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September 14, 2005

PDC Day 1: Pharaohs

"Alexander had merely resurrected an age of pharaohs. Their wisdom, truly immortal, now inspired me!"
- Adrian Veidt, in "Watchmen" by Alan Moore

On Tuesday Bill Gates opened the PDC with his keynote. The room was huge; from way in the back, Bill looked like Mike Teevee standing up there. He opened with a good line about the electrical outage the day before: that when he said he wanted Windows to be as reliable as the electric utility, he was hoping we would come up to their level, not the other way around. And the talk started off with an amusing "Napoleon Dynamite" take-off video, featuring the real Jon Heder (and the real Bill, complete with "Vote for Steveo" t-shirt). From then on, however, Bill didn't look super-excited. In fact a lot of the demo wasn't Bill. he spent half an hour at the beginning recapping the past and talking about future opportunity, and 10 minutes at the end giving developers their charge (built on the Windows Vista/Office 12 wave), but the middle 40 minutes if the talk was Office VP Chris Capossela (who did look super-excited and did a great job) giving a demo of Windows Vista and Office 12.

The demos were very impressive, particularly Office 12. Capossela said that when Office asks users what feature they would like included in the next version, 9 times out of 10 the feature is already there--but users can't find it. He said Word 1.0 had 100 commands and Word 2003 had about 1500, including 35 toolbars. So the big work for Office 12 was making the existing functionality more discoverable. Chris showed a bunch of cool stuff, like automatically coloring data to help visualize it. It may already be in Office 2003, but if it was I didn't know about.

So one big change is that clicking on a top-level menu item now changes the entire set of toolbars displayed at the top, and they occupy even more real-estate. Personally having too much of the Word window occupied with buttons 'n' dials stresses me out, but I can see how it helps find things. As Chris said, "every user becomes a power user." And Office also tuned up the UI in innumerable ways, making the whole thing look state of the art.

There was lots of demos of RSS integration, search integratiom, etc. It's easy to see where Microsoft is going with this: make the client experience rich, but also make it dependent on a rich server. The server platform no longer has to just share files and run apps; it has to provide built-in search, workflow, email, etc. This sets the expectations for the server, and Microsoft is there with the integrated solution. For a reminded of how far we have come, Jim Allchin opened his keynote by showing a real live IBM PC XT, 1983 vintage, running Windows 1.0 with Reversi.

It all looks great in a demo. The user has the right RSS feed, the right website, the right link at their disposal, and their productivity zooms. But.

Last night we went to see the King Tut exhibit. One of the exhibits is the gilded coffin of Tjuya, a relative of Tutankhamun 3500 years gone. Looking at her glass eyes staring at the ceiling of the L.A. County Museum of Art, filled with unknowable thoughts, I was reminded of the thousand-yard stare that emanated from Bill's eyes during his talk. See, it's easy for Jim Allchin, Eric Rudder, and everybody working on developer tools to be excited. Microsoft can built the platform, built the tools, open up the world of AJAX and RSS to everyone. That's what the PDC is about. But Bill has other things on his mind as he approaches his second half-century.

Because it's not just about the features anymore. It's about making that great demo happen in real life. You have to hook people up with their information. Knowing that it's out there in the first place, and that people want it. Jim Allchin alluded to this: "You need to find the right information to subscribe to, so you can bring it locally to work with." Bill was more succinct: it's about "connecting peple to the information they care about. It's the Office problem, writ large: people can't even find tools in their desktop applications, let alone find a particle of useful information in a vast ocean of data.

So I think that might have been a bit of a downer for Bill. The pharaohs were not just concerned with the day-to-day of their kingdom; they were halfway between mortals and gods, and had to adjust their thoughts aoocrdingly. Bil Gates is not just thinking about developers, he's thinking about information in general. 30 years in, and there still remains a larger mountain beyond the mountain he can see. It's a wearying thought, and Bill looked weary. Until he got to the last bullet item on the last slide, which said simply, "software is the key". And them, finally, Bill smiled.

Posted by AdamBa at September 14, 2005 10:55 AM

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Hey Adam, nice updates. Oh I am PSYCHED about visiting ca just to see the King Tut exhibit. Was it pretty amazing or what? I didn't know about it till I saw it mentioned in Raymond's blog. Anyway have fun!

Posted by: anonymous at September 16, 2005 01:47 AM

The exhibit was pretty good. They didn't have the "big ticket" Tut items (like the famous funeral mask) but they had lots of cool stuff. For example that had the funeral mask and coffin of Tjuya, which is just as impressive. Some good background on the era, and also a bit about the discovery of the tomb.

Definitely worth seeing if in L.A., although it ends its run there on November 15.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at September 18, 2005 12:04 PM