Rants & Raves

Strangers in a strange land

2007 21 National Day Tianamen 013

We just got our first taste of being strangers in Beijing, as we went to Tianamen Square on "National Day", which is the beginning of "Golden Week" holiday (all week off for most).  Beijing is flooded with out of towners, many of whom who have apparently not seen much of foreigners before.  The boys were very popular, as we had a dozen or so requests for taking their pictures with the locals.  Here in this picture you can see a very happy chinese guy holding carlos up for his friends to take a picture of them together.  The boys got a little sick of it after a while, but cristina and I thought it was really cute.  There was massive number of people out, probably close several hundred thousand in the square if i had to guess.  Click here for full pictures.

Rants & Raves

Roberto got his haircut!

Roberto got his hair cut this week, it looks very good!

2007 21 Meals on town 001 2007 21 Meals on town 002

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Meals meals meals!

We had a series of delightful meals, starting with the LAN Club with just the adults on friday night, where we feasted on exotic/elegantly prepared food amidst the bizarre decorations of this huge, and largely empty restaurant designed by famed french hipster Phillip Starck.  We ordered a australian lobster that was brought to our table live for inspection before preparation… i misread the menu so what I thought was a $!00 lobster turned out to be a $100 per 500g, or $300 when all said and done.  Fortunately it was indeed delicious, along with the other excellent food.  On Saturday we hit the korean bbq in the Lido neighborhood that cristina and I had visited back in June on our first visit to Beijing.  The kids (caetano in particular) were in no mood for a 90 minute sit down, even with the awesome decor and incredible visuals of over 50 different plates of yummy food placed in front of us.  The korean bbq is done on hot wooden coals, brought to your table, and various pork and beef cuts were prepared for us along with delicious pickled side dishes and salads.  Both restaurants must visits for any friends/family that come to visit… we are sure that Tio Joaco in particular will love both and we look forward to taking him.  Click here for full pictures.

Beijing couple Korean BBQ lunch

(click on the images to see them bigger!)

Rants & Raves

Twitter Updates for 2007-09-30

  • chowing korean bbq, trying to convince kids to eat new stuff #
  • haggling for sofas with hand signs, cristina tired, me flashing back to nuying rugs in the sahara! #
  • haggling for sofas with hand signs, cristina tired, me flashing back to buying rugs in the sahara! #
  • fried after 4 hrs of furniture shopping, bought two pieces for living room #

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Rants & Raves

Wo Xiexi Han Yu

Learning Mandarin. Our main motive for moving here.

In the Americas, you often hear Chinese immigrants speaking Cantonese.  China has several languages, but Mandarin is the official language, and spoken by over 800 million people. It’s the language with the most speakers! If you have seen art films from China, you have probably heard it. It has a lot of sh and rr sounds.

It’s hard, but I am really making an effort to learn. Once I got here, I started listening to lessons on my ipod, and now have a private teacher a few times a week.

Of course, the secret to learning a language is to go out there, practice, and make a fool of yourself as much as possible. I’m accomplishing this mission with zeal. Most Chinese don’t speak any English at all, but the younger generations all learn it in high school, and some take it really seriously. As part of the Olympic push, people gamely make an effort. This helps a lot, since I can speak only a few phrases and then I’m lost. Someone always seems to swoop in and save me.

My attempts at Mandarin are typically received with embarrassed chuckles, and more often profound confusion. Unlike other languages, you have to really nail the pronunciation to be understood. In Mandarin, I can finally get across “Do you speak English?” and by the time I warble out “I don’t speak Chinese” they usually get it. But I can ask for a coffee, water or beer. Forest can say “diet coke.” “Hello” and “thank you” are the phrases that all foreigners can say. “My name is…” comes out pretty easily for me now, and “where are you from” is one I’m working on. I liked learning the names of countries, and it helped when we were furniture shopping, when I asked where a table was from that we were looking at. The women understood, and when they answered Germany, I got it! (De Guo; America is Mei Guo).

