User Experience @ Vitra - Microsoft Surface
Photo by Pieter Baert

I just returned from a nice evening in Brussels where Microsoft held a user experience event, showing some of what their technologies have to offer. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised about the whole setup. Nice venue, great food and drink and a nice atmosphere for networking.

While personally I thought the evening was more about vision than actual user experience it was definitely the best Microsoft event I've attended so far.


First session we attended was one on SharePoint -- not something I'd normally be looking at but we got to see how you could use it for public facing websites and integrate things like the open source Podcasting Kit for SharePoint.

Next up was the Microsoft partner program and the "Web Solutions Toolkit". It seemed like quite an interesting offer, though the user experience of their online registration form could be improved quite a bit.

Caught some glimpses of other sessions including Internet Explorer 8, Silverlight, SketchFlow, Windows 7 etc. but the one that really struck me was Microsoft Surface. Its not exactly a brand new product and you've all no doubt seen it, but getting hands on with the technology did bring it home how multi-touch interfaces bring a whole new level of interactivity to the table (pun intended).

When using an iPhone or other touch enabled devices you get some idea of what that might be but real a real multi-touch, pressure sensitive and collaborative environment (up to 52 touches in the case of Microsoft Surface) is unlike anything else. Microsoft Surface will soon be available to the general public, but with a price tag of around 12.000 Euro I don't see it sitting in everyone's living room quite yet.

With Windows 7 fully multi-touch enabled and multi-touch screens like those by HP soon being a commodity, I see that as a logical first step. While not allowing the full collaborative experience it would allow you to go beyond the realms of the Microsoft Surface SDK and develop using any technology, which I would personally be a lot more interested in.


I had the opportunity to talk with Luc van de Velde, Microsoft's Director of the Developer and Platform Group, mostly on Silverlight and WPF. I'm hearing a "write once, deploy everywhere" story similar to what Adobe is working on, though the definition of everywhere might be slightly different. Designer/developer workflow is another important aspect I see getting addressed, again parallels can be drawn with the Flash Catalyst / Flash Builder 4 approach though in certain areas there I do see Microsoft with somewhat of an advantage.

I sense a change in Microsoft's marketing of their rich client technologies. Maybe less dominant and more pragmatic, but slowly but surely they're getting there. My guess is that enterprise is going to be the first battle ground where in my honest opinion Adobe might have a less compelling offering. On the other hand, user experience is still Adobe's strong suit and I don't see Microsoft overtaking them there any time soon.

I for one can't wait to see what innovation the next few years will bring!

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Scott Barnes, MicrosoftThose of you that follow me on Twitter will no doubt have been witness to some interesting (and sometimes tedious) discussions between myself, other Flash Platform enthusiasts and Scott Barnes of Microsoft. Scott was an ardent supporter of Flex before his move to Microsoft which makes his perspective all the more interesting. Thought it was worth asking him to answer a few questions about the latest Silverlight developments. As you might imagine I don't fully agree and sometimes strongly disagree with some of the points he makes, but its an interesting read nonetheless.

Thanks for your time Scott, can you introduce yourself and explain a little about your role at Microsoft? Sure. I’m a Rich Platforms Product Manager, which is a great title to confuse many with. I’m simply part of the WPF & Silverlight team. I used to be the first RIA Evangelist for Microsoft, so it does in part derive from this previous role.

My role varies from month to month as simply due to my background, and I have a wide degree of interaction with not just the WPF & Silverlight teams but other teams within Microsoft. Overall, my main focus is ensuring we’re putting the right features into Silverlight & WPF whilst ensuring we keep a balanced view between designer and developer needs. I’m currently focused on a complete upgrade of our website experiences.

I also spend a great deal of time monitoring and interacting the online/offline developer and designer communities, as I’m constantly searching for evidence on how we can better meet our customers’ needs.

We've seen some exciting announcements around Silverlight 3 at MIX09, can you list us some of your favorite new features

Easy. Out of browser, Pixel Shaders & Effects.

