Last night I had a unique opportunity to sit down with Jim Allchin, Microsoft’s Group Vice President for Platforms, for dinner along with a group of other bloggers and technologists and discuss the future development of Longhorn as well as see an early demo of the Longhorn technology firsthand.
In attendance at the dinner were Evan Williams who sold Blogger to Google and is now putting Odeo together, Adam Hertz from Technorati, IT Conversation’s Doug Kaye, Gabe Rivera of Memeorandum and Bob Wyman from Pubsub. Also in attendance were Microsoft’s Neil Charney, Senior Director of Windows Client Public Relations and Linda O’Neil who is with Microsoft’s PR firm Waggener Edstrom. Robert Scoble had invited me to the dinner last week but unfortunately was unable to attend at the last minute. Scoble by the way has an interesting Channel 9 up right now with an entire hour with the Avalon team.
First of all I just have to just say wow. Jim Allchin is a very senior person at Microsoft. Allchin, along with Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates is a member of what Microsoft calls their “Senior Leadership Team,” responsible for developing Microsoft’s core direction. He’s a big deal. This includes XP, Longhorn, Mobile, Tablet PCs, etc. and of course something that is near and dear to my heart, Media Center Edition. The fact that someone of his seniority would take the time to sit down with a bunch of non mainstream media folk is something that still baffles me. It also tells me that Microsoft gets it and that they recognize the importance of many of the rapidly emerging social and community aspects of blogging and the internet. I’m honored to have been included.
Microsoft is one of the more progressive companies with regards to blogging – they certainly have more bloggers than any company that I am aware of – but for someone of Jim’s rank to take the time and openly discuss Longhorn and Microsoft strategy with us was amazing. Obviously bloggers do not typically have this level of access to company senior management and I thank Jim for taking his time out to meet with us and to Robert for inviting me.
And certainly bloggers typically do not get the type of opportunity to suggest features to someone at Jim’s level.
So on to the dinner. I wrote Wow, with regards to Jim actually meeting with us and I have to add Wow, WOW! with regards to what I saw of Longhorn. I will try to describe what I saw the best that I can but it is something that you really must see with your own eyes to fully understand. Microsoft is shooting for a late 2006 release and it will be worth the wait. CNET gave us their early peek at Longhorn yesterday.
One of the most impressive aspects about Longhorn is the speed with which it catalogs, organizes and searches your PC. In addition to great new views (you can see a physical representation of every file on your PC that can be magnified as you move the scroll wheel of your mouse), the speed at which Longhorn renders the views was spectacular. Best of all was Jim’s reaction when I expressed my delight at how quickly views were rendered. Jim reacted strongly and said that the speed that we were seeing was unacceptable and that over the course of the next year the system will get even faster. Although this is just one blogger’s impression, I’d say to expect to do navigational types of things in Longhorn in one tenth of the time that you presently do them in XP today (and even less if what Jim suggested about further speed improvements are implemented).
The level of increased user efficiency with Longhorn will be impressive. We are truly getting to the point where you the operator will become the sole limit to efficiency with regards to navigating the files on your PC. Longhorn basically responds as quickly as you can think it. The responsiveness of the operating system could easily quadruple my own personal computing efficiency. This is revolutionary and is more impressive than any previous single step efficiency improvement that I have seen in the past 20 years. The jump in efficiency will have been worth the wait. Graphically intensive files like video, audio, and photos today render very slowly. With Longhorn it’s an amazing new world.
The eye candy aspects of Longhorn from a design standpoint were delightful – translucent explorer windows, smooth almost animated views when opening and closing windows, etc. From an aesthetic and design standpoint it’s a winner.
As impressed as I was with the speed and beauty of Longhorn, the real power of Longhorn in the end for me came down to the way that it organizes your bits. Search is lightening quick and the system allows really easy ways to organize your files. It also allows you the user to easily incorporate powerful meta data tools into your file management. Meta data is a tricky thing. PCs everywhere are littered with photos titled D087864 and IMG00452, etc. Microsoft, through the use of sidebar listings, catalogs and other tools is bringing easy meta data to the masses. Meta data will make searches rich, meaningful and in the end far more relevant than they are today. File management of your PC will be brought to a new level.