I have been practicing a bit with our driver, and can politely ask to be taken somewhere, although my driver would rather I just get to the point. Forest finally got the words for left, right and straight under his belt. If you are not careful with how you say “driver” you will say something really obscene.

I can say he/we/ I like it or don’t like something. “I don’t know” is fun to say — “Wo bu ji dao,” but it sounds a lot like “you’re welcome” “—“bu ke gi” and excuse me — “dui bu qi.”

We had trouble ordering our sofa today. Seemingly basic vocabulary can be a real problem, such as asking “how many pillows are included.” It took awhile to first establish that Forest was talking about pillows (after one of the salesgirls made a joke about her flab). Then we found out where they were made, what they were made out of, how much they were in multiple fabrics, when they would be delivered, everything but how many came with the couch!

Luckily, we have a couple of people we can turn to for translation–mainly Forest’s co-workers, and the relocation agents. This week is China’s national holiday, and all those people will be on vacation. We’ll be doing lots of pantomime!


Rants & Raves

Furniture Shopping

Cristina and I spent all day yesterday shopping for furniture.  Our land-lady didn’t want to furnish the house herself, so she gave us allowance to do the shopping.  We’re on the lookout for 3 couches (one for basement entertainment room where we will build our projector based media center, one for the living room, and another for the children’s room-level play area).  Couches are nice, and about 30% of what they would cost in the US.  I personally fell in love with this dinning room set, german style design, has lots of space under it as it has no posts at the corners… it will go very nice in our wide open main level floor plan.

Our Dining Room Set Our House's Main Floor

Rants & Raves

Chicken Feet Eating Kids & Ultraman, Tokyo Airport

So i’m over in tokyo for a quick visit and had a blast looking at toys in this toy store that absolutely blows away anything in the US.  the density of toys, in a 6 floor structure, was astounding.  They had an entire section on Ultraman, which the kids are really into even though they have yet to see an episode.  Ultraman is a 30 year old tv show from japan with guys in rubber suits fighting monsters (godzilla style).  The show is rigorously formulaic (each episode follows a rigid strucutre of acts 1-3 with a very consistent ending: ultraman fitghts monster, ultraman starts to loose and his light flashes on his chest, ultraman whips out his power energy move and kills monster…).  It’s just like when the kids started loving spiderman, months ahead of ever seeing spiderman images… something about these toys/concepts is certainly very deep in our consciousness… in the same way that Cristina, Roberto, and myself are all hooked on Heroes tv show–the superhero fantasy is powerful.

At the airport coming home I took some time to play with some of my technology from work–put this video up directly on my blog using "silverlight" technology… to see it you’ll need to install Silverlight on your computer first (click here) but once installed it will work forever and I’ll be putting up more videos periodically.  You can of course also just see the videos on our phanfare site.

In other news today… we have lease worked out and should be moving into our new place next Saturday the 8th of oct.

Rants & Raves

Chicken Feet Eating Kids, from Tokyo Airport

So i’m over in tokyo for a quick visit and had a blast checking out all the Silverlight video stuff that is going on in this market; we have some amazing partners going live in the coming weeks/months.  Here at the airport killing time i thought I would try to post some Silverlight video of my kids eating Chicken Feet and Chicken Head at a tasty roadside restaurant in Beijing last week.  I was blown away at how easy it is with Expression Encoder.  I used a template that is good for blogs (has a huge PLAY button in the middle of the video on load of the page), and an add-in for Windows Live Writer created by james clark which makes brain-dead simple to instantiate a Silverlight application off of the Silverlight Streaming by Windows Live service.  With this free service you get 4gigs of free app hosting, that can be video or it could be a full app/RIA… the hosting is off of our microsoft CDN backbone, so the performance even here in tokyo is super slick.

Pretty sweet mr. james clark.. check out his blog for more on this magic.

Rants & Raves

Furniture & Politics

Went to look at furniture the other day. Thought it might be fun to invest in a pretty table that we could take back to the States. Saw some amazing hand-crafted pieces, very creatively designed and beautifully rendered. The saleslady mentioned that one I was admiring used wood made from Russia. Rather than seeing it as a selling point, I immediately became cognizant that anything I bought in the store might have some political implication, an environmental impact or infringement on human rights.