Out of browser This for me is one of the more interesting features we announced. It’s essentially a new canvas to paint from, and that startup entrepreneur in me has sparked a new level of interest in how far one can go with this concept.

I’ve listened to a lot of ideas on how this will change customers’ business directions and—more to the point—how it will impact the concept of what we know as RIAs today. Now comes a new wave of interest in Silverlight which in turn will grow our developer/designer audience further; thus new creations will be born. That ultimately is the proving ground for why this feature will be so compelling. Best part is, no additional installs are required.

I like to think that if you take this new feature and combine it with our recent addition to C# called LINQ (Language Integrated Query), you’ve also got what I foresee as starting a great essential offline storage story. LINQ is an addition to C# and enables developers to write SQL-like syntax against any data; whether they be lists, dictionaries or even object properties. The idea behind this came from one of my personal geek heroes, Anders Hejlsberg, Chief Architect of C# and one of the founding architects of Borland Delphi (My first Windows based GUI language/tool of choice) – currently a Technical Fellow at Microsoft.

Pixel Shaders & Effects When I first joined the Silverlight team, the first thing I investigated was why we didn’t have drop shadow and blur baked into the runtime. Turns out this entire concept has been sitting in the to-do pile since 2007, so for me it was great to see this finally come out. I’m excited to see that folks who previously put Silverlight in the “not ready” pile have, in the last week or so, asked me to hook them up with tooling so they can get started. For me, this tells me we’re on the right track.

I think pixel shaders and effects—and other features like 3D and ClearType—will signal to the design audience how serious we are about enabling better design with our platforms, whilst at the same time continuing to help them work more closely with developers.

“With great power, comes great responsibility” however: please Silverlighters, let’s avoid propagating the dreaded water ripple effect from the old Java Applet days…It’s in the anti-design pattern catalogue now. ;)

What direction do you see Silverlight going, is further mobile and devices support on the roadmap? With Silverlight announced to be getting ported to S60 devices, can you imagine it ever coming to lets say Apple's iPhone? Absolutely—we’ve shown Silverlight running on mobile devices in the past and we’re excited about this growth area for Silverlight. Even better, I know the development teams in the Silverlight runtime have worked extremely hard to ensure that we don’t differ in development experience from desktop to device, so that for me is signs of a healthy future. That, and I’ve seen Silverlight run on my old Black Jack II using Windows Mobile personally..

But sorry, no inside gossip from me on this one beyond that J

How should we see Silverlight Out of Browser? Is this simply a feature to bring Silverlight web applications to the desktop for basic offline use or should we expect it to get a full API stack and become more like what we see with Adobe AIR? I’ll answer that question in two parts, first being the Adobe AIR & Silverlight comparisons.

It’s funny; I’ve read a few posts already debating how Silverlight and Adobe AIR compare. Having been a part of some of the early out of browser discussions here, it’s funny to me because the actual DNA for this feature derived from Smart Client wish lists (2002 – No Touch Deployment).

This is important to remember, as Microsoft had both the Smart Client strategy and also the WPF (XBF) years before Apollo / Adobe AIR came to market (I remember asking Macromedia/Adobe staffers if it was copy back then before I joined Microsoft), so it’s not really a “me too” feature. Instead it’s a lot of the old coming through to the new and sure, we’re not ignorant of Adobe AIR presence, but we simply feel the two are flowing on separate trajectories.

Second answer to your question is more on expectations of Silverlight Out of browser.

Out of browser is really focused on ensuring Silverlight experiences don’t lose momentum the moment the network cable is disconnected and that ultimately is the real secret here. Microsoft has learned a lot of lessons over the years regarding security and we think that you have to be very careful when mixing the metaphors of web and desktop apps. Anything less and you’re asking for trouble. Silverlight applications running out of the browser are still web RIAs and have the same type of safe sandbox. A Silverlight app isn’t going to wipe your desktop clean or allow someone to create an invisible window over your desktop and intercept your passwords. We are extremely cautious with our sandbox and will continue to open up areas of the feature where it suits customer needs the most whilst ensuring we protect the end users.

