Microsoft Announcement Day 2008

windows logo Today was the first day of Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference, but they may as well have called it official announcement day! For anyone who uses Microsoft technologies on a day-to-day basis, today is a day to remember. Definitely one for the history books of technology.

The big announcement was Windows Azure:

Today, during a keynote speech at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2008 (PDC2008), Ray Ozzie, Microsoft Corp.’s chief software architect, announced Windows Azure, the cloud-based service foundation underlying its Azure Services Platform, and highlighted this platform’s role in delivering a software plus services approach to computing.

That’s a lot of marketing speak, but as usual Mary Jo Foley has a great post breaking Azure down. I’d suggest you read that to get a better idea of what exactly Azure is all about.

A few other interesting announcements:

That’s a lot of stuff for one day! As a developer, I’m a bit overwhelmed with the Azure announcement. It’s going to take a while to process. Very exciting though!

UPDATE: Colinizer has another great summary of today’s announcements on his blog. Check it out!

I have seen the future and its name is FriendFeed

friendfeed Slightly dramatic title I suppose, but FriendFeed has been causing quite the stir on the interwebs lately. And for me personally, it’s where I have been spending an increasing amount of my online time. Along with Twitter (well, when it’s working) I find myself keeping a FriendFeed tab open in my browser at all times. Both services are quite addictive!

What is FriendFeed? Essentially, it’s an aggregator for everything you do online. After you create an account, you add services to it – Twitter, del.icio.us, Digg, Facebook, Google Reader, etc. FriendFeed keeps an eye on your services, and makes items from them available in your feed. For example, nearly as soon as you bookmark a page in del.icio.us, it’ll show up in FriendFeed. Here’s my little FriendFeed bio card:

Then FriendFeed takes the next step and lets your friends comment on or “like” your items. This alone has caused a lot of controversy, because it means there’s a lot of discussion happening on FriendFeed about blog posts that isn’t displayed on those blog posts. It’s incredibly valuable though. I can visit your FriendFeed page, and comment on pretty much your entire online activity.

For more on what FriendFeed can do, check out this excellent post by J. Phil at scribkin. He goes into more detail on how FriendFeed can filter and group items, and more.

Like many others, I think FriendFeed is a game-changer. Here are some of the ways it is impacting me:

  • I visit Techmeme less frequently. Most of the same stuff comes into FriendFeed, and generally it does so much faster. If you want to keep up-to-the-second on stuff, there’s no better way than FriendFeed (except maybe Twitter).
  • Sort of related the above point – FriendFeed is becoming my new entry point. No need to visit Flickr, del.icio.us, and Digg separately to see what my friends are up to because it all shows up in FriendFeed.
  • I often “like” something on FriendFeed not to show my love of the item, but to make it easy for me to find again later. FriendFeed has a page for your comments, a page for your likes, and a page for both. Want to see what I’m paying attention to? Check out that last link.
  • FriendFeed Rooms are a neat way to connect with people on a specific topic. I’ve been pretty active in the Twitter room so far (surprise, surprise).
  • The search functionality in FriendFeed absolutely kicks ass. Want to know what people think about something? Search FriendFeed for it. Both FriendFeed and Summize are raising the bar for search as far as I’m concerned.

There’s a ton of other goodness in FriendFeed that I haven’t really played with yet, like the API (which appears to be surprisingly complete). I discover new things that I like about the service almost every day. And like Twitter, the more people I follow, the more interesting it becomes (to a certain point anyway).

Of course, it isn’t perfect. Here’s a quick list of things I’d love to see added:

  • Ability to post to del.icio.us when I share a link using the bookmarklet, much like it can send replies to Twitter.
  • Some sort of XMPP interface so I can use it like Twitter, via Google Talk. And while they’re at it, why not add an SMS interface too!
  • Built-in statistics.
  • Timestamps in the UI. I think the simple interface is great, but I’d love to see some times beside those comments.
  • More services. Currently there are 35 supported, and I understand they’re working on API functionality to allow other services to add themselves.
  • An easier way to add friends. Import from other services or something.
  • A proper iPhone interface (though Benjamin Golub’s fftogo is working quite well).

