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AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Up with people?

AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Up with people?

When Microsoft rolled out one client-focused feature after another at Professional Developers Conference 2005, I nodded and said, "Good on ya". I could have sneered because it's taken Redmond so long to notice that keyboards and mice don't drive themselves.

All right, I sneered a little - it's in my job description. Look, the Windows user has been neglected ever since Microsoft shifted its emphasis to the server side of the commercial systems story, post-Windows 2000. Windows XP has shrivelled from the full-fledged client application environment that was promised to an operating system with window and file managers.

Except for video games, for which Windows is a rich and nearly ideal platform, the sole distinguishing characteristic of the Windows desktop platform has long been the size of the Windows installed base. Microsoft's user-interface magic wand started sputtering after the Start button and Word's change-tracking.

The conference's rallying cry ("Remember the user!") must have its roots in the mind of that long-absent, just-returned chief of IT lawmakers, Bill Gates. Gates is a user advocate of the old school, and whether he stepped to the stage on cue or, more likely, decided it was time to tell server-obsessed executives to tear down that wall between Windows and its users, his legendary influence permeated PDC. Gates, or someone of his religious leanings, likely ordered Microsoft Research to fast-track the best bets in its client-oriented Skunk Works. Annotated copies of OS X for Intel, which were obtained legitimately through Microsoft's Mac Business Unit, of course, were burned to DVDs for dual-booting on Microsoft developers' Opteron workstations. Then, I imagine, Microsoft's engineers were given mandatory user-sensitivity training. They were forced to confront Windows customers whose pupils do not oscillate to the beat of fluorescent lighting, who do not suffocate in non-recirculated air, and who don't greet each other by their Ethernet MAC (Media Access Control) addresses. You know. People.

Although Microsoft has hinted at such human-friendly innovations as aesthetically pleasing user interfaces, tools for developing Web applications with a 21st-century look and feel, XML-based GUI layout representations, a meaningfully enhanced Office release and desktop workflow, all we've really seen to date are trailers for Microsoft tech coming, who knows when or whether, to an LCD panel near you. More than a few of my fellow PDC attendees admitted surprise at seeing PDC turned into a blitzkrieg of tools and guidance for developing client apps.

No doubt that everything developers saw at the conference will end up as a product in some form. And Microsoft's blogosphere residency, a legitimate and largely unfiltered presence, publicly holds the vendors' feet to the fire on broken promises. I don't think Microsoft would dare to reverse course now on anything it lets developers see.

Bill Gates is a champion of the end-user, no question. First and foremost, though, he's a genius at making money. You needn't be a cynic to imagine that the apparent last-minute change of course toward client app developers was orchestrated to make the show livelier. Even this cynic will be looking forward to as yet unseen Windows client apps that I'll want to use voluntarily.


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