Bouquets, Brickbats for Microsoft’s ‘Channel 9’

Microsoft’s attempts to put a human face on its corporate image took a small step forward with the unveiling of Channel 9, a Web site promoting dialogue
between software evangelists and users. But problems with streaming video
formats and Web browser incompatibility have left many users unable to
access the site’s hybrid features.

Channel 9, created by a team of Microsoft evangelists to encourage
dialogue between Microsoft employees, software users and third-party
developers, includes video interviews, blog entries, RSS feeds,
wikis and discussion forums.

On Tuesday when the site went live, it logged more than 10,000 concurrent
visitors at one time, according to Microsoft Longhorn evangelist Robert
Scoble, one of the primary movers behind the creation of Channel 9.

But many visitors flocking to the site soon found that proprietary Microsoft technologies shut them out. For instance, users of Mozilla’s Firefox Web browser encountered problems rendering the pages and viewing the video feeds. Channel 9, which makes heavy use of video
interviews with Microsoft employees, delivers the streams exclusively in the
Windows Media 9 format, effectively ignoring a section of the audience using
Linux, Unix and competing operating systems.

Writing on his popular Weblog,
Microsoft’s Scoble said the decision to stick with Microsoft technologies
came down to economics. “We’re doing a lot with a little bit of budget,” he
explained, noting also a “common misconception” that Microsoft has an
unlimited budget to play with.

“That money belongs to our investors. And we don’t just spend it without
having a darn good reason. So, when we came up with the idea of Channel 9,
we didn’t just get unlimited resources to do everything perfect,” Scoble
wrote in response to critics.

He said Channel 9 used existing infrastructure, like video servers at
Microsoft.com, and claimed that hosting QuickTime or Real’s video formats
would require approval from higher up. “[It’s] a big pain in the behind and
it would mean talking our team’s exec’s into funding that work.”

Scoble described the browser incompatibility issue as a “bug” and pointed
out that the Channel 9’s embrace of the RSS syndication format would make
use of enclosures to shuttle video feeds to news aggregators.

On shutting out Linux developers, a potentially significant audience,
Scoble said simply: “I agree that we want to reach Linux developers…we’ll
have to work on that. Actually, now that we have the site done, it’s a lot
easier to sell execs on funding more features (particularly when they see
our traffic levels).”

Adam Sohn, who works at Microsoft’s Developer and Platform Evangelism
team, said many developers use multiple machines or have Windows running on
one of their machines in dual or multi-boot mode, which made it possible to
reach Linux users.

Despite the early bugs, the evangelists are gung-ho about softening the
company’s image in the developer community. Channel 9 is named after an
in-flight channel that enables passengers to hear what is going on in
airplane cockpits. “We think developers need their own Channel 9, a way to
listen in to the cockpit at Microsoft, an opportunity to learn how we fly,”
according to the site’s welcome message.

“Markets are conversations. People are out there talking about your
products and if you’re not at the table you’re missing out. Well, we don’t
want to miss out. And that’s why we’re doing this,” said Lenn Pryor,
director of platform evangelism at Microsoft, speaking in a video on the
site.

One of the site’s most fascinating videos features Bill Hill, a Microsoft
typography researcher, elaborating in a Scottish burr about “Homo Sapiens
1.0.” In the video, Hill advocates that developers always remember software
is built for human use. The video is titled, “The most important operating
system is not Windows.”

The launch of Channel 9 comes on the heels of Microsoft’s unprecedented decision to release an XML toolset to the open-source developer
community.

That decision, spurred by a Microsoft employee’s drive to promote “change
from within,” led to the release of the Windows Installer XML (WiX) toolset
and source code to developers on the SourceForge Web repository.

WiX is the first project from Microsoft to be released under the Common
Public License, an externally created open source license. WiX is used to
build Windows installation packages (MSI and MSM files) from XML source code
and is currently used internally at Microsoft by developers working on
Office SQL Server, BizTalk, Virtual PC, MSN and Windows Messenger and the
msn.com network.

* ClickZ News editors Janis
Mara and Pamela Parker contributed to this report.

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