Reflections on Microsoft PDC 2009

Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference has long been a key event in the company’s calendar. CEO Steve Ballmer and his colleagues are famous for their belief that developers make or break a platform, and PDC is where the most committed of those developers learn as much as Microsoft is willing to share of its long-term plans. There have been good – for example, 2000 C# and .NET launch, 2008 Windows 7 – and bad – for example, 2001 Hailstorm, 2003 Longhorn – PDCs but they have all been interesting, at least the ones I have attended.

So how was PDC 2009? While there was a ton of good content there, and an impressive launch for Silverlight 4, there was a noticeable lack of direction; maybe that was why Ballmer decided not to show up. It should have been the Windows Azure PDC, but as I have just written elsewhere, Microsoft has little excitement about its cloud. Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie gave almost exactly the same keynote this year that he gave last year; and the body language, as it were, is more about avoiding the cloud than embracing it. Cross-platform clients, commodity pricing, throw away your servers: from Microsoft’s point of view, what’s not to hate?

In theory, mobile computing could have been another big story at the PDC, but Microsoft’s slow progress in Mobile is well known.

My instinct is that Microsoft needs to change but does not know how: the wheels continue to turn and we will get new versions of Windows, ever more complex iterations of Windows Server, Exchange, SharePoint, and feature after feature added to Microsoft Office – does it really need to become PhotoShop – but in the end this is more of the same.

The mitigating factors are the high quality of Windows 7, which will drive a lot of new PC sales for a quarter or two, and the strong products coming out of the developer division. Visual Studio 2010 plus Silverlight is an interesting platform, and ASP.NET MVC is in my opinion a big advance from Web Forms.

That’s not enough though; and we still await a convincing strategic discussion of how Microsoft intends to flourish in the next decade.

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