Jim asked questions about some of the security and privacy issues with the inclusion of meta data in Longhorn and I’d suspect that when it’s finally released that you will see a default to include vast rich meta data but optional settings for business users, etc. to be able to restrict meta data as they see fit and in order to better control the potential liability associated with it. I think that it will be fun to use search engines to peruse the meta data of the future as well.
Longhorn is really slick. However, perhaps the thing about the dinner for me that was the most rewarding was the ability to talk to Jim specifically about Media Center Edition. Jim confirmed that there would be a Media Center version of Longhorn out when it was released. Longhorn will translate well to the 10 foot user interface and there will be cool new things like visualizations of your stored video and television programs, etc.
Jim and Microsoft are very excited about Media Center. Where the tablet sales may be a little bit of a disappointment for Microsoft at present they are very optimistic about Media Center. Jim suggested that JupiterResearch’s projection of 7 million PC based DVRs by 2009 was way low and that they are even right now seeing really significant growth with regards to Media Center adoption — even recently since Bill Gates announced the 1.4 million unit number early in January at CES.
Jim said that by not requiring a TV tuner and by having some flexibility with pricing that Microsoft was going to be able to hit some pretty huge numbers and that we should expect really big growth out of Media Center in the next few years. Jim said that you are going to see more and more cases also where college kids, etc. might get Media Center not even for the television but to manage their digital music collections by remote, etc. even without the TV functionality. Jim said that although Microsoft could, that they did not intend to market Media Center as a standalone application sold separately yet. Jim suggested that Microsoft has a firm grasp in ensuring that third party hardware providers for Media Center are producing good working and correct software drivers, etc. and that this would hel
p the complexity issues and drive sales.
Microsoft is building the next version of Longhorn Media Center to accommodate much larger digital libraries. As some of you may have read in the past I have had some performance issues with my large .mp3 library. Longhorn will be better able to handle very large digital libraries. Having 500 photos or so in a folder will render quickly and the media player should be able to easily accommodate 100,000 + item media libraries.
Jim did acknowledge that there still were some issues today with Windows Media Player and I shared with him the fact that earlier that day Chris Lanier had blogged that his collection of WMP web help articles now had seen over 1 million views. Jim said that they are working on many of these issues but that a new version of WMP and fixes would not be out until Longhorn.
We talked about the CableCARD issue and the complexity of the Media Center PC, all things that Microsoft is working on. I was able to ask Jim about when we might see satellite or cable HDTV support in Media Center and he said he thought later this year. I would assume that this might be something that we will end up seeing in the Media Center 2005 update later this Fall.
I asked Jim if we would see an XBox standalone Media Center and he said no. But he did say that the Xbox will continue to be a strong compenent as an extender unit in the digital home and that we would be really impressed with what we saw when the upcoming Xbox is released.
One of the primary purposes for Jim getting together with us was to talk about how we felt about some of the things that you will see in Longhorn. Microsoft can shape mass technological acceptance of a new technology perhaps more rapidly than any other company today. They have a huge install base. Certainly the huge number of new blogs that have popped up through Microsoft Spaces is a testament to this.
Jim seemed very concerned with how we all, the attendees at the dinner and the blogging community in general, would view something like bringing RSS to the masses for example. He seemed very conscious of the fact that while Microsoft can develop super powerful tools that there could be collateral consequences and he was particularly interested in our pointing out what could be the downside for some of the Longhorn features to him.
Although there seemed to be a general agreement among the dinner participants that bringing RSS to the masses for instance was a good thing, there were some voices that suggested caution at the same time and that Microsoft needed to tread carefully as they made their way about popularizing the blogosphere with the masses.
Bob Wyman from Pubsub, a former Microsoft employee himself, seemed to feel that there were important standards and technologies that Microsoft consider as they implement Longhorn and that Microsoft employees collaboratively participate in some of the more technical aspects and development of standards and new technologies like proactive RSS. There can be unintended consequences to mass adoption of certain Microsoft standards and Bob felt that there were communities that Microsoft should be a part of today and involved in — for instance, some of the things that Yahoo! is doing with media formats right now. Jim seemed very receptive to involving Microsoft in these discussions ongoing and suggested that he had someone from Microsoft in fact in mind to work on some of these types of issues as it related to RSS and the like.