I asked about the table that I liked the most. Where did that wood come from?


I became familiar with Myanmar last year when I did a play that featured a biographical sketch on Aun Sung Suu Kyi, the courageous, self-sacrificing pro-democracy activist and nobel prize winner that has been under house arrest and intense personal suppression for her powerful yet peaceful opposition to the brutal military junta. The government did not recognize her victory in elections and murdered thousands of her unarmed supporters.

Then, right after my furniture shopping, news came out of Myanmar about the monks that were demonstrating against the government, triggered by a sudden 500% price hike on fuel. The story figures prominently in the news here, and it has gripped me as the number of protesters has swelled to tens of thousands. The monks hold rice bowls upside-down over their heads, symbolizing excommunication of the would-be benefactors in a government that reveres but represses them. The riot police are coming out, and observers are marveling that brutal action hasn’t been taken yet.

The news people now say that China must be exerting its influence on the country with no other "friends" in the world. China’s no beacon of democracy, but the Olympics are driving this country to put their best face before the world. We’ll see in the next couple of days what will happen.

Meanwhile, I’ll pray for the monks. I’ll not buy any of those tables. I’ll think about where my furniture comes from. While this may cause delay, inconvenience and extra expense, I have to heed Aung San’s example. She said "To live the full live, one must have the courage to bear the responsibility of the needs of others. One must want to bear this responsibility."

Where am I going to buy a table? I’m in China, for God’s sake. But it’s not like I’m putting my life on the line marching for freedom.


Rants & Raves

Change of Season

I hope everyone is enjoying the change in season.

This week is the Full Moon festival, celebrating the fall harvest.

The main way of celebrating is to eat "moon cakes" which are big thick sweets in the shape of the full moon. They come in a big fancy set of 8 or 9 and Forest received a couple of boxes as gifts. Next week is "Golden Week" and everyone gets vacation.

The weather is nice and warm without being sticky and hot. Last week we enjoyed beautiful clear blue skies after some rain. Now the smog is back, but we are still loving the weather and all the fun this city has to offer and doing lots of exploring.

Our temporary apartment that we have lived in for 2 weeks is right in the city, and there’s lots to do within walking distance. There’s a fun bar and restaurant street near the embassy district where Forest and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary. At the end of that block is "the" expat bookstore/cafe hangout.

Across the big busy street is a super cool park with a lake. The boys caught some goldfish there and they are still alive after one week!

The fish, that is. This weekend we took a boat ride and a stroll

On Sunday we started the day off with a friend from SF, Ann Williams, who was finishing business in China before taking a year off to be a FT mommy. She took us to an open air market that was amazing. It had everything: old cameras, brass buddhas, turquoise and coral in bulk, antique tibetan textiles, traditional blue and white china tableware. I got to bargain for some Russian nesting dolls painted like pandas that Carlos fell in love with. It’s awful hard to wheel and deal with a kid around, whose heart starts breaking when you pretend to walk away from the toy he has his heart set on, all so you can get a better deal. But she knocked the price from 150 RMB to 50, which was probably still too much but good enough for me.

Everywhere we go people are so charmed by Carlos and Caetano. They try to goose their little arms. Men and women both have such friendly smiles for them. They get the Chinese word for "pretty" a lot. "Pretty" wild if you ask me.

Rants & Raves

Eating Chicken Heads

One of the things cristina and I are enjoying tremendously is being observers as the boys seamlessly adjust to being kids in China.  The best example of this to date was how they both dived in and devoured bizarre (but surely tasty) bits of chicken (including feet, neck, head, etc.) when we sat down for lunch during our countryside outings to the great wall last weekend.  It was delightful and horrifying all at once to see them fighting over the chicken head.

  • Carlos: "caetano, don’t eat it all, save some for me"
  • Caetano: "uhmm, chicken head is yummy"
  • Carlos: "noooooo, save some for me"
  • Caetano: "one more bite then i’ll give some to you!"
  • Carlos: "noooo!!!"

