Microsoft to give away Development Tools to Students

Microsoft announced that it intends to give students some of its most advanced development tools – for free! Here’s some official coverage over at MSDN. So how do we interpret such a move? Is it an act of desperation or one of sheer brilliance? I personally think its a pretty astute move.

By giving away Visual Studio Professional, along with a slew of other development tool’s they’re trying to gain traction with Student’s – and shape their thinking. As a student I couldn’t afford to buy the Microsoft development tools, so always opted for Open Source tool’s and technologies and working with those tools, and indeed contributing to them, which shaped my thinking and the path that I eventually took. It’s unclear how receptive Student’s will be to this – but make no mistake this about winning hearts and minds, and if you can win them at an early age then your onto a winner – that’s the gamble.

I personally think it’ll be nice to see some more competition … whilst I love Open Source I often think that many OS projects, particularly dev tools, tend to rest on the laurels or assume that since the competition is so expensive it doesn’t necessarily matter if the UI isn’t as good as it should be, or it doesn’t have as many features as a commercial equivalent – User’s will learn to accept any shortcomings. Now as a developer I’ve used many IDE’s and many many tool’s and even I have to admit that Microsoft’s tools are wonderful, in fact it’s interesting to think of which way I would have gone eleven or twelve years ago if MS had provided a similar incentive for us?

I have to confess the cynic me does wonder if this is simply a case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted?

Google doesn’t seem to like the idea of Microsoft merging with Yahoo!

Unless you’ve been hiding beneath a rock then you are probably aware of the news that Microsoft has offered $46 Billion to buy Yahoo! When I first heard this news I thought I couldn’t help but feel that in many ways it was an admission that as things stand it really cant compete with Google. Yahoo has certainly been struggling lately and current trends seem to suggest that this situation doesn’t look like it’s going to improve any time soon, particularly since Yahoo! revenue, like Google, is advertising driven and it’s pretty obvious who is winning that contest.

Since the announcement of the offer was made on the 1st of February many people have been waiting to see how Google would react. Well today David Drummond, Senior Vice President, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer responded on the Official Google Blog, in a post interestingly entitled “Yahoo! and the future of the internet“. The post is full of some unusually aggressive statements (by Google’ standards) about this potential acquisition:

…This is about more than simply a financial transaction, one company taking over another … It’s about preserving the underlying principles of the Internet: openness and innovation. Could Microsoft now attempt to exert the same sort of inappropriate and illegal influence over the Internet that it did with the PC? While the Internet rewards competitive innovation, Microsoft has frequently sought to establish proprietary monopolies — and then leverage its dominance into new, adjacent markets…Microsoft plus Yahoo! equals an overwhelming share of instant messaging and web email accounts. And between them, the two companies operate the two most heavily trafficked portals on the Internet. Could a combination of the two take advantage of a PC software monopoly to unfairly limit the ability of consumers to freely access competitors’ email, IM, and web-based services?

Sounds like interesting times ahead. I personally struggle with the notion of Yahoo! selling up to Microsoft. Yahoo! has far more in common with Google than it does with Microsoft. On the internet Microsoft has never really succeeded even after acquiring successful properties like hotmail, because they could never really figure out what to do with them. I think it’s partly because Microsoft doesn’t really come across as a consumer oriented entity, it’s more of an enterprise oriented company. I still think they are very much entrenched in the “how much can I charge you for a license to use X” world and never really sought to look beyond that for other options until it was too late and the barbarian( Google) wasn’t just at the gate it had plowed right through it.

I personally dread to think of what might happen if Microsoft got their hands on a service like flickr and here’s why …

I remember when Yahoo! first acquired flickr 2005, the user base complained fearing Yahoo! would somehow destroy their beloved flickr. We know that didn’t happen and Yahoo! invested in not only improving the service but also succeeded in growing it into one of the most popular social sites on the internet. So if that worked out ok why wouldn’t the same thing happen again if Microsoft was at the helms. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest it’s because Yahoo! gets the internet. If there’s one thing Microsoft has proven over the last few years it’s that it definitely doesn’t get the internet. Or another way of looking at it is this … if Microsoft bought Yahoo! would it allow flickr to continue to run under the same ethos and principles it was founded on?

Maybe Drummond is right? maybe this isn’t just about a transaction, maybe it is about preserving the underlying principles of the Internet: openness and innovation.

But then again how truly open is Google?

Finding Faces with Live Search

The images search on recently released a new feature that makes it easier to search for specific kinds of images. You can now search for portraits, faces and black and white images by adding some simple filters to queries.