I like FriendFeed so much at the moment, that I’ve integrated it into my blog! On newer posts, you’ll find the FriendFeed bar just above the comments showing how many people have liked or commented on the post in FriendFeed. This is done using Glenn Slaven’s FriendFeed Comments plugin. I’ve also added the FriendFeed Activity Widget to mastermaq.ca, so you can see a summary of what I’ve been up to. Not sure if I’ll add it here or not yet.

I’m sure I’ll be posting a lot more about FriendFeed as the service matures and I get even further addicted to it. Like every where else, my username is mastermaq – add me!

What if Twitter had been built by Amazon.com's Web Services team?

twitter by aws? I’ve been using Twitter for a long time now, and I can’t remember a period of downtime quite as bad as the current one. Features have been disabled, and there’s no ETA for when everything will be back to normal. Who knows, maybe it won’t ever be. Which got me wondering about why Twitter’s reliability is so terrible. Is it the nature of the application, or is it something to do with the people behind Twitter?

What if Twitter had been built by a different team, a team with a pretty good track record for high-availability services? What if Twitter had been built by the Web Services team at Amazon.com?

I think it’s safe to say that things would be quite different:

  1. Reliable, redundant infrastructure
    Twitter would be run inside Amazon’s high-availability data centers. We would never know (or care) that Twitter’s main database was named db006, nor would we ever wonder whether it has a good backup. We’d just know that if it’s good enough for Amazon, it’s good enough for us.
  2. No wondering, “is Twitter working?”
    Instead of wondering if Twitter is working correctly or waiting for Twitter messages or blog posts that explain what the problem is, Twitter would be part of the AWS Service Health Dashboard. We’d be able to see, at a glance, how Twitter is working now, and how well it has worked for the last month. This is what transparency is all about.
  3. Twitter wouldn’t be free, but we’d be cool with that
    Twitter would have had a business model from day one, and we’d all be cheering about how affordable it is. A pay-as-you-go model like all the other web services from Amazon would work quite well for Twitter. You get what you pay for, right?
  4. Premium Support and SLAs
    Speaking of getting what you pay for, Amazon would likely have realized that there are lots of different types of users, and they’d react accordingly. We’d probably have Premium Support for Twitter, to service support requests more efficiently. We’d also have Service Level Agreements.
  5. We wouldn’t call it Twitter…
    Of course, the service wouldn’t be called Twitter. In keeping with Amazon’s other services it would probably have a name like “Amazon Simple Messaging Service”, or SMS for short. Though I suppose that acronym is already taken!

I am a huge Twitter fan, and I really do hope that Ev, Biz, Jack, and the rest of the team get things working and fixed. With every passing hour of downtime though, I lose a little bit of faith. I wonder if Twitter would be better off in someone else’s hands.

Of course, if Twitter really had been built by AWS, there would be far more differences than just the items in my list above. The service may not be recognizable as Twitter!

That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t adopt some of these items as improvements, however. I’d love to see an official Twitter health dashboard, for instance. One can hope.

Let Microsoft run Exchange for you

microsoft exchange Live Mesh and other consumer facing initiatives tend to garner the majority of the headlines related to Microsoft’s cloud computing initiatives, but it’s the simple, more boring things like hosted Exchange services that will probably have a bigger direct impact on the bottom line. I’ve run my own servers for a long time now, and while it isn’t incredibly difficult it is time consuming. I’d definitely welcome a switch to having Microsoft run them for me. They seem think it’s going to happen very quickly:

In an interview ahead of the Reuters Global Technology, Media and Telecoms Summit, Chris Capossela, who manages Microsoft’s Office products, said the company will see more and more companies abandon their own in-house computer systems and shift to “cloud computing,” a less expensive alternative.

“In five years, 50 percent of our Exchange mailboxes will be Exchange Online,” said Capossela, who expects a portion of Exchange Online customers to come from customers switching from International Business Machines’ (IBM.N) Lotus Domino system.

When you run your own Exchange server, there’s a lot of things you need to worry about. You need to ensure it is patched with the latest updates, that the junk mail filters are configured correctly, that data is being backed up properly, etc. It would be much better if Microsoft just did all of that for me.