While for cristina and I the experience of new food, new language, non-verbal and verbal communication, etc. all around us is sometimes shocking and new, for the boys it all must seem just "new", in the same way that trying so many things back home was also new each and every day in the life of a 4/6 year old.  That said, the new food experience for the adults is pretty off-the-charts amazing as well… in the last week we’ve had duck intestine, duck tongues, jellyfish, various spicy noodle dishes with flavors we’ve never tasted before, new fruits and vegetables… and that’s just the stuff we could identify–there are many dishes that we simply must characterize as "Chinese mystery dish"

Food feast

This weekend we took the boys to the Chaoyang park (biggest park in Asia) where we rode various amusement park type rides, and the next day went to the flea-market which was a hoot because we got to see all kinds of cool trinkets we’ll want to shop for when we move into our house and need to decorate with the local flare (click here for the photos).  We also got the boys their first local haircuts, was really funny to see all the attention they got from the staff at the salon, which had probably not cut little american boys’ hair before.  We got a cute picture of the boys with their barbers.

Chicken Head Hair Cuts

(Click on the images to see them bigger)

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Ok, Got the Blog Under Control

My IT travails continue in China.  First I spent over a week messing around with the cell phones in order to get Cristina and my cells to both work and read/write email.  Then I spent the last week goofing with this blog software to get it working adequately.  The good news is we are now set up and we should be able to start actually communicating with everyone–i know folks back home are wondering what the heck we are up to… stay tuned for more regular updates!

At the great wall

(Click on the image to see it bigger)

Rants & Raves

First Week Update

WHEW…what a long week! it feels like we have been here for 3 weeks, we have gotten so much accomplished. After looking for a house and finding our way around and picking up some phrases in Mandarin and getting the boys situated in school, I feel a bit pooped already!

But it’s all good.

The boys love school. It is a beautiful place full of new discoveries every day. They are so excited when I drop them off and happy when I pick them up. What a relief. Carlos has Mandarin class every day and was proud of himself when he wrote numbers in Chinese characters. He gets to pick his own food in the cafeteria which makes him feel so grown up. Caetano has explored the various playgrounds on campus and today showed Carlos and me his favorite

spot– a little garden labyrinth with a giant chessboard in the middle. He’s doing art and learning lots of fun little things every day about the natural world.

Roberto and I have explored the neighborhood a bit more. Our relocation specialist included him on a BIG night on the town Saturday with a huge group of people, starting with dinner and moving on to drinks and then dancing at a huge club. He was out til 4:30 and it sounded like a great time!

I finally learned the ropes at the supermarket and have learned to elbow my way to the front of the line with the toughest of Chinese ladies to get the produce person to weigh my fruits and veggies.

Once I had to actually cut in front of an out of town Chinese guy (I’m guessing he was from a small town or something since he was as clueless as I was). I felt so bad, but if I had waited for him I never would have gotten out of there.

Shopping for food is a little scary because apart from produce, you really don’t know exactly what you are getting since you can’t read the ingredients! Not to mention it is hard to trust Chinese food makers given the track record lately. We cook a lot of noodle and rice dishes with veggies. But when we go out to eat, MAN is it good!!!! We had another amazing round of dim sum the other day, and we then we went to a funky food place on the way home from the Great Wall. It was a pretty country road full of pick-your-own-fruit farms and nut vendors. Talk about trust…I used my Chinese phrasebook and our driver to help us order a few things and we had a typical "Beijing" meal, including fresh tomatoes and also big fat noodles cooked with tomatoes and eggs, pan fried tortilla type things, chicken neck and other random parts. It was great.

Every few days it pours rain and today it is quite clear. You can actually see beyond a few blocks today.

Last night Forest and I did some haggling at a high-tech merchandise bazaar.

Hope you all are doing well!!!! Please write back and stay in touch.