For example if I wanted to search for specific kinds of images of my friend Alan I would use the following queries:

The search also incorporates the new Related People feature which is also quite interesting … for example try this image search:

 I’m not sure what heuristic it uses to relate people together but I find it quite an interesting discovery tool. Try it out for yourselves.

Microsoft launches Tafiti

If you haven’t tried it yet check out Microsoft’s experimental new search front end Tafiti –

It’s based on Microsoft’s new SilverLight technology, their competitor to Flash. It uses a cool desktop metaphor where you can spin through different kinds of results, drag and drop them into piles which you can label and share with your friends.

Although it might seem gimmicky and not particularly useful at first glance, it is actually quite innovative and and a lot of fun to use. It’s a great showcase for SilverLight but it’s interesting to contrast how Apple are doing a lot of work in bringing metaphors such as stacks to the desktop UI, and Microsoft seem to be focussing on Search and the Web.

Try it out for yourselves! I think it’s awesome.

BBC Using PhotoSynth …

The BBC is performing a technical trial of the PhotoSynth technology as part of it’s How We Made Britain television series. You can find out more about the trial here, and you can view the synths at , for a list of all the collections related to the TV series click here – This list contains Ely Cathedral, Burghley House, Royal Crescent in Bath, Blackpool Ballroom, Scottish Parliament Building and Trafalgar Square

The level of detail in all these Synth’s is amazing and the technology provides a wonderfully intuitive way of exploring these buildings and places. PhotoSynth continues to impress and I can’t wait to find out when MS intend to launch desktop versions of the tool that we can use at home with our own library of photo’s.

I also found this Synth of Gyeongbok Palace in Korea, it’s stunning!

Microsoft Research: HDView, viewer for Gigapixel Images

There’s some really interesting stuff coming out of Microsoft Research at the moment. I’ve already talked about Photosynth on this blog which is an incredible technology. Microsoft have also just released into beta a new high definition panoramic viewer that can handle pictures as large as several gigapixels. Here’s a video explaining how this technology works, much like PhotoSynth I suspect it’s possibly also based on Seadragon … the results are stunning:

Video: Creating and Viewing Gigapixel Images


You can try out HDView for yourselves, here – You do have to download the plugin and it only works on XP/Vista using Internet Explorer

Microsoft Silverlight

Although I had heard that Microsoft had announced it was going to release Silverlight, I hadn’t actually had the time to look into it. Got back from the gym this evening and decided I’d find out a bit more about it. I have to confess at first glance im very impressed.

First things first you can find out more about it at the Official Product Homepage. You can download Silverlight Community Technology preview from here. Once installed you’ll need to restart your browser and now if you go back to the Silverlight product homepage and click on the video in the centre of the screen to view it in the embedded Silverlight player.

You can also click on this link to view a demo of the Silverlight Page Turn media feature. This demonstrates how Silverlight uses XAML to create a presentation of images. When the demo loads, hold down your mouse button on the page turn icon and drag the page as though you were actually turning a page in a book. It’s quite nice.

On their own these two demo’s dont really give you a huge insight into where MS is headed with this product. Naturally its being positioned to compete with Adobe’s Flash. However to get a feel of just how far Microsfot has come watch this video! This video shows the power of MS Expression Media Encoder and Silverlight working together. The Real Time video editing capabilities using hardware graphics acceleration is really impressive. So too is the ability to create and stream media with chapter links, so you can jump to predefined points in the stream, by embedding meta data into the video’s.

By far the most impressive feature is called Video Brush, that in the demo is used to overlay a video on a jigsaw, here’s the impressive thing you can move the individual pieces of the jigsaw around and the video is still plays inside the pieces. Whilst this is eye candy, it could have amazing real world uses … picture in picture over the web for example!

Learn more about Expression Media Encoder and SIlverlight over at Tim Sneath’s Blog.

Google buys DoubleClick for $3.1 Billion

It’s official, Google has acquired on-line advertising outfit DoubleClick for $3.1 billion. The sky high price though may be less a function of DoubleClick’s actual worth and more about what it can strategically provide for Google – and what it could have done for Microsoft, who were also bidding for the company.

Through this acquisition Google has gained a vibrant advertising business for banners, videos and other so-called display-ads intended to promote brands rather than to generate immediate sales. It’s widely known fact that DoubleClick has relationships with almost every major online publisher and almost half of all online ad agencies. This means that Google can now go head to head with its main search rival Yahoo! in the display advertising business.

To get an idea of why this is so important, analysts predict that the paid search advertising market will account for more than 40% of the $19.5 billion expected to go to on-line advertising this year (Mar. 7 eMarketer report).

