Jamie Thomson

Thoughts, words and deeds

Archive for October 2007

Which product would you work on?

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I was having a moment of contemplation today and was considering which product within Microsoft I’d most like to be able to point to and say "I worked on that." I considered a few. SQL Server was an obvious one because that’s what I use on a daily basis but y’know, SQL Server is pretty well established now – not THAT much of a challenge. How about one of the cooler consumer web apps? Skydrive perhaps? Nah! For me it has to be Office Live (or whatever its being called today).
I heard recently on Liveside that they have 450,00 domains on Office Live (the typo is theirs, is that forty five thousand or four hundred and fifty thousand?) which either way seems pretty impressive to me. Office Live has got oodles of potential because I don’t see anyone else out there offering a similar service and that’s the kind of team I’d like to work for. I’ll probably change my mind tomorrow of course!
 
Which product team would you like to work on? Microsoft or otherwise.
 
-Jamie
 

Written by Jamiet

October 29, 2007 at 6:52 pm

Posted in Windows Live

Gatineau, Live Spaces, Analysis Services et al…

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Today I took 10 minutes to watch a video on Gatineau, Microsoft’s web analytics offering that is in some ways a competitor to Google Analytics. You can see the video for yourself here: http://visitmix.com/Blogs/Joshua/gatineau-analytics-walkthrough-and-details/

I’m particularly interested in this because in a former life I was heavily engaged in web analytics work and was responsible for developing and maintaining a web analytics solution for one of the UK’s leading high street banks. One of the main things that my clients wanted at that time was demographic segmentation of their visitors but that was difficult to achieve because it would usually require people to login and on most of the sites I worked on logging in was not a necessity. Gatineau though is different. It uses a visitor’s Live ID if they have one (I assume it picks up the Live ID from a cookie on the client) to access demographic information for that site visitor which is then aggregated and made available for Gatineau clients to browse.

Gatineau metrics

The video above made mention of Gatineau tracking individual page views. That’s fairly useful information but in my experience site owners care more about browsing sessions and the metrics they measure browsing by are:

  • session length
  • number of page views in a session
  • session entry point
  • session exit point

There was no mention of session tracking in the video so I would hope that that was an oversight and session tracking is fully supported. I have applied for a Gatineau subscription so hopefully I shall find out.

Live Spaces integration

I talked recently about how Microsoft will look to leverage the Windows Live ID in as many possible ways that they can think of. I see no reason why Gatineau metrics shouldn’t be made available to people with an active Live Spaces site. Its fair to assume that the percentage of Live Space users with an active Live ID will be significantly higher than for other sites and I would love to log onto my Spaces home page and instantly see a demographic breakdown of all my site visitors. That is definitely attainable with Gatineau so hopefully the Live Spaces guys are listening.

Leveraging SQL Server

Aside from the Gatineau features I am also very interested in the technology infrastructure that underpins it. Those that know me from prior to beginning this blog will know that I am a SQL Server pro by trade and specifically I deal in SQL Server’s BI technologies like SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) and SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS). When I saw the video it was immediately obvious to me (I hope I’m right) that SSAS is at the heart of Gatineau’s analytical prowess and I wouldn’t mind betting that SSIS is being used to do the heavy lifting of data behind the scenes. Once Gatineau has been going for a few months I wouldn’t mind seeing a case study produced that talks about the sort of data volumes they are pushing because if Gatineau picks up (which it will) those data volumes are going to be unfathomable. If the Gatineau team want a SSIS pro to come and help them manage that data then I’m ready and waiting ;).

The use of SSAS raises some interesting questions for myself and I’m sure for people like Chris Webb as well.

  • How much data have they got pushed through their cube?
  • What is the granularity of that data?
  • How many members are in the Gatineau customer dimension?
  • Actually, never mind Gatineau customers, how many members are in the browser dimension? Last I heard there were 450m active Live IDs although the video does state that the presented data is aggregated. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the data isn’t stored at the granularity of each individual browser though.
  • How do they ensure that Gatineau customers can only see their own data and no-one else’s?
  • What hierarchies are they building on browsers and on Gatineau customers?
  • How do they partition the data?
  • What’s the ratio of known browsers to unknown browsers? This will be an interesting indication of Live ID distribution.
  • Are they managing the browser dimension as a type 2 dimension? If they are then the data is going to explode even more.
  • What tweaks have been made to the SSAS engine to enable serving up huge data volumes like these? I have heard on the grapevine that some serious changes have been made to the SSAS engine purely because of the work going on in Microsoft AdCenter.

These questions might not interest most people reading this but to me they are fascinating. I’m going to keep digging until I find some answers.