Cristina and the guys

Rants & Raves

China, my new home

It’s funny, this blog started off with my visit to China earlier this year, and here I am making my first update in a belated long summer, back in China, but this time, as a resident alien!  My family and I just moved here, we are living in "the most important city in the world" (as some are calling it)–Beijing.  I’m joining the team over here to help out with the Microsoft UX business.  I’ll be living in China but working with Korea, Japan, India, Australia, and other geographies in the region–there is so much vibrancy to the cultures, the business community, and of course, for the internet and web business.

This summer summarized in 1 paragraph = shipping Silverlight 1.0 was a blast, and the momentum in the market is awesome… we’ve got amazing partners lining up worldwide, and i’m really psyched to be over here in Asia where 40%+ of broadband connections exist and the growth and excitement in the market is second to none.  Going to be fun! 

Here’s a picture of me and the kids eating our first of many dim sum meals in town–my 6 year old said "this dim sum is like 10x better than Seattle’s", and he is of course underplaying the divide!  Oh-my-god, the "chinese" food back home is indeed a different beast completely from what we’ve enjoyed here in just our first week.  I’m taking pictures of all the food we eat, plan on making a Silverlight widget of "food forest has eaten in china" for one of my killer demos some day!

PS: Using Windows Live Writer new beta–at last, red squiggly lines for misspelled words–ahh, technology is wonderful! 

Rants & Raves

What are we doing in China?

Ok, this needs some description as many of our friends and relatives don’t even know that we are living in china, much less WHY we are in China and how!?!

Our family had been planning to move overseas to Spain this year, that having been our family goal for many years now, with the intention of our boys being exposed to spanish and experiencing a foreign culture at a young age–in some ways replicating the formative years that I had myself back in Zapallar/Chile at the age of 6-11.  I had surfaced the idea of working in Spain with my managers at Microsoft, and while they were generally supportive, it was clear that moving to spain was a bit "random" for my career and for the business and team that i’ve been a part of my 3+ years at Microsoft.

I visited China in Feb 2007 for the first time, and on the trip I was just blown away/amazed by the country, the people, and the excitement in the business community around my product area (rich user experiences in software, both for Windows and the web).  About April of this year I started thinking–"what if we moved to China instead of Spain"?  I floated the idea by Cristina more as a joke than anything else, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when her eyes lit up and she said "YEAH!" site unseen (she had not yet been to china or anywhere in asia a that point!)

Over the summer I started vetting the idea at work and figuring out what role/opportunity there was for me to drive for the company in the region–the idea being that whilst we live in Beijing, i’m really over here to work on the market for my products in Japan/Korea as well as China.  Living in China makes sense because of the size of the market here (there are more internet users here than anywhere else in the world!) and as a family experience we really want the kids to learn Mandarin and be a part of this amazing country and people at this amazing time in its history.

So, starting in August Cristina and the kids moved out of the house in Seattle, i spent the month packing up the house (most stuff into storage, some things flying or boating their way over here to China, house is on the market (see the real estate listing and photos here)) while the crew went to California for some vacation time with grandparents.  We then met up in San Francisco and boarded our flight to Beijing, and have been over here since September 8th.  We will be here for at least 2 years (on contract with msft) and don’t really know or need to know what happens beyond that!

So…. that’s the brief version of why and how…

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

Surface… Minority Report type UX, today…

Wow, i can’t believe it has been over a month since I chimed in to this blog.  I had imagined the post vegas/Mix07 timeframe to be a really prolific one in terms of blogging, as there is so much joy/information to share given our announcements re: Silverlight, Expression, etc. et. all.  My excuses for my silence include, let’s see, (a) being completely wiped out emotionally and physically from the strain of the launch activities, (b) being completely wiped out emotionally and physically from the strain of the launch activities, and (c) oh yeah, as if that wasn’t enough, my whole family and I got chicken pox–guess when my mother said "i don’t remember" when I asked her if i had had it as a kid…

Alas, now feeling recovered physically and emotionally, high time to share some of the good vibes on Silverlight and Expression.  Anecdotes from the pac-nor-west  (pacific northwest, as we Seattle residents refer to the general area of the USA where we live) are well past due… Silverlight 1.0 beta and 1.1 alpha downloads and community feedback have been incredible.  The Silverlight community site and the Mix site have the current demo/sample repository, which we’ll be expanding dramatically in volume over the coming months… Expression shipping… after 3 years of installing weekly builds of these products (during the development of tools like these, there’s usually a new build every day, but the install/uninstall process is lengthy so on average I would upgrade to a newer version once a week)–it’s almost surreal to just be able to Start – Expression – and pick from Design/Blend/Web/Media.