Evan Williams talked a little bit about some of his ideas with his latest project Odeo and Doug Kaye was also interested in how Microsoft might be able to help content producers with the economics of the production of their content. IT Conversations is a terrific podcast but the question is how best can something like this, beyond simple advertising, be monetized? Although I’m not sure that a clear answer came out of the dinner, my own personal opinion is that the monetization of this content probably is best produced through third party intermediaries than through some kind of a direct producer to consumer type of feature in an operating system. The work that people like Jeremy Allaire at Brightcove are pursuing with regards to how to best monetize the production and distribution of content I think will be interesting as ways of promoting the niche long tail content of the future. I’m really looking forward to seeing these kinds of niche media in Media Center.
It was fun to be able to share with Jim some of the exciting and interesting ways that I’m personally using my own Media Center to create richer media experiences in my own life. I think people enjoyed the story that I told about how when we did our Christmas party last year that by searching my hard drive I quickly lined up a custom slide show playing through Media Center as entertainment with Holiday music in the background for my guests. Every photo all evening was of one of my guests at the party that evening. Microsoft is really excited about bringing richer and more personalized media consumption to the consumer through Longhorn. I suspect that you find some really great filtering tools and things based on meta data that will make these types of fun media experiences even easier in the future.
We also discussed internet identity issues and Jim seemed to feel that this is a bigger problem than we might think. For me, a really slick piece of technology would be for me to be able to pull up in my “my pictures” menu of Media Center not only my photos, but say photos that my mother, who lives in Los Angeles, has on her PC in her “my pictures” folder. This type of communal photo experience through a 10 foot UI living room platform could be really exciting. Jim agreed that giving people, photobloggers, etc. the ability to share their photos with everyone seemed like an interesting and doable idea but I think the type of restrictive password protected content involving identity may be further down the line.
I suggested to Jim that through the Online Spotlight in Media Center that the possibilities for micro content were significant. I suggested that they talk to the Internet Archive and look at incorporating this content into the Online Spotlight and said I’d love to be able to see Channel 9 as a channel on my Media Center PC in the Online Spotlight.
All in all I found the evening to be one of the most intellectually stimulating forums that I’ve had an opportunity to be a part of. I think it’s super cool that Microsoft cares about my opinion and that they are as concerned as they are about making sure that in the end Longhorn gets done the right way.
I had a dream a few years ago where I dreamt that I was in a room with a bunch of people from Microsoft and that we were all talking about ways to improve Media Center — I thought of it as a Media Center enthusiast’s geek dream. It was a big strategy session. I’m pretty passionate about the technology and think and write about it constantly so it’s natural that my obsessive thoughts on the subject would come out in places like my subconscious. It was weird feeling the déjà vu as I left the dinner last night after spending a few hours with Jim. I was reminded again of that old dream and chuckled to myself about the experience.
Evan Williams is also out with his reflection on the dinner.
Update: Two corrections to my piece.
One, I think when Doug Kaye was asking questions of Jim about the monetization of podcasting he was talking about content providers in general, many of whom will want to do this and not IT Conversations specifically.
Two, I’m not sure from the media side that Longhorn is actually there yet with regards to top
performance handling of super large media libraries of 100,000 or more .mp3 files — although this is something that Allchin has assured me that they will be working on.
Update: Scoble blogs about the criticism that women were not invited to the dinner. Mena Trott actually was invited but didn’t respond to the invitation. Scoble writes, ” I’m not going to invite women to blogger dinners just to have gender equality there. Sorry. On the other hand, I am very sensitive to this issue. ” He also points out that there are several women bloggers who are attending MSN Search Champs this week.
Update: I just received an email clarification back from Microsoft’s Jim Allchin regarding my post on the Microsoft/blogger dinner last week. Jim says, “We will have an update of WMP this year.” Just don’t expect a huge update.
This is great news in my book. Hopefully I might get a minor performance increase in my WMP library when this is released later this year. But if I don’t, I’m really hoping that we see a bigger kind of media library fix when Longhorn is out late next year. All of our digital libraries are getting larger and larger and I think Microsoft should keep this scalibility in mind and stay ahead of the curve when it comes to performance of large digital libraries.