Open Microsoft

by Andy Oram

I spent two days this past week at Microsoft Search Champs, a
conference where invitees make suggestions for their search tools and
other MSN offerings. Microsoft paid for everything and picked our
brains concerning a lot of different topics, some under NDA and some
public.



Why would I do this, and why would they want me there? I've been
associated with the free software movement for at least ten years. But
while I value openness, I also value functionality. If you browse my

articles and blogs about Microsoft
,
you'll find about as many positive references as negative ones. I
appreciate new solutions and technologies from all vendors, and I
think one company's success will provide a model and a motivation for
others to move forward.



Furthermore, Microsoft is around to stay, and people who make a living
in the computer world have adapted to it. Every professional and
aspiring professional I know, both programmers and system
administrators, have learned their way about both Microsoft systems
and Unix-like systems. A host of projects such as Samba and Mono set
this accommodation in code, as I discussed in my article

Can the Samba Story be Retold?




Finally, I have seen evidence--this week and other times--that there
are many different attitudes toward the open source movement and
transparency in general at Microsoft, and believe that I could have a
positive impact by going there, partly to argue for more openness on
their part.

Some highlights of Search Champs



All the tools and sites we looked are part of

Windows Live
,
a next-generation combination portal, social network, and information
site. Microsoft hopes that people who use MSN and competing networks
will move to Windows Live.



My favorite feature is
gadgets,
which are like the mini-applications you can add to your tool bars on
many operating systems, but with more real estate and therefore more
features. You could probably create an extremely powerful interactive
Web page in half an hour or so by adding gadgets for maps, RSS feeds,
message boards, and so forth. The key value will come if Microsoft is
successful in making it easy for non-Microsoft developers to create
and contribute gadgets.



For years, web designers and programmers have put together rich sites,
but gadgets can encapsulate the most popular features and makes it
something you can throw together as easily as an RSS feed or bookmark
list. It won't look wildly creative, probably (it depends on how much
extra sweat you want to put into it), but it will look consistent with
other useful sites. If Microsoft can persuade a few alpha bloggers to
switch to this system, it may become a de facto standard.



The current crop of new Windows Live features seem consistent with
what I see as Microsoft's two general strengths: attractive interfaces
and elegant integration.



For instance, their Windows Live Local combines maps, aerial views,
and 45-degree-angle photos, all very easy to reach. (My family and I
were a bit spooked to see our neighborhood, so lifelike were the
photos.) You could just click on two points of a map, and driving
directions are generated. (Some attendees asked why they don't present
public transportation options too.) Then you can select a point and
see a photo of a particular traffic intersection so you can recognize
and navigate it. You can also drag a site to a scratch list that is
saved between sessions.



So these local features are an incremental improvement over what we've
had so far--incrementally better enough to make a difference for many
people.



Microsoft's plans for Windows Live are also based on building
communities. This means persuading users to share personal
information. Productive citizens of Windows Live will have rich
identities, so that they can find other people with similar interests.



The last attempt by Microsoft to leverage user information was
Passport, which we all know didn't go very far. Passport is still the
ID system that lies behind personal identity on Live. But the intent
now looks a lot different.



I think Passport failed because its core promise was for Microsoft to
guard very sensitive data for its users, such as phone numbers and
credit card information. Supposedly, when you buy something online you
could have Passport automatically transfer such information to the
corresponding party at the appropriate moment. People didn't trust the
whole environment for online security--even if they could trust
Microsoft's security, another point of contention--enough to place
their information in Passport's hands for such hard-to-monitor
purposes.



But the new identity doesn't involve credit cards so much as who your
pets are and what music you listen to. Microsoft certainly hopes
you'll share a couple key pieces of demographic information with them
(age and gender) to help them target ads. But for the most part, what
you build up as online identity is not what you'd share with a vendor,
but what you'd share with neighbors and school chums.



The Live developers are working on lots of other interesting
things--multimedia search, a classified ad site, and more--but I'll
leave it up to others to introduce them.

The value of openness



I certainly took the opportunity to press my philosophy at the
conference. Drawing on debates where I live in Massachusetts, I
complained to Microsoft managers that some of Microsoft's supposedly
open formats (such as the XML format for Office) were encumbered by
all sorts of small but ominous restrictions, including the threat of
exercising patents. These cumulatively make potential users and
competitors afraid of Microsoft acting against them.



In addition to pointing the managers to the

groklaw analysis

of the legal labyrinth Microsoft erected around its Office XML format,
I also pointed to

critical coverage

of their assertion of patent rights on the FAT filesystem. (The
supposedly novel technique they patented looks to me like just a
variation on the familiar idea of file attributes stored in a parallel
location to the files.) And I did not omit mention of the

absurd Slashdot tug-of-war

over Microsoft's Kerberos enhancements, which not only broke compatibility
with other Kerberos implementations, but were described in a document
you had to license just to read.