But the thing that ironically i’m most excited to be able to talk about now is actually the recently announced Microsoft Surface!  Surface has been my secret inspiration for the past 2 years, ever since I first saw and played with the demo, i’ve been telling friends and colleagues in the UX space that "we are working on some really incredible/sci-fi like stuff" and it has been frustrating to not be able to show/talk about it.  You see, my stump-speech pitch about "the business opportunity of user experience" is predicated on the "transformational" possibilities that come into play when designers and developers can work together to build rich, compelling, highly usable, habit transforming applications that change the way we approach computing/tasks.  To illustrate just how far UX might go, i always allude to the "Minority Report" concepts that were seen in the Steven Spielberg film… super rich visualizations, very gesture based/tactile interfaces, highly integrated environments that appear logically on walls/tables/cereal-boxes/etc–in effect "surfaces" become the user interface to all kinds of experiences, from highly targeted ads, to media consumption, and all manner of work related apps.

Well, Microsoft Surface is built using the platform and tools that I market, namely, the Windows Presentation Foundation is the underpinnings of the entire UI–providing rich media, 3d, animation, and hardware based rendering for highly interactive/immersive experiences.  In this regard, the Surface is the best example of what is possible from a "future UX" conceptual perspective… and now that the project is public we’ll be able to use/demo the Surface and some of its applications as "reach" inspiration for what Designers and Developers can strive for with Expression/Visual Studio and the .NET Framework.

I’ll get some photos/video together to show what I mean… check out the videos on the Surface website as a starting point…

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

Silverlight is a better name than “WPF/E”?

I’m in vegas!, and together with some colleagues I had the incredible experience of seeing Prince perform last night at the Rio Casino’s 3121 club.  Prince has definitely still got "it"–incredible presence, virtuouso guitar, and time perfected master showman skills that make everyone have a great time when he is in da house.  As I was contemplating at the end of the show, gazing at the spinning "symbol" that he famously changed his name to, I was reminded of my excitement at our "WPF/E"’s technology’s soon to be new identity.

Yes, the "technology formerly known as" WPF/E can now be known as Microsoft Silverlight

Ok, so the heckling can end (which was well deserved for the WPFE loveliness), as Silverlight is a great brand for this technology–it suggests the attributes of better, richer, more compelling, more productive and satisfying web experiences.  We had a lot of fun testing the name (and the runner ups, none of which were called "Microsoft Media Player", by the way…) and hearing from end user consumers, as well as designers and developers.  What struck me over and over and over again, and has for three years now since my arrival at msft, is how engaged and eager the community is to learn of Microsoft’s entry into this part of the market… it’s going to be a lot easier to have a conversation about Silverlight then it was for "wa-pu-fee" (as we often annunciated the former name).

We are going from a crappy code name to a great product name… but as with the 1980s auteur from Minnesotta, the name is not the real issue.  Silverlight will be measured by how it tranforms the experiences of consumers and businesses in the years ahead, and by the creative and technical capabilities that it puts in the hands of designers and developers.

I’ll be blogging a lot more about Silverlight, this week about Silverlight and it’s very cool features for cost-effective, high quality deliver of media… and in the weeks ahead leading up to our Mix event April 30th and beyond about the broader development story, tooling, and more

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

My head is going to explode, and my toes hurt!