In the video the guy from the Gatineau team talked about enabling customers to export data to CSV files. Hmm..well..yeah..that’s errr….BORING! If this data is stored in an Analysis Services cube then I want to fire up my favourite MDX client and start firing my own queries against it. Better still, let me download to a local cube file so that I can slice-and-dice it to my heart’s content.

Moreover, will Gatineau customers be given access to the raw logs that Gatineau collects? There will be a wealth of information in those logs that Gatineau simply won’t be able to present because they have to cater for all customers. Access to that raw data would be a wonderful proposition for customers; let me try and explain why. Imagine Amazon were a Gatineau user, here is a URI taken from a link on Amazon’s homepage:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000JO7PIM/ref=s9_asin_image_2/102-1270678-8696941?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-1&pf_rd_r=1XKJ8BEV5BDRHM99M3Z1&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=315507801&pf_rd_i=507846

There is an abundance of information in that URI that means a lot to Amazon (particularly after the ‘?’) but that Gatineau simply will not report because they don’t understand what the different parts of the URI mean. This may be Gatineau’s Achilles Heel.

 

I’m looking forward to using Gatineau and as an when I have more information about it I shall talk more about it here. if you want to know more check out the video linked to at the top of this blog entry and check out the blog of Ian Thomas at http://www.liesdamnedlies.com/. Ian is one of the main guys working on Gatineau and he gives the 411 on Gatineau here. if you want to understand just how significant Gatineau is to Microsoft’s Ad business (the answer is "incredibly so") then read Ian’s blog entry Welcome to the world of Microsoft APS.

-Jamie

UPDATE: I was contacted by Thierry D’Hers from the Analysis Services team today. He tells me that in fact Analysis Services is NOT being used by Gatineau but it will be in the future. So good and bad news then.

Written by Jamiet

October 23, 2007 at 3:31 am

Posted in Live Spaces

Photosynth goodness in Windows Live Photo Gallery

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With the recent news of support for uploading to Flickr Windows Live Photo Gallery is just getting better and better and better. Now check out this job posting which states:

We want to give you the ability to effortlessly share your memories, be that a simple slideshow of photos and videos (e.g. evolution of the Vista Slideshow or of Photo Story), a carefully authored experienced (evolution of Movie Maker), or a fully interactive cinematic multimedia experience (a narrated 3D path through a Photosynth that you can control).

Oh my word. Photosynth is coming to WL Photo Gallery. I want it. I want it NOW! Please, Michael, can you make sure I can share my Photosynth collections on Live Spaces? 🙂

Thanks to Long Zheng for the tip.

-Jamie

Written by Jamiet

October 21, 2007 at 10:30 pm

Posted in Live Photo Gallery

Live Events

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Live Events has been, well, live for a couple of weeks now. There was a lot of positive press about it when it was released but I wanted to give it a proper run for its money before I really made a judgement on its usefulness. So, I set up an event of my own for my fiance and I’s wedding which is happening next year and started to play around with its features.

First let’s look at the positive stuff.

Prior to Live Events getting released I was wondering how it was actually going to get delivered to us and was worried (and expecting) that it was going to be another brand new beta service that wouldn’t see the full light of day until a long time from now. I was pleasantly surprised upon discovering that in reality Live Events is built upon the established Live Spaces platform. This meant there was beta tag on it – great news. It also meant that all the features of spaces are (potentially) available to us on live events as well. More goodness. Third, it means that we can easily leverage our Live Contacts which is another infrastructural piece of Windows Live. Excellent stuff.

I like that I can send invites to my event to people who don’t have a Live ID of their own and that those people can still reply to the invite. (Note to my dearest, I’m not contemplating using this to send out all our "proper" wedding invites. Don’t worry!)

Integration with different calendar applications including none-Microsoft ones is commendable. I can only assume however that the lack of support for MSN Calendar (which I use a lot) is because support for Live Calendar is coming very soon. I hope so.

The ability to have guests upload pictures of their own is a fantastic idea and one that I hope my wedding guests will make use of after our wedding. Can guests upload videos as well? Not yet it seems – that would be cool too!

The ability to have a discussion board devoted to the event is a great idea. I see this being really useful for smaller ad-hoc events such as cinema trips or sporting events. On my event I’ve begun a thread asking people what music they’d like the DJ to play (no promises mind you).

