RealTime IT News

A Better Longhorn Through Blogging

When Microsoft kicks off its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles Oct. 26th-30th (http://msdn.microsoft.com/events/pdc/agenda.asp), the event will in many ways mark a major shift in transparency about its core products, as well as a major victory for a subtle public relations build-up ahead of the event.

That's because when the software giant hands out DVDs and CDs containing pre-beta builds of core products -- its Windows operating system, SQL Server database and Visual Studio developer tools -- many if not most of the PDC attendees (the savvy ones at least) will already have a working knowledge of what to expect.

Thanks to a growing number of Weblogs (blogs) by Microsoft employees, many PDC attendees will arrive with some working knowledge of why the new APIs in the pre-beta version of Windows (code-named Longhorn) are helping to form a radically new development environment, as the blogs say.

Like a developer's version of "Where's Waldo," careful readers of Longhorn-focused and PDC-themed blogs (even "official" sites in Microsoft's own PDC Web pages) can find leaks and juicy tidbits about the builds they will see for Longhorn. The same is true for Visual Studio, code-named Whidbey, and Microsoft's database application, SQL Server, code-named Yukon.

As a result, many might arrive at PDC aware that their own skill sets in the .NET platform could use some upgrades in order to help them develop applications more quickly in a newly-streamlined Windows runtime environment.

Developers that set-up RSS feeds into their own blogs or blog aggregators might arrive already armed with questions about how and why Whidbey is truly more intuitive with code-writers compared to past versions of Visual Studio.

Others will have watched how swiftly Microsoft executives themselves answer questions in the blogging community about whether Longhorn's new file system, WinFS (short for Windows Future Storage), is all that new -- or an older version of its prior NT-based NTFS file system with a SQL Server attached.

If they have read just some of the blogs, developers could arrive at PDC having already held blog conversations about how the use of metadata and relational database formats in the WinFS file system should improve searches for Word files, Excel files, photos or any number of programs that run on the operating system.

By some counts, some 300 of Microsoft's roughly 50,000 employees maintain a blog. Many of them, especially ones run by developers, are filled with tidbits about Longhorn, Whidbey and Yukon and other code-names for key components of Microsoft's products. (Some are listed here, and others can be read here).

That's in addition to the hundreds of dedicated enthusiasts and non-Microsoft employees alike that have launched their own blogs about PDC and Longhorn, which is expected to represent a "major change" in the Windows operating system, now expected in the market in 2006.

The sheer number of employee blogs is enough to make any company watcher sit up and take note, analysts say. But add to the trend the fact that Microsoft is about to hand over to PDC attendees early builds of not just one but three of its major products, and they say what you have is a culture shift of more openness at Microsoft.

But are these mushrooming Microsoft blogs just a calculated PR move by a company that spares no expense on corporate PR and marketing? Or is Microsoft's image just benefiting from a popular form of communication that has hit a zenith in popularity?

Indeed, some company watchers point to internal e-mails to employees by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer that effectively encouraged the use of blogs as a reason the number of employee blogs keeps growing.

But avid bloggers such as Chris Pirillo, who runs the popular Lockergnome technology journal, as well as his own personal blog, argue that the growth of Microsoft-employee blogs is more organic than manufactured.

First of all, he says, if a blog entry about, say, Microsoft's latest Office 2003 release starts sounding too corporate, other bloggers not affiliated with Microsoft "will call it out." The blogging community "has a pretty good bull---- detector," he says.

What has happened over the past year, Pirillo adds, is that non-Microsoft bloggers, some of whom characterize themselves as naturally suspicious of the largest software company in the world, are getting to know a different company through the blogs.

"The more freedom they are given to communicate their thoughts, ideas, frustrations, joys, the more they become a person. That's part of the draw, the power of blogging," he says.

And for a company like Microsoft, with its endless stream of public relations issues, from customers frustrated over weekly security patches for IE buffer overruns, to the lingering anti-trust case over its Windows monopoly, the blogs are helping it manage its image in a new way.

After all, as effective blogs are in "humanizing" a company, they are also an effective instant feedback tool on product reviews, Pirillo says.