First my toes–I ran the LA marathon this last weekend.  It was an absolutely amazing, horrible, and wonderous experience all at once.  I have never run a marathon, but have come close to several times in the past–done the training, gotten into shape, but then fallen ill at the last minute and missing the race.  This time I made the race, was fit and charged, but boy did the experience work out very very differently than I expected.  One word — HEAT.  I’ve been training in my hometown of Seattle, where the temperature in the winter is in the low 40s, high hummidity, and overcast pretty much every day.  In January and February I did 6 x 18+ mile runs on the weekends, and while I always hit the "wall" (dark place emotionally, where you start to really go to a negative world where all you want to do is stop running and lay down to die), it was consistently in the 18-21 mile corridor, expected and very much a part of the marathon running lore.

Alas, Sunday race day in LA, i get to mile 14, just past the half-way-mark, and low and behold I’m  starring at a wall unlike any i had ever seen in training–one brought on by severe heat on the course, a balmy 80 degrees in the midst of the concrete jungle that is downtown Los Angeles.  Thus began 2+ hours of absolute shear hell… which culminated in finishing the race in a state of euphroria, with a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and now, a few days later, i’m already starting to get excited about running another marathon–perhaps New York City or Paris, just as soon as my frickin toes stop throbbing! 

Which brings me to my head… which is feeling like it is ready to explode.  At work we are running a different marathon of sorts.  You see, I’ve been at msft for 3 years now, and the course I’ve been on is rapidly approaching a finish line.  The amazing platform and tools that I’ve been working on–WPF, "WPF/E", Expression Studio, various features of Visual Studio related to WPF+/E, are all rapidly approaching the proverbial product finish line.  At this years Mix event, in Las Vegas April 30th, we will be delivering a hole helluva lot of product and news about our platform vision in the area of UX (user experience)… only problem is that we’re at "mile 21" and instead of my toes hurting, my HEAD HURTS from the crazy amount of work we are trying to get done.  My colleagues on the product management and I are already working the insane hours that usually come in the 1-2 weeks before a big event–but we have 7 weeks to go!  That’s the bad news.

Alas, the good news: the finish line is in site.  Mix, Las Vegas, April 30… just 7 weeks to go 🙂

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

Behind the Scenes Part 3- The Studio

So what exactly goes into the thinking behind a creative suite of tools?  While the “office” suite of products is a well understood concept, there is less of a track record in creating conglomerations of tools for designers that really make sense.  Within many creative disciplines there is a tremendous focus on specific skillsets or mediums.  As a video editor myself back in the mid nineties, I had a need for motion graphics and titling software, but not sound sweetening.  Colleagues of mine who focus on “web design” may or may not have a need for a interactive tool like Flash, as they may focus on standards based site designs with PHP/ASP.NET and raw HTML/CSS on the client.  For that matter, to be honest, as a Office user myself, I increasingly find myself just using Powerpoint and Outlook…  Word and Excel are much more specialized than anything I need on a regular basis.  When we were putting together our plans for Expression Studio, we had many conversations about whether we were building individual products to solve the specific needs of a web or Windows medium, or, a solution/suite that would really be the primary solution for a discipline of design that was much less focused on technology, and much more focused on craft (hmm, in speaking of it in such terms I think I’m glorifying our approach before I’ve explained our decision—oh well).

With Expression Blend and Web we have (effectively) two WYSIWIG tools (Web is a “standards” XHTML tool, Blend a “XAML designer”).  In some ways these two pieces of the studio might thus stand on their own, as the desire to build a XAML interface vs. a XHTML site are today somewhat silo-ed entities.  But if you look at some of the killer “Windows” and “Web” apps that are emerging, particularly in the last year, it is clear that the dividing line between a web/windows app is an increasingly meaningless distinction.  The best Windows apps today incorporate the power of the network and “cloud”, while taking full advantage of the desktop hardware, local storage, connectivity to hardware devices, and a variety of presentation contexts (such as the living room, desktop, or notebook on the road) for optimal end user experience. Similarly, the best “Web” apps today increasingly offer richer, less-latent, more productive experiences—hereto not expected in a “browser”.  Microsoft’s many platform investments, in web and media servers, client and server scripting, and SDKs/APIs for both Windows and ubiquitous browser based runtimes, likewise break down the traditional notion of web vs Windows.  

