Looking Past Ray Ozzie's Platitudes

Microsoft made worthless promises, but also delivered, and shed light on the Yahoo bid. 

LAS VEGAS-Ray Ozzie's keynote at the Microsoft MIX 2008 developer conference here should be noted for what he showed developers, not for what he promised.

Ozzie uttered a lot of the usual bromides about Microsoft's (and arguably not his) vision of software plus service: from the announced public beta of Office Live Workspace, an online collaboration space for Office productivity tools, to the vaguely defined SQL Server Data Services, also in beta, Microsoft still seems unprepared to fully embrace SAAS.

He wasn't very convincing when he said that he looked forward to sharing more specifics about Microsoft's enterprise offerings later this year, because as Joe Wilcox noted in not so many words, so much of what Ozzie said sounded like vaporware on a loop.

However, Ozzie closed his keynote by admitting something pretty obvious: Developers have a plethora of choices for building applications. When he pleaded, "I'd like you to bet on us," it resonated with a lot of people in the audience.

In between the vaporous promises and the plea for his audience's patience, Ozzie explained what Microsoft has actually done. For starters, Internet Explorer 8 will be standards-compliant out of the box, and will support HTML 5.

This will make life a lot easier for programmers developing rich Internet applications. As an example, IE 7 doesn't recognize if users zoom in or out of a map built using AJAX, so when they use the "back" button, it takes them back to the previous page rather than an earlier state on the current page. IE 8 takes care of that problem.

Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond called that kind of experience "the bane of developers' existence."

Scott Guthrie, Microsoft corporate vice president, demonstrated a number of other new product introductions aimed at winning over the developer community, including beta 2 of Silverlight, its cross-platform developer tool and a beta of Expression Studio 2.

Silverlight 2 is a step up from the first version, which developers saw as too low-tech. But it's still not all the way there; Hammond identified developing apps for mobile devices and a greater number of controls as areas that could stand improvement.

Nonetheless, the products demonstrated Microsoft's understanding that developers need to be able to create applications on a variety of platforms.

So what does this have to do with Microsoft's bid for Yahoo?

It has to do with the people.

Ozzie noted that Yahoo has a lot of creative people who understand software in the cloud.

Brian Goldfarb, Group product manager in the Microsoft developer division, noted that Microsoft has also recruited people from Adobe, and he praised Ozzie himself for helping transform the culture at Microsoft.

"Our mistakes in the past is that we did things in a box-now it's about openness," Goldfarb said.

Outsiders have been critical of Ozzie for not changing things quickly enough at Microsoft and for failing to move the company to a greater acceptance of the Web. But Goldfarb argued that it just takes time to effect change at a company as big as Microsoft.

"People are hypercritical for bad reasons," he said.

The corporate jousting between titans like Microsoft, Yahoo, Adobe and Google may seem irrelevant to the lives of most people in IT, who feel more like onlookers than constituents in the battle.

But this fight among the IT giants is about more than proxy fights and battles for talent in Silicon Valley. It's about winning over the hearts and minds of developers who use their products - or not. "It's a good time to be a developer, because a lot of companies are trying to make your life easier," Hammond noted.