My favourite feature though is that I can pick the URL to use for my event and even better, its http://myeventname.events.live.com rather than http://events.live.com/myeventname. This serves to make it look more professional, more like a dedicated site. Hopefully this will impress my less tech savvy friends and family that aren’t yet aware of what Microsoft is doing with Windows Live. This, along with the ability for our guests to upload their own photos, both made my fiance say "wow" and that’s gotta be good news 🙂

 

I can’t ignore the negative aspects of Live Events though. There are three main things that I find pretty annoying:

  • My main gripe (and its one that is true of the Live Spaces platform as a whole) is the thoroughly poor support for displaying maps. I remember that when http://celebrities.live.com was announced months and months ago (it seems to have disappeared now) I was impressed that the three celebrities (two of which I’d never heard of) had a gadget on their Live.com collections that displayed a live map collection. Try as I might I couldn’t find a gadget on the Live Gallery that did the same thing and to this day I still can’t find one. The map on Live Events at the moment only allows one marker and … well … that’s it. There’s not even any information displayed for the marker. This is nothing even close to the first-class experience on Live Maps  and that is very very disappointing.

Fundamentally I want to display directions to my wedding (the newly announced 1-click directions feature on Live Maps would be perfect for this) and at the moment I cannot do it. My wedding is next September guys, if you can give me this feature before then I would be very happy. I’d also like to be able to build a 3D tour video of driving directions although this is more of a problem for the Live Maps guys to sort out.

 

  • As far as I can discern it isn’t possible to change the photo that is displayed on the event details. Below is a shot of the event details from my event, I’d like to change the photo to one of my fiance and I. but I can’t.

image

  • Unless its passed me by there is no way to add new gadgets to your event from the Live gallery. For example, I wanted to add a countdown gadget that counts down to the day of our wedding and as you can see from the following screen shot there is no way to add the countdown gadget from the Live Gallery to an event:

image

 

OK, so those are my main complaints. I’ve a few other minor quibbles as well:

  • The links to "Create your own event" and "Subscribe to RSS feed" are hidden away in the tools menu. I’d rather that they were front and centre, especially ‘Create your own event’ because that’s what will allow Live Events to grow virally.
  • I’d like something similar to Live Spaces’ "What’s new" feed so that I can see exactly who’s been visiting my event site and what they’ve been doing.
  • When I create a new event it doesn’t show up on the "What’s new" feed on my friends’ What’s new feed. Why not? No reason why it shouldn’t do or even better, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have the option to have it show up there.
  • There doesn’t seem to be a way for people to subscribe to updates to my event via Live Alerts. I think there should be because not everyone uses RSS feeds, certainly I’m sure most of my friends and family don’t.

 

All in all I’m really very impressed with Live Events. One final thought, Techcrunch wrote an article all about this which you can read here. One commenter said:

"YAWNNNNNNNNNNNNN why in the world would people use that when there’s evite.com?!!??!!"

My response to that was:

The answers (for me and me only) are:
1) Before Live Events was released yesterday I’d never heard of eVite
2) I already have a username/password that gets me onto Live Events, why would I bother going and getting another one to enable me to do the same thing?

That second point sums up, in a nutshell, why I’m such a big fan of Windows Live.

-Jamie

Written by Jamiet

October 21, 2007 at 9:21 pm

Posted in Live Events

Microsofft Virtual World on its way

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A couple of weeks ago I remarked on whether Microsoft would enter the virtual world market. Today I found this blog entry which contained the following remarks from Dan Schappia, Microsoft’s General Manager for Strategy Entertainment and Devices Division:

Schiappa  looked at it as also a matter of scale that’s complicated by the multiple platforms. When it comes to what’s next, though, he explained that Microsoft is heavily involved in gaming as a virtual space, but also continuing to get involved more heavily in traditional virtual worlds. “Hopefully next year you’ll know why I’m here,” he said.

“I think from a Microsoft perspective, we’re still looking at how to marry the socialization with some entertainment,” he explained. “Until you hit scale where 20 of my friends of there, there has to be a reason for my friends to show up in the first place. This market is nascent, and there’s so much out there for us to digest. Our project is large scale for what we want to do across the entertainment medium.”

While browsing around I also came across this which seems to suggest that it’ll be centred around XBox. That would make a lot of sense as it would appeal to those who already interact using XBox Gamer card and in the future, Zune Social users as well.

-Jamie

 

Written by Jamiet

October 18, 2007 at 3:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What do I want from Windows Live?

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Rich Griffin, a colleague of mine at Conchango, is getting heavily involved in development upon the Windows Live Services platform and as such he will soon be sharing the stage with noted luminaries Scott Guthrie, Angus Logan and George Moore. He’s going to be talking about development on Windows Live and is actively soliciting feedback about where Microsoft should be taking Windows Live Services in the future. This weekend Rich and I met up in New York City and in between watching England overcome the French in the Rugby World Cup he asked me to collate my opinions about what Windows Live should do in the future and I’m happy to offer those opinions here.