I know there are already companies that do this sort of thing, but there’s something about having Microsoft behind the service that appeals to me. They should be the experts on their own software, after all. And I’m sure they’ll eventually offer a suite of these services that’ll just be a no-brainer for small businesses.

Why buy, install, and support an increasingly expensive Small Business Server, when you can just pay Microsoft a monthly fee to do it all for you? That’s where cloud computing will have the biggest impact on businesses.

Read: Yahoo! News

Why isn't Twitter dead?

I started using Twitter back in about October of 2006. It had a pretty sizable following by that time, and it has grown quite significantly ever since. I quite like the service, and I’m totally enamored with the idea of microblogging and micromedia in general. And like everyone else, I am frequently annoyed at how often Twitter simply doesn’t work.

Which begs the question – why hasn’t it died? Why do thousands of users like myself keep coming back?

I’m getting really sick of the various messages Twitter displays when it’s down. Too many times I’ve sent text message updates, only to have them never appear or worse, appear days later. Too many times Twitter has stopped sending me updates altogether. Yet despite all the complaining I do, I always find myself back with Twitter as soon as its up.

Why that is, I’m not sure. But I think it may have something to do with the API.

The smartest thing the dudes over at Twitter ever did was make an easy-to-use API, and I bet they didn’t even realize how important it was at the time. It has resulted in dozens and dozens of third party services that build on top of the Twitter community. Positive reinforcement. It’s the API that makes Twitter so versatile, and it’s the API (primarily, I think) that keeps me coming back.

Of course, there’s something to be said about the large, active community that lives at Twitter. Even though in theory it should be simple to hop from service to service on the web, it never happens that way, and the large number of Twitter users certainly exerts a strong gravitational pull. Still, you’d think people would say “enough is enough” after a year and a half of 404 errors and other problems.

But they don’t. Twitter is as popular as ever. I think the API is largely responsible for that.

Amazon FPS: another US-only payments service

Post ImageAmazon launched another web service on Friday, called the Amazon Flexible Payments Service (FPS). The interesting thing about the launch is that Jeff Barr was teasing everyone on Twitter, building up the anticipation. I was eagerly watching for updates! I wish more product launches happened in a similar fashion.

Anyway, here is how Jeff described FPS:

We’ve taken all that we know about dealing with credit cards, bank accounts, fraud checking and customer service and wrapped it all up into one convenient package.

In much the same way that S3 and EC2 allow developers to forget about leasing space in data centers, buying servers and negotiating for bandwidth, FPS shields developers from many of the messy and complex issues which arise when dealing with money. Once again, we take care of the “muck” and developers get to focus on being innovative and creative.

As you know, I love S3. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then when I say that FPS gets me really, really excited. I haven’t looked at it too closely, but even a quick glance suggests that FPS is amazing. PayPal is the giant of the payments space, but they badly need some competition. Unfortunately, no one seems prepared to provide it. No, not even FPS.

The problem is geography. There’s competition for US merchants, but everyone else is left out in the cold. Just like Google Checkout, FPS has launched with support limited to companies in the US (though buyers can be anywhere…and Google has since added UK merchant support but that’s it). There are certainly a lot of Internet users in the United States, but they still make up less than a quarter of the world total, and that percentage drops every day. There is a ton of e-commerce taking place outside the US.

PayPal is supported in over 190 countries and regions. There are 14 countries that PayPal describes as “localized” and another 21 that support withdrawals to local bank accounts. For merchants in 34 of these countries (ignoring the US), Google Checkout and Amazon FPS simply are not options. PayPal is the only viable choice.

And don’t get me wrong, I quite like PayPal, but there are definitely things that need to be improved. The FPS feature set addresses a wide range of these issues (such as support for micro-payments). But Amazon FPS and Google Checkout will simply not beat PayPal until they are supported just as widely around the world. Maybe they don’t want to take on PayPal, you say? Bullshit, I reply. PayPal is the target, even if Amazon and Google will only admit that behind closed doors.

I would suggest there are only five companies that could build a payment system to rival PayPal. The first two are eBay and Amazon, the giants of e-commerce. eBay owns PayPal, and Amazon now has FPS. The other three are the usual suspects: Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Google has Checkout, and Yahoo seems to be fine with PayPal. That leaves Microsoft. A small part of me is hopeful for a wicked payments service as part of Windows Live Core, but Microsoft’s track record with launching worldwide services isn’t so great either.

