Microsoft lifts its game

Professional Developers Conference announcements impress Kiwi developers

Microsoft is shaking off the Vista bogey that has long haunted it with a series of bold announcements, made at last week’s Professional Developers Conference held in Los Angeles. They promise to change the way ICT services are delivered — and local developers are impressed.

New Zealand developers attending the conference described the new technologies, which include new operating systems, cloud computing environments and web versions of Office, as “bold” and “game changing”.

The announcement, and demos, of lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote made available through the browser were “awesome”, said Jeremy Boyd, director of Wellington software developer company Mindscape.

Boyd called it a “real game-changer”, especially for people in the enterprise space who might have been looking to take advantage of Google Apps. Now Office has the same functionality but also has all the Office functionality and a rich user interface too.

“It doesn’t feel like a web application, it feels like Word on the web,” said Boyd.

For those already using Office, there will be no reason not to move up to Office 14 to be able to leverage the web, he said. It is a technology that enables teleworking and collaboration across firewalls and barriers.

“I’m really hanging out to try it myself.”

Chris Auld, CTO of Wellington software developer Intergen, said the Office Web Applications demo was the most exciting demo of the second day of the conference. “It blew me away.”

“Eighty percent of the people I know work in Office, now they can leverage the web.” said Auld.

Windows Azure, the Microsoft cloud-computing platform that allows developers to build and host their services on Microsoft infrastructure, was another highlight of the PDC, according to the Kiwi developers.

Grant Smith, software development technical lead at Auckland-based Vista Entertainment, said he might make use of the Azure platform in the future.

Vista Entertainment specialises in cinema management software, including POS systems, call centre software, voucher management, data-mining, and kiosk and ticketing software — the latter includes web and mobile phone ticketing. Most of the company’s customers are based overseas, and some of them own hundreds of cinemas, said Smith.

In the future, if the company wanted to develop a hosted subscription-based platform for its customers — for example, for internet bookings — Azure would be of interest, Smith told Computerworld. The biggest benefits would be scalability and the fact that Vista wouldn’t have to own the infrastructure, he said.

Smith called Azure a “bold commercial step” for Microsoft. It could mean that Microsoft gains ownership of a portion of the web, he said. “If they get in there early enough... they could, potentially, own a chunk of the infrastructure of the internet,” he said.

Microsoft plans to grow its global collection of datacentres “over time”, said Mark Rogers, director of cloud services at Microsoft.

Microsoft isn’t revealing when Azure will be commercially available yet, but, initially, the services will run in US datacentres, said Rogers.

The offering is a “developer-focused” service, targeting IT organisations and start-ups, he said.

Microsoft hasn’t revealed Azure’s business model yet either, so the announcement leaves many questions unanswered.

But, in the start-up space, Azure could offer many benefits, said Boyd and Auld.

“I’m working with a couple of people at the moment that would like to leverage [a platform like Azure], but the opportunity is not there [quite yet],” said Boyd.

Because Azure is application-based, users won’t have to worry about management or architectural problems, he said. Some of the other players in this space offer virtual machine-based services, but with these there are associated management costs.

“Azure will make it a lot easier for developers to get connected without having to worry about architecture. You are deploying applications and services, rather than deploying machines,” Boyd said.

In Auld’s view, the platform could represent a great opportunity for local start-ups. “New Zealand companies have lots of good ideas but no money. Seed capital is hard to find [here].”

It’s easy enough to develop an application from your spare room or garage, but it gets difficult when it comes to getting that application to market, he said. But the whole “cloud-thing” allows for an easy entry-point into the market.

The Windows 7 demo was also of great interest to local companies. Boyd said it was a smart move to cut the OS back to its core capabilities and move additional capabilities — such as client applications focused on communications and the user experience — to the Windows Live cloud service for those who want to download them.

Boyd liked Windows 7’s touchscreen interface as well. This lets people use their fingertips to control applications on their PCs. “It is more natural to interact with your hands. It’s a bit awkward with a stylus,” he pointed out.

The first public beta of Windows will be available early next year, according to Steven Sinofsky, senior vice-president of Windows and Windows Live.

Intergen, which has its headquarters in Wellington, helped build the demo for a session on SharePoint at the PDC. The session — on creating SharePoint apps with Visual Studio 2008 — was presented by Chris Johnson, a Kiwi working at Microsoft in Redmond.

• Hedquist travelled to Los Angeles courtesy of Microsoft

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Tags MicrosoftIntergenMindscapevista entertainment

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