Take Office 2003, he adds. "The other day, I was testing and reviewing it -- I happen to live in Outlook," he says of the main e-mail and scheduling client in Office. But Pirillo uses a POP3 server protocol for receiving and sending his mail; he soon realized the latest version of Office 2003 works best with Microsoft's Exchange servers, which are geared for businesses.

He went to his blog. "It annoys me to the point where I believe I'm going to have to switch back to Office 2000. Outlook is not designed for POP3 users. It's only for Exchange users, especially in the new version. This sucks."

Pirillo also noted how he doesn't like the larger font sizes in subject lines in Office 2003 e-mail.

"I don't need to see subject lines from across the room! Eight-point fonts were fine. There was no need whatsoever to change that. It was an idiotic decision," says Pirillo, who also co-authored a Web guide called "Online! The Book."

Give-and-take comments such as Pirillo's are just as important to Microsoft's developers as they are to outside developers that are trying to make sense of a new way of coding for the next-generation Windows operating system, agrees Robert Scoble, whose four-year-old Scobelizer blog is among the more popular Microsoft blogs.

"For one, it's a decentralized community and everybody can participate," says Scoble, a technology evangelist who has been with Microsoft for about five months. "Longhorn blogs were started by a community. The PDC blogs were done by two [non-Microsoft] guys before they started taking off."

As to whether the blogs helped contribute to a sold-out PDC show this year, Scoble says they have helped advance developers' interest and understanding about what could be at stake with the latest pre-betas of Longhorn.

"People believe other individuals, more than, say, a PR firm, or even a press release, because they know the PR has gone through a process," he told internetnews.com. But when Chris Anderson says something about Avalon (the code-name for the new Windows User Interface) on his blog, developers know they're speaking to one of the lead developers of the .NET framework, he says.

Scoble calls this year's conference "an aligning of the planets that I don't think has ever happened in the history of the PDC. Usually there is one major product" at the conference. "Here, the PDC is rolling out three."

With their peek at the builds already waiting in the wings, developers will also be able to give Microsoft critical and early "feedback on the direction of products. We want to make sure they nail it, such as on security, and give developers enough time to realize where the industry's going so they can shift their own skill sets."

And in that regard, he says the Microsoft blogs represent a shift for the company.

"Usually, executives would just leak something or talk about something," he says. "And that would be the only statement you heard from Microsoft until the product came out. Now, an executive can announce something, and immediately the guys working on the product who know the product well can amplify those statements."

Joe Wilcox, a Microsoft analyst for Jupiter Research (whose parent company also owns this publication), doesn't see the Microsoft blogs as a calculated move on Microsoft's part.

There are tons of blogs about PDC, he says, and tons of blogs about Longhorn, and many of them were not set up by Microsoft. "Plus, the Microsoft bloggers have been doing it for a long time. But you could also argue there's blog evangelism about Longhorn and particularly around the developers conference," Wilcox says.

"If you look at the blogging phenomenon it goes back to the early concept of the Web. It wasn't about e-commerce. It was about self-expression. Blogging has revived that."

Now you can read about people's opinions, how they even disagree with those of their employers, says Wilcox who also "finds it funny, ironic even, that Microsoft employees are such prolific bloggers but not necessarily using their own company's software to blog."

But Scoble says Microsoft has not produced blogging software because, for all its popularity, it doesn't represent a compelling business opportunity for Microsoft, at least for now.

The bottom line, he adds, is that the company's PR employees, whose goal is a unified corporate message, are coping with the growth of blogs because for one, the blogs represent their opinions and don't speak for the company (as the blogs' disclaimers say). Plus, he says the PR gatekeepers know that the blogging community is fair about what they write.

"Corporate PR staff want to keep a tight rein on every message. But now they're realizing that this is not their domain anymore," adds Richard Laermer, founder of RLM Public Relations and the author of the PR how-to book "Full Frontal PR."

For all that one reads and can find in the blogs, Scoble says they are helping to convey the message that "Microsoft is moving towards more transparency in the developer process."