Interoperability across Windows Live Services and other Microsoft offerings using Live ID

As I’ve alluded to many times the greatest asset Windows Live have going for them is the single sign-on offered by Windows Live ID and the 450million+ active Live IDs that are currently out in the wild. Microsoft are already leveraging the power of single sign-on to make their Live Services fairly cohesive but I want to see more. Here’s some ideas of ways in which Live ID to make different properties work better together (many of which I’ve mentioned before):

  • Hotmail and Windows Live Mail (i.e. the desktop mail client) should offer the ability to attach files from Skydrive or, even better, embed a link to a Skydrive-stored file. I’ve talked about this before.
  • Skydrive offers the ability to subscribe to the contents of a folder via RSS feed. That’s all well and good for those that use an RSS reader but as Robert Scoble pointed out recently, most people on the internet don’t. Hence I would like to see people being given the ability to subscribe using Live Alerts which is currently a woefully underused platform in the Windows Live landscape. Like it or not the world still runs on email, not RSS (and certainly not on walled-garden social networks).
  • Messenger should provide us the ability to send emails from our skydrive or, even better, embed links to them. This should supercede the current ‘Shared Folders’ feature within Messenger.
  • As I said very recently most activity committed using a Live ID should be viewable via the Live Spaces newsfeed. Furthermore there should be an API available that allows third-party offerings to publish activity to that newsfeed too (more on APIs later). It would be nice to see all this activity on a timeline overlaid on Windows Live Calendar when that finally arrives.
  • Change of status on Messenger should be reflected on Live Spaces too.
  • Geotagged photos should be viewable on a Live Map.
  • Whenever we build a search macro there should be a Live Agent automatically built that allows us to query that search macro from anywhere that we can converse with Live Agents. (N.B. Live Agents are sometimes known as messenger bots).
  • We should have the ability to interact with Live Agents via a gadget as well as Messenger.
  • We should be able to update all the information that Microsoft has about us using a Live Agent or a Vista Sidebar gadget. Why should I have to go to a web page to do it?
  • Skydrive should be browsable from a Spaces Gadget or Sidebar gadget.
  • Photo albums and MSN Video should be browsable from a Sidebar gadget.
  • Zune should have the ability to sync with photos on Live Spaces or videos on MSN Video.
  • Gadgets from the Live Gallery currently run on Vista Sidebar or Live Spaces. I’d like to see them run on a Zune as well. Zune gadgets if you will.
  • Zune should load content from Windows Media Center and vice versa.
  • An online custom word list for Office and other applications that use a dictionary via the F7 key. I’ve previously mentioned this here.
  • Preferences for Vista (or whatever follows it) should be stored in the cloud so that if I have multiple O/S instances I can make them all behave the same way. Windows Home Server may have a role to play here.
  • Most stuff viewable via Zune Social should also be available via my Live Space as well. e.g. I want to publish my most-listened-to list on Live Spaces.
  • If I’m watching a TV program or a film on Media Center I’d like that information to be made available on other Live properties such as Messenger. This is no different to Messenger having the ability to publish "What am I listening to now" via my messenger status.
  • Windows Live Photo Gallery should allow us to build HD View photos and Photosynth collections.
  • MSN Video should allow us to set more granular permissions on our personal videos than just "All" or "None". It should use Live Contacts.
  • All sign-ins done using Windows Live Sign-in Assistant
  • Share Listas lists with a subset of my contacts rather than "all-or-nothing".
  • List gadget on Live Spaces should use Listas lists
  • All activity using a Live ID should be audited centrally so that we can view all activity using our Live ID. This would help to identify if our live ID has been compromised.
  • Windows Live Photo Gallery currently enables us to easily upload to Live Spaces. I’d like to take that one step further – I’d like to automatically sync with photos on my Live Space.

Given time I could probably come up with a list twice as big as this. I think you get the idea though.

Interoperability with none-Microsoft offerings

Live Agents should be championed as an alternative to having to browse web pages. My internet activity mainly consists of searching, updating information about myself, blogging, reading news, reading blogs and communicating with friends. There’s no reason why all of that stuff (OK, probably not blogging) can’t be done via Live Agents. A conversation in Messenger is a lot more immediate and interactive than browsing the web and for those reasons would be preferable (for me anyway). Provided APIs are available there’s no reason why agents shouldn’t be built that allow me to purchase from Amazon, Expedia and all the rest. Similarly why not let me upload to Flickr, bid at an eBay auction, publish to Twitter (an agent already exists for this by the way), search Google and interact with a million and one other online services via Live Agents. If the APIs are there then all it takes is someone to build it. [As you’ve probably realised by now I happen to think that the Live Agent platform is woefully underused – its got massive potential.]

