Dan’l Lewin, Corporate Vice President, Strategic and Emerging Business, Microsoft Corporation

Want users to stick around? Or are they just browsing?

It’s all about the user today. Businesses will compete and win when they can present users — from employees to partners to customers — with information in a way that best allows those users to exercise their own judgment and experience. Naturally, people want a great user interface, one that helps them achieve stellar results, and they don’t care if it’s delivered from the browser or on the desktop.


More than ever, the user experience matters. We’re seeing phenomenal advances in the technologies and standards for creating the user experience. Developed at Xerox PARC, popularized on the Mac (I was part of the original group — hard to imagine how long ago that was…) and made available to the masses through Windows, high-performance graphics and visualization are coming home in today’s composite apps and mashups that combine information from multiple sources over web services standards. The foundation for all this is the device OS itself — whether on a phone, laptop, desktop, or even in your car. It has to be fast, powerful, connected. Different uses — from drive-by browsing to those where users and their data need to stick around — call for different and important considerations.


In March, Microsoft kicked off our new People-Ready business vision — centered on the reality that people drive business success. It’s a natural extension of our founding vision of empowering people through software and speaks directly to our vision of the user experience. So, in this column, I define what I mean by a great user experience, briefly discuss the latest trends (AJAX, Mashups, Web 2.0, SaaS) and then focus in on two critical needs: first, a richer UI for web applications and second, the client on the desktop for certain types of experiences. Then I’ll talk about how new user experiences and technologies on the web and the desktop environment present compelling new opportunities for startups.


Put Me In Control, Baby.


So what is a great user experience? First and foremost, a great user experience is one that you can and do control. You’re in charge of your experience, presence, identity and who gains access to what. A great user experience should give you increased confidence when browsing the web. Toward this end, in February, we added “InfoCard” support to our new Windows Internet Explorer 7 browser as part of our ongoing effort to help protect users’ private information and deter online fraud. It provides a consistent user interface for the identity metasystem, a standards-based architecture for managing identity information on the Internet. We are working with a large number of other companies to define specifications for InfoCard. Non-Microsoft applications will therefore have the same ability to use "InfoCard" to manage their identities as Microsoft applications will.


That’s just one important example of companies doing interesting user-in-control UI work today — SAP, Apple, Yahoo, eBay, and many more. They are enabling people to collaborate and communicate effortlessly, share content peer-to-peer (see our Windows Communication Foundation), and conduct collaborative meetings through unified communications. People want immersive experiences that go beyond the browser. Everyone is talking about AJAX (for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML-style programming) as a key part of Web 2.0. They’re talking “mashups”— web pages or applications that integrate complementary elements from two or more sources.


The Web: An Affair to Remember or Forget?


The sluggish, browser-based experience has to change. Everyone knows it's suboptimal and even high-speed access doesn't alter its inherent weaknesses. Yet browsers do provide an unbelievably compelling vehicle for providing instant access to a service.


So, what if our web experience had rich desktop-like features, no tedious waits and required no additional software to be installed on a PC? Here, AJAX is "cleaning up browsers." With this technique, data sitting on a page can refresh independently of the rest of the window without regenerating sections of the page and making roundtrips to the server. No hourglass, no waiting. High-profile AJAX-style websites include Google, A9, Flickr, Windows Live, Microsoft Office Live, and Xbox Live.


The popularity of AJAX shows that there is a growing demand for richer user experiences over the web. However, developing and debugging AJAX-style web experiences is no easy task. We need to acknowledge that we've been slow to bring our developer tools to the game here, but we actually did pioneering work using AJAX techniques in our OWA application (Outlook Web Access) beginning in 1998.


In September, we delivered the "Atlas" toolset. With "Atlas," we set out to make it easier for anyone to build AJAX-style web applications that deliver rich, interactive and personalized experiences. We think developers should be able to build these applications without great expertise in client scripting; they should be able to integrate their browser UI seamlessly with the rest of their applications; and they should be able to develop and debug these applications with ease.


