a Silverlight solution from us when given the choice between Flash or Silverlight. You can either say no, and not take their money… or you can say yes, give them Silverlight, and take their money. What’s the cost?

That is a rehetorical question as I don’t know… building Flash video players that scale for millions of customers is hard. Maintaining that code, sequestering custom development for those customers who front bling in organized code repositories, and balancing legacy features with additional latest greatest is REALLY hard.

As I read the above 3 paragraphs I just wrote, it really has less to do with learning Silverlight for it’s own sake (features that Flash Player doesn’t have, some features done differently, and different way of doing things to expand my personal horizons), but rather to ensure that when customers (while I’m W2) and clients (if I ever go back to 1099) ask for Silverlight solutions, I can give an informed answer.

Do I want to be capable of responding? To be honest, no. I love doing Flash & Flex, and using Blend and Visual Studio is not yet as fun. If it’s fun, I’ll use it; if it’s not, I won’t. That joy in using products is what drives me to create quality software for my clients and customers, even when I’m exhausted. I think I see the potential, however. More importantly, I believe. A lot of people during the Flex 1 and 1.5 days said Flex was destined to fail because of it’s draconian business unit (except for Lucian Beebe, he is the f”ing man!), its insane price tag, and with a compiler that was on the server instead of the client.

Yet Flex is now an insanely successful product. Regardless of what the Adobe financial reports say, businesses are dying for good Flex talent. I knew it wouldn’t for 2 reasons. The first reason, and the most subjective and thus invalid, was my “aha” moment when using Flex 1 for the first time. I used 1 binding and built a form. What was special at how damn quickly I did it, and how flexible the component layout engine was. I knew I was using something special… even if it cost me $17 bucks for 2 demo CD’s since you couldn’t download a demo of Flex back in the day. I made that $17 back in consulting, so it’s all good.

The second was in meeting those in charge of Flex and deluging them with questions, accusations, and frustrations. They had a good grasp on the industry, fearful perception (I’d argue un-resolved frustration) around the Flash communities vitrol laced reactions, but most importantly a consistent drive across the team to take Flex to the next level. You could see this in the early days of the Flex team and their participation in Flexcoders. They’d not only answer questions in the community, but ask them back. They’d do what other companies sometimes consider a faux pau, and use their customers as sounding boards.

I saw that same thing at Microsoft, both while I was there, and outside the walls. That determined attitude, drive, and already deployed marketing budget means Microsoft means business. Granted, there are a lot of different facets, multiple hands in the jar, and way more challenges. Regardless, this isn’t Liquid Motion.

Us Flash Developers know that the only reason we were successful was because our plugin “just worked”. Those 2 words (in present tense) became a catch phrase used to sell Java developers on what Flash Player was a great runtime to develop for vs. JRE. If Silverlight gets there, and actually works well enough on both Mac and PC across browsers, we’ll see more and more agencies doing Silverlight work. We’ll start to hear about more and more Silverlight projects done behind the firewall (that’s where Flex started remember) and undoubtebly the obligetory Techcrunch series of posts about startups using Silverlight in some shape or fashion for the crux of their business. Even if it isn’t the crux, bloggers in the .NET sphere will be sure to tout it up as being so.

In conclusion, I want to go to challenge my assumptions. I hate Las Vegas with a passion (if I were single and 22… sure, why not, but I’m not now, so…). I want to see if the majority .NET shops really do conform to my stereotype of “using Silverlight because it was made for our back-end even though Flash or Flex would work just fine right now”. I want to also see if they conform to my stereotype of the same way Enterprise Java devs view design; as not playing an integral role in the development of applications, being only useful to make initial sales via eye candy. That same attitude results in hiring hybrids or “Silverlight Developers with design experience” to augment teams when confronted with customers who are used to working with agencies and are wondering why this software development shop doesn’t give a flip about the accuracy of their design comps. I want to see if the general consensus and excitement is really towards WPF, and not Silverlight… or if the .NET guys are really just biding their time to jump on board the RIA band wagon. I want to see those Designers who are actually getting paid to not just do WPF design, but Silverlight specific design work and actually using Design and Blend.

Additionally, I want to see Microsoft’s reaction to these things. Does it affect their attitude? Do they give off the appearence they’ll change direction or merely confirming they are on course?

Reading the blogs outside the Flex / Flash / Java / ColdFusion bubble, a lot of the .NET bloggers seem to be a lot like us. Completely in love with their technology, and willing to push it into areas other things may be better at, yet their love and drive make it work. I see a lot of similiarities and I’m curious how this story begins. Knowing so helps me contribute effectively to the business I now work for.

Besides, there is everything right with getting out of your comfort zone, meeting new people, and learning.

Silverlight on TV and in Startups

I get exposed to a lot of girly TV shows. The reason is, my wife is one of those people who can leave the TV on for background noise, but not actually watch it. I’m the opposite. If a TV is on, I tune out everything else and get enraptured. During the working day when I’m at home, I’ll get up to get coffee or some food from the kitchen, and then return to my office to continue working. This path takes me past the living room where the Tivo has selected some weird show about modeling or some other celebrity thing.

One particular show was Entertainment Tonight. Walking back to my office, I saw the Microsoft Silverlight logo. Naturally I slammed on the breaks, and stood there staring. This guy, one of the ET hosts, talking in all announcer voice went “Go to ET online where you can view other video content powered EXCLUSIVELY by Microsoft Silverlight”. Wow. I think I’d convulse on the ground like a 1980’s break dancer if they said that about Flash Player. If Ice-T wasn’t enough, now we have TV shows marketing it. Holy fish.

Miles away from Adobe. Granted, both companies I think do a great job at engaging developers, but while the Adobe community makes their own banners, Microsoft fronts the bling for a media blitz.

In other news, I got my first Silverlight 2 startup email. All through 2006, bit smaller amount in 2007, I’d get a least 3 new emails a week from startups looking to create some web app using X back-end with a Flex or Flash front end. It was really weird timing. I just told my CTO last week that we should hold off on any huge Silverlight endeavors that are greater than video players until at least Q1 2009. The reasons were Silverlight 2 is still in alpha, there are no official components yet, and we’re still at an early stage. For all of my positivity about Microsoft’s toolsets, Silverlight the plugin still needs to become ubiquitous in reality. Everyone can talk about how Microsoft can use Windows update, installation CD’s, etc., but it’s all talk and no action. Until I see numbers of successful installations and I can duplicate the ease of install on multiple computers, it’s not viable.

Hopefully by Q3 of 2008, we’ll have all the toys ready to play with. At that point, we can start doing some serious investigation into the realities of porting some of our existing Windows Media content into a more Flash based realm; where video is dynamic and multimedia centric. Granted, we can do this now with all the alpha bits. Tons of people and companies did this with Adobe’s Flex 2 Alphas and Betas, building real-world projects, just waiting for the final release. They are doing the same thing now with Adobe AIR; in beta 3 and people are chomping at the bit to release on a final version with their already built products. I just mean actual development that isn’t considered skunk works and done off the company clock to make real progress with investigations.

I can see how a company could perceive on how they could effectively build a product on alpha bits given both public videos such as Top Banana, and Adobe’s track record with usable beta’s. However, Silverlight doesn’t have a component framework out yet. If I’m wrong and it has an alpha version, then you’re good to go; if not, there is no point. Spending your time creating a List component vs. using a List component to build your product is a waste of time unless you plan on somehow monetizing your component work.

Anyway, the tone of the email was the same as the rest I’ve seen in the past. Meaning, there will be more emails like this one. The Silverlight marketing is working.