David Rosenblatt, CEO of DoubleClick, made an interesting comment about this acquisition – he’s excited at the prospect of using DoubleClick’s relationships and Google’s targeting to sell off-line ads in the future. He also believes that DoubleClick’s existing clients wont think of this as a threat, but as a tool that makes advertising easier : ” I think they will see this as a best-of-breed combination – the leading platform technology provider and the leading monetization engine”.

Even more power for Google.

Microsoft is dead.

I’ve read pretty much all of Paul Graham’s essays. I think he’s a wonderful writer and in the past we have often found ourselves debating his views at our bi-weekly geek bookclub @ Talis. One of his most seminal pieces was Hackers and Painters – which every developer should read. So, as you might imagine, I was more than a little intrigued this morning when my FeedReader listed a new essay by Paul with the contentious title: Microsoft is Dead.

Paul argues that Microsoft is no longer frightening, that the company is no longer seen as a threat, no longer casts the shadow it once did over the entire software industry:

I can sense that. No one is even afraid of Microsoft anymore. They still make a lot of money—so does IBM, for that matter. But they’re not dangerous.

Paul attributes this demise, if that’s the right word for it, to four things:

Firstly , Google. Who Paul believes is the most dangerous company now by far, in both good and bad senses of the word – using as an example of how Microsoft is limping behind Google, continuously playing catchup.

Secondly, was the release of Gmail and the introduction of AJAX to the masses. Gmail showed how much you could do with web based software – signalling the death knell of the desktop as more and more applications are delivered over the web. Paul describes how Microsoft themselves might have contributed to the rise of AJAX, something I was previously unaware of:

Ironically, Microsoft unintentionally helped create Ajax. The x in Ajax is from the XMLHttpRequest object, which lets the browser communicate with the server in the background while displaying a page. (Originally the only way to communicate with the server was to ask for a new page.) XMLHttpRequest was created by Microsoft in the late 90s because they needed it for Outlook. What they didn’t realize was that it would be useful to a lot of other people too—in fact, to anyone who wanted to make web apps work like desktop ones.

The third cause is the widespread availability of high speed broadband Internet access – which is key to facilitating the delivery of web based applications to end users – which in turn is key to moving users away from the reliance on desktop based tools and applications.

The final nail in the coffin, Paul argues, came from Apple. The company re-defined itself and offered the world a viable alternative to Windows, in OS X. I know from personal experience that although I don’t have a Mac or a PC running native Linux, I do much of my development work in Linux VM Machines – this is partly due to infrastructure policy on our company laptops … which I should hasten to add … just changed 🙂 So when I get my shiny new laptop I can run Linux on it natively Yippee! ( I’d love it even more if I could have one of those 17″ MacBook’s … pretty please Ian if you do I’ll buy you one of these t-shirts!)

I think to a great extent Paul is actually right. But I personally wouldn’t count Microsoft out of the running. Microsoft is still a company that is capable of innovating great things. Just take a look at what’s coming out of their research labs in terms of PhotoSynth and DeepFish – to understand that they are looking to push the envelope in certain areas. Unfortunatly it does appear that these days they are reacting to innovations made by their competitors – , and are great examples of two Microsoft products that are essentially late alternatives to Google Web Search, and Google Earth. Instead of leading the way, Microsoft is being forced to change it’s traditional business because others, like Google, are changing the industry around it.

I think Paul is absolutely right when he attributes part of their downfall, as it were, to their complacency as a Monopoly:

I’m glad Microsoft is dead. They were like Nero or Commodus—evil in the way only inherited power can make you. Because remember, the Microsoft monopoly didn’t begin with Microsoft. They got it from IBM. The software business was overhung by a monopoly from about the mid-1950s to about 2005. For practically its whole existence, that is. One of the reasons “Web 2.0” has such an air of euphoria about it is the feeling, conscious or not, that this era of monopoly may finally be over.

It’s been a well known fact for years that Microsoft is propped up by the profit it generates from two product lines … Microsoft Windows, and Microsoft Office. Hell even the XBOX is still making a loss for the company. It’s no accident then, that Google, have released browser based Office applications, in the form of This service allows people to write and share documents and spreadsheets for free, combined with gmail and several other apps. Google are now positioning themselves as a service provider offering enhanced versions of this service for small businesses for $50 per user, per year. This will no doubt force Microsoft to change – perhaps even releasing a browser based SOA version of its Office Suite. It’s going to be interesting to see how this competition between these two giants pans out. I’m not saying that being the first in this kind of race is always the best, but if you get into a position where your forcing both the industry and your competition to react to you then thats got to be a good thing.

Take the time to read Paul’s essay. It’s not very long, but it does make some excellent points.