"Atlas" is a free framework for building a new generation of richer, more interactive, highly personalized standards-based Web applications. "Atlas" makes it possible to easily take advantage of AJAX techniques on the web and enables developers to create ASP.NET pages with a rich, responsive UI and server communication. This rich client framework also enables developers to easily build client-centric web applications that integrate with any backend data provider. We already have sites using this technology including Start.com and the MSN Virtual Earth project. More will come.


With "Atlas," the browser has become a true platform for building applications. It's no longer about web design but about application design — and core to a great application is a "rich" user experience.


Smart Clients — Oh So Familiar


There continues to be a debate over the role of the "smart" desktop client (some even call it "fat"... maybe it's the sizzle) and web UIs. Will the client ever disappear, or will it always offer a richer experience? We believe, no surprise here, that the best client is often the one you already know. If the application needs an offline component, we see enterprises using Office or Microsoft Windows Vista.


The need for client applications where a large volume of processing is involved — large databases — or intense processing such as mail or spreadsheets, won't change. Here, it makes more sense to have a powerful client on the local computer, and this also makes offline use possible.


In fact, more and more smart clients are available directly on the server, including Excel and Infopath on Office 12, now in beta. There are also the plug-ins to existing tools such as Office and Excel that are providing a dramatically new source of data and interaction — think Newsgator, InvisibleCRM, Mendocino (the joint SAP/Microsoft project), Excel as a BI tool, and more.


SaaS Value Grows — Some Cool Applications


Software as a Service (SaaS) is a hot topic and is usually associated with browsers. Companies using AJAX-like techniques include Permeo (acquired by Bluecoat), providing on-demand remote access and information security, and Trader Tools, delivering real-time worldwide FX trading.


However, we are seeing more and more SaaS companies adding support for a desktop client. SaaS companies are adopting rich clients because customers value the experience. Look, for example, at Newsgator, which provides a free browser application but also a very popular range of priced plug-ins for Outlook, and AtHoc, which provides a number of client-side options, including a nifty toolbar. A blend of hosted and on-premise software is also common. Many SaaS companies start out with a purely hosted service, but later add an enterprise server due to customer demand. Examples include our own Groove Networks and Adesso Systems. Another example is Right90, an on-demand company that focuses on improving the coordination of sales forecasting and operations management.


SmartCompany uses Outlook as a design center for their CRM smart client application — connected to their SaaS offering — and are working on future versions that deliver functionality directly in Outlook. ExactTarget, another cool SaaS company, delivers on-demand email solutions for permission-based email marketing, again using Outlook as their design center — a natural UI for email. We're finding that customers that were early adopters of software as a service for CRM now often want that same service to come through Outlook.


Clearly, we are starting to see the real value of SaaS with its rapid trial and adoption and broad accessibility of applications — extended with the usability and flexibility of rich clients and enterprise deployments. We think it's this kind of environment that is a win-win for startups.


The View on Vista — Leveraging the Power of the Client


With Microsoft Windows Vista, developers can differentiate their applications by the user experience and provide new ways to help users be productive and make applications far more relevant to our lives as well as secure. One of the most significant advancements in Vista is the Windows Presentation Foundation (code-named Avalon) that allows developers to create rich user experiences for both the desktop and browser – writing code only once. Incidentally, industry forecasts are predicting the adoption of Windows Vista to be much faster than it was for XP. Within the first year or so of launch, we expect nearly 200 million Windows Vista machines in the marketplace. Each will have the .NET Framework (as do 60 percent of those machines in the US today), empowering the creation of sophisticated, yet lightweight and relatively easy-to-produce managed code applications — and these will leverage the full power of the client computer. To make developing these new applications easier for software startups, we've created the Glidepath program with workflow-based guidance and content.


So where do we go from here? Our world-class development tools, operating systems and platform assets support both approaches to the user experience (exemplified in "Atlas," Vista, Office 12, and Live). In the short term, and for the long run, IT matters. The automation of business processes and providing access to information enriches our lives and makes businesses more competitive. But the ultimate value-add will come from empowering people with rich, compelling experiences. Microsoft remains committed to delivering the best possible experience to users, and for the developers who design the experiences — whether they are running business or consumer applications, a browser or local desktop applications, or whether the function they are operating is on the desktop or in a service- in-the-sky somewhere. The user experience matters.


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