Other than that there are plenty of other ways that Windows Live properties can support other services. At the very minimum I would hope that Windows Live Photo Gallery will support other photo hosting sites such as Flickr. I want to be able to converse with users of instant messaging systems other than Live Messenger and Yahoo Messenger.

Developer support

The crux of supporting development on Live Services is in making APIs available. Basically anything that is possible via an HTML interface should also be available via an API. Preferably RESTful APIs.

  • All APIs should be built on an open standard, not a bastardised version of one that requires specialised code libraries.
  • Delegate access to all our live data. Moves are already being made in this area through the use of the Live Contacts API and similar. I’d like to see all data made available via APIs.
  • Popfly should give us the ability to build Zune gadgets (see above).
  • I’d like to see a workflow-based approach to building Live Agents. Perhaps Popfly could offer this at some point.
  • Give us a Skydrive API please

New Services

Building stuff that no-one has built before is what really captures the public’s information and Windows Live hasn’t got a great record in doing this; pretty much (but not quite) everything available now has been released at some point before by someone else. I’m a little bit lacking in ideas myself though. So what new services would I like to see?

  • Twitter has already cornered the market in answering "What am I doing now?". Nobody has yet answered "Where am I now?" though. GPS devices are beginning to proliferate so I hope to see a service like what I have described here sometime soon.
  • I’d like an Online RSS reader with offline syncing. And the offline stuff shouldn’t live in a web browser.
  • Live Calendar. nuff said.
  • A competitor to PayPal. A payment service that I can use with my Live ID would be fantastic. It’d have to go some to be as good as PayPal though.
  • I’m looking forward to seeing the rumoured Live Groups as an upgrade to MSN Groups. I expect that this will integrate heavily with Live Spaces.

 

I suspect that much of what I’ve talked about here is already in the works. Its pretty clear to me that the interoperability angle is where the Windows Live teams think their success is going to come from. As more services arrive that interoperate then in turn the existing services increase in value too.

Just for a bit of fun I’ve made everything on here available as a list on listas (RSS feed). The list is public so feel free to add any of your ideas up there as well as adding them as a comment to this blog entry. I will continue to add ideas to the list as and when I have them.

-Jamie

P.S. If you want to know more about Listas, go here.

Written by Jamiet

October 18, 2007 at 3:13 am

Posted in Windows Live

Live Maps 2.0 – Wow!

with one comment

In January of this year Steve Lombardi from the Virtual Earth team asked what would we like to see appearing in Virtual Earth/Live maps? Here were a couple of my suggestions:

  • Integrate with PhotoSynth. I look forward to the day when I can zoom into a building or town square and then seamlessly shift into a PhotoSynth representation of it.
  • Record my movements and let me play them back later
  • in order to build the "video" just let me draw a line on a 2D map and then VE can convert this into a 3D video "route" for me

Well today’s Live Maps release included nods to all of those and plenty more besides. Top of the list of new features for me are the ability to record a video of a 3D journey through points in a collection and Birds Eye layering on 3D maps. Let’s take those in turn.

A picture is worth a thousand words so they say so what price a video? Here’s a video I recorded today that shows all home stadium of each team in the English Premier League. Check it out:

I’m utterly blown away by this feature and have loads of ideas about how I am going to use this in the future. Here’s one idea – I’m currently in the midst of creating a Live Events page for my wedding next year and I’ll be embedding a video recorded from Live Maps that shows my guests how to get to the venue from the local airport.

 

The Birds Eye imagery within 3D maps is equally as impressive and here’s a video of that being used to look at the place I’m currently working in downtown Houston, Texas.

See the manner in which available images are displayed?  Seen that anywhere before?

For a longer (but not complete) list of all the improvements read the official announcement blog entry.

 

Me being me I’ve always got something to complain about so after playing with the new features for a couple of hours here’s a list of changes I’d like to see happen:

  • I’d like to see us given the ability to directly upload the 3D tour video to MSN Video
  • Collection markers don’t show up in the video. I’d like to have the option to have them included
  • Similarly in each collection that forms the basis of each video there is a lot more information than currently appears in the video (e.g. a photo). I’d like to be given the option to include that information in the video.
  • Why oh why can’t we save driving directions as a collection? If we could then we could easily reproduce driving directions as a video of the planned route.

I’ve got a few more ideas but that’s enough for now.

Great stuff.

-Jamie

Written by Jamiet

October 17, 2007 at 3:43 am

Posted in Live Maps