Will there ever be a viable, worldwide competitor to PayPal? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.

Read: Amazon FPS

New Pricing for Amazon S3

Post ImageLate last night Amazon sent an email to S3 customers announcing an upcoming pricing change. Storage costs will remain the same, but the price for bandwidth is going to change:

Current bandwidth price (through May 31, 2007)
$0.20 / GB – uploaded
$0.20 / GB – downloaded

New bandwidth price (effective June 1, 2007)
$0.10 per GB – all data uploaded

$0.18 per GB – first 10 TB / month data downloaded
$0.16 per GB – next 40 TB / month data downloaded
$0.13 per GB – data downloaded / month over 50 TB

$0.01 per 1,000 PUT or LIST requests
$0.01 per 10,000 GET and all other requests

They claim that if the pricing had been applied to usage for March 2007, about 75% of customers would have seen their bill decrease. In some cases however, the price change makes things significantly more expensive, as this thread points out:

Uploading 1GB of 4K files will cost $2.72 instead of $0.20

We haven’t yet figured out how Podcast Spot will be affected, but I suspect we’ll see a slight decrease. I’m also interested to hear from Don MacAskill on SmugMug.

UPDATE: Don talks about the new pricing model here and says they’ll save money.

Read: S3 Forums

Amazon S3: 5 billion objects and counting

Post ImageOne of the more interesting stories to come out of the Web 2.0 Expo is that of Amazon.com’s Simple Storage Service (S3) passing 5 billion stored objects. You can watch a video of Jeff Bezos talking to conference attendees here. According to Bezos, S3 was storing just 800,000 objects in July 2006. That’s some pretty incredible growth, and I expect it will only continue.

More and more I am convinced that web services like S3 will become the norm. Companies like Amazon.com, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and eBay are all very good at building and maintaining the infrastructure their services require to operate smoothly and efficiently. It only makes sense to further monetize that competency.

S3 has had an incredibly positive impact on Podcast Spot, and I know we’d be able to make use of additional web services if only they existed.

Read: TechCrunch

Tim O'Reilly on Yahoo! Pipes

Post ImageI’ve been doing a little more reading about Yahoo! Pipes lately, and today I came across this excellent (though somewhat long) post from Mr. Web 2.0 himself, Tim O’Reilly. He says (via BoingBoing):

It democratizes web programming, making it easier for people to have more control over the internet information services they consume, and providing a general-purpose platform for interacting with sites that is more powerful than the browser or feed-reader alone, but without requiring full programming skills.

I think that’s a great way to describe what Pipes is, and why it matters. Sure the interface could be improved and made easier to use, but it’s only going to get better from here.

Read: Tim O’Reilly

Yahoo! Pipes

Post ImageI decided I would take one last look at Techmeme before heading off to bed, and as a result I just found out about a new product from Yahoo! called Pipes. It’s definitely not for everyone, but my inner geek is jumping for joy – Pipes is very, very cool:

Pipes is a hosted service that lets you remix feeds and create new data mashups in a visual programming environment. The name of the service pays tribute to Unix pipes, which let programmers do astonishingly clever things by making it easy to chain simple utilities together on the command line.

I just created a quick “pipe” to see how it works, and I have to admit, it’s very easy to use. Essentially it will let you take any number of sources (like an RSS feed or something), add user inputs if required, combine them with modules to process the data, and finally connect them all together to produce some output. And it’s all done visually. No programming experience required (well not really).

Nik at TechCrunch nails it:

Pipes can take any feed as input, and combined with the already available list of functions proves to be very powerful – my mind is still buzzing thinking about all that can be done with Pipes.

It was inevitable that such a product would be released, and it is very good for Yahoo! that they managed to be the first of the big web companies to release such a product.

I wonder how successful Pipes will be. Could it be the product that allows everyone to be a “programmer”? Possibly. Nik is right that the terminology needs some work (they use too many “coder” terms I think) but that’s fairly minor. Pipes has incredible potential.

I’m definitely going to have to play with it some more.

Read: Yahoo! Pipes