My point to management--and you have to remember I was talking to
developers here, not the lawyers or other managers who thought up
those legal forays--was that such activities create bad feelings among
many of the people they want to attract: the amorphous "information
loving" community of artists, academics, lawyers, and so forth. They
make developers worry, because if developers have to cede a substrate
to Microsoft and just build on top of that substrate, nothing prevents
Microsoft from coming along later and taking over the new layer they
just built.



And if such maneuvers do anything to help Microsoft's business model,
it's the wrong business model. (I limited my complaints to legal
issues, and did not want to load on yet more by talking about business
practices.) I think the very existence of Search Champs shows there's
movement toward more openness at Microsoft, a pull against the more
controlling elements.



I was by not means the only one of the 57 invitees to have such
sympathies. I heard plenty of discussion of both Macs and GNU/Linux
systems. MSN managers declared they wanted their site to work on all
these systems. (I have tried live.com out a lot on Linux, using both
Firefox and Konqueror, and find it works fine.) On the bus to the
Redmond campus, I heard a possible solution to my problem getting Ext3
filesystem support compiled into the Linux kernel. Another attendee
told me bluntly, "There's no reason for major sites to use anything
except open source software" and cited Lawrence Lessig as one of his
most inspiring influences. Several people (including Microsoft staff)
brought up
Creative Commons
approvingly, and DRM came in for a lot of criticism.

The Justice Department subpoena



I would have liked to spend more of the sessions discussing
Microsoft's legal activities and lobbying, but another policy debate
upstaged it. Over the past two weeks, press reports revealed that the
U.S. Justice Department subpoena'd MSN and other sites to hand over
large amounts of search data, and MSN complied. The public, already
rubbed raw by the revelations that George W. Bush and the NSA ignored
laws to carry out widespread wiretapping, reacted with fury to MSN. In
our sessions at Search Champs, the MSN managers succeeded in
justifying their actions and winning us over, but they made some
promises to communicate better in the future.



A

semi-official Microsoft explanation

starts a Web page with valuable list of comments. At Search Champs, we
heard even more clearly that Microsoft negotiated hard with the
Justice Department and insisted on stripping out IP address
information. Furthermore, what they handed over was merely a list of
terms and the number of searches on them; no term could be correlated
with another term or with an IP address.



MSN managers came away with some rough guides for handling future
challenges. First, the major search sites should talk to one another
and come up with a common policy for handling government and research
requests. Second, they should publicize what requests they get and how
they respond.

What it felt like to be there



A corporate junket is a new experience for me, and I don't know
whether I would have understood how it felt like in advance if I'd
heard about it from others.



On the one hand, Microsoft pampered us in almost every way, from the
cars they sent to pick us up at the airport to fine food and gift
certificates. They plied us with liquor before and after meals. We
were all lodged at the W Hotel, which is famous for a particular look
and feel. For instance, all the hallways and common areas are dim--not
romantic dim, but suspended-reality dim. In Seattle, which is
naturally dim most of the time, this is no enhancement. The hotel
follows up the theme with fancy functionalist designs along Central
European designs, leading to some electronic equipment that's almost
impossible to operate. And then there's the background music you hear
everywhere, which can perhaps be described as Third World New Age
technopop. One day they threw in ten minutes of the Adagio from
Mahler's Fifth Symphony between two technopop selections.



Some of us would have felt more comfortable had they lodged us at
something equivalent to the YMCA, fed us on burgers, and made us take
public transportation. But we probably wouldn't have felt guilty
enough to work as hard as they wanted.



On the other hand, the Microsoft building we were in was much like
other buildings used by high-tech companies, and spending two days
there was much like sitting around talking to any computer programmers
about any topic at any time. The meeting appeared highly structured
when the schedule was presented to us, but in fact it was fairly
informal. And they always followed up meetings by telling us what a
fantastic job we were doing--just for reacting to their work out of
our personal experience.



I'm not sure who learned more from the whole event. I certainly
learned a lot about people in the field as well as technology, and I
appreciate all the money and effort Microsoft put in.


2 Comments

swhiser
2006-01-29 12:06:39
Conference, Focus Group or Consultation
This is an objectionably uneven transfer of information. They want to know if they are on the right track, and there are few people better than Andy Oram to comment.


Fees for imparting this level of knowledge run on the order of $150 to $500 an hour plus expenses (excluding retainer).

KickSt
2006-01-29 21:19:20
Window's Local Live Link
I'm a sucker for MS 45 degree aerial photography. Just found this site that is a sort of "Best Of" of Local Live. Check it: www.birdseyetourist.com