For a more robust, tightly integrated desktop application, you’re in luck—WPF is a much better fit for your needs. WPF has a much deeper continuum to Silverlight and the best part is you’re able to re-use a lot of your skills and assets inside WPF, something I think no other solution on the market today provides. I mentioned earlier LINQ and how great it is; well one thing I’ve found is that you can use LINQ universally across both platforms whilst at the same time having a natural amount of extra native access within WPF.

You yourself have come from a Flash/Flex background yourself, do you see Silverlight as a competing technology across the board or do they each have their own use case? Are there cases where you would recommend Flash Platform solutions over Silverlight? It’s going to sound silly, but I honestly don’t think Flex & Silverlight compete with one another full on. The reason I say this is that folks in the Microsoft customer base didn’t adopt Flex prior to Silverlight and last time we checked, haven’t since. I’m also not seeing a dramatic increase in Flex developers since I left that community, but have seen an explosion of developers (4:1 ratio on Flex) in the Silverlight community – especially since it started from 0 only a couple of years ago.

I mention this as I personally think, having worked in both spaces, that Flex requires more effort to pitch into the enterprise than a native .NET solution; given Microsoft already has healthy growth there – and I’m speaking from experience here, as I’ve sold Flex back when it was 15k per CPU. Instead, it’s really about ready-made solutions vs. starting from scratch, and I’m not convinced the two products will be isolated as being a choice. Companies, given the current economic climate, are more focused on choosing a platform rather than a runtime with a framework. To compare Silverlight with just Flex doesn’t do either products justice, instead it’s really about Microsoft .NET vs Adobe Open Screen Project.

I mostly get comparison questions between Adobe and Microsoft from developers themselves or folks looking to prove some point. I never get these questions when it comes to large accounts or customers in general: To them it’s both runtimes are simply just a bullet point in the overall discussion, as they are more focused on how they can build an entire solution end to end, servers, tools, etc. all play a role. Not majority of the time which runtime has the better feature matrix?

The only time I would concede Flash over Silverlight is when we simply don’t have an offering that fits. This can vary in discussion, sometimes it’s a case of the person in front of me has already heavily invested in Adobe technology or they’ve asked specifically for a feature that we don’t have, resulting in their product evolution becoming brain-dead without the said feature.

In the early days the feature vs. feature discussions were hard ( I hated every minute of it), I will admit, but today, I’m finding it easy given I think we’ve got not only parity with Flash in terms of core features and a differentiated offering and a great deal to offer our customers.

In closing Pete, I honestly think both Microsoft and Adobe are solving similar problems but with a different set of tools, and so we are both just going to co-exist. I don’t think you have to be one or the other and companies like Cynergy Systems for example get this, where they are being successful on both platforms.

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If you've followed the announcements at MIX09 its hard to deny Microsoft is making some good progress with Silverlight. I was just browsing the session recordings and thought this one was interesting to post up on my blog: "Silverlight and the Adobe Creative Suite". I'm happy to see Microsoft realizing that Adobe's creative suite software is where designers live and don't make the mistake of trying to force them into a different workflow, so particularly Photoshop and Illustrator import are great features to see implemented.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

I was assured by Microsoft employees any resemblance with Adobe product features is purely coincidental, as I'm sure is the case at 10:30" where she converts some imported graphics into a working horizontal slider.

When I have the time over the next week or two I'll do some testing of Silverlight 3, unfortunately the tools shown here only run on Windows but the third party Eclipse Silverlight plugin should come to my rescue (if I can finally get it installed on my Mac that is).

At this time I don't see any compelling reasons to use Silverlight over the Flash Platform but things are definitely getting closer. If Microsoft ends up with a good development story on Mac I can see myself potentially starting to use it. Long term though, when it comes to enabling creative expression and their commitment to cross platform Adobe still has the edge.

Now with a third party Visual Studio plugin for Flex also out in the wild, I think we're seeing the beginning of a consolidated effort towards bridging various RIA technologies for the web and the desktop in the different tool sets.

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