For Expression Studio v1 we will deliver Blend, Web, Design, and Media—four products with varying degrees of direct integration.  Design and Blend are particularly well integrated, sharing a common UI, and a coupled XAML workflow that really focuses on the staged process of taking “visual design” elements and applying them to interactive interface elements/controls/layout.  Web sits a little astride for now, with a focus on XHTML and ASP.NET website development, while Media is a pure workflow play, offering a kick-ass asset management solution (note: I’ve been a fan of iView Media Pro, the product we acquired in June 2006 explicitly to bring into the Expression Studio; I first started using MediaPro back in 2000, and today have over 30,000 images/files in my catalogs that I keep track of using the tool).  As the “WPF/E” technology comes to market, the natural need for XAML markup will extend across all of the products in the family, forming a common lingua franca for describing the look and behavior of everything from a Windows application control to a interactive video website that runs perfectly on a Mac OS browser such as Safari.

Our vision is that in the same sense that other creative tool suites have focused on Desktop Publishing and Photography, or Apple’s FCP as an all things video/media… the Expression Studio will be an integrated solution of tools for crafting the best User Experiences—whether those be for Windows, the Web, or beyond…  This is very much a still emerging market segment, one that we expect will grow rapidly in the years ahead as the creative designers and developers in the space usher in a new era of rich, compelling experiences for computers, devices, and other “surfaces” (on walls and floors, among others!

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

Behind the scenes Part 2 – UI

Ahh, what a nice winter break.  So nice in fact that I haven’t posted  the following which I wrote while skiing in Whistler (gorgeous, recommend to anyone who hasn’t been.  Great snow, nice people, and it’s oh-so close to seattle…)

What role does UI play in pro creative tools?

I first started with professional creative tools back in 1986 when I was using all the early era Mac graphics packages; Hypercard, Macromind’s VideoWorks, Pagemaker, and the first crop of digital photo tools such as Digital Darkroom.  I pulled up a screen shot of VideoWorks just now, and it’s actually shocking how little things have changed — core elements of interactive design and animation are there, as they are today–transport controls, the stage, tools for direct drawing, timeline and keyframes, and the resource library full of "actors".  There have clearly been great improvements in the usability of creative pro tools, as well evolving aesthetics in terms of the “chrome” of the interfaces… but it has really been in the much more recent years that the really interesting innovation has come, and I believe that the next 5 years will be more radical still, with amazing evolutions and advancements in UI, driven by new platforms/tools for building UI, and more importantly by a new generation of designers and advancements in the craft.

When I arrived at msft to join the Expression team one of the first things that I took up as a personal ambition for the product was to *radically* rethink the way the product looked, not to mention the way it worked (usability and workflow).  At Siggraph mid-year that first year (2004) I and many others were awed to see Apple’s new Motion product, which sported a radically new and different interface that departed from the traditional Final Cut Pro interface and Adobe After Effects look/feel/behavior.  I and others were so bowled over by the look, that it was lost on us that the tool was actually very much a v1 and not quite ready for primetime… several of my friends in production confessed to me within weeks that “yeah, it looks pretty good, but you can’t actually do anything with it yet”.  I think Apple repeated this mistake in an even bigger way with Aperture 1.0, which was so embarrassingly bad that I and other early adopters actually got a $200 store credit when they lowered the price just a few months later and rushed 1.5 to market—could there ever be a bigger mia-culpa for a 1.0 product?  The lesson to me as a marketer was two-fold: the obvious = good looking innovative UI is something that can immediately set a product apart from a crowded and iterative set of knock-offs within traditional tool segments, and more importantly, you better back up that new UI with some pretty compelling and useful capabilities… because when you fall on chrome-sex appeal you fall *hard*.  I’ve personally been very disappointed with several tools in this regard, initially with Softimage’s DS – equally amazing, if not the most amazing looking thing I’ve seen in a new 1.0 –, and more recently with Motion and Aperture—they all demoed great, but I put them away after a few hours of experimentation and haven’t gone back to them (I hear DS is now excellent, many versions later, and I’m sure Apple will keep at it and bring the motion graphics and digital photo tools to bare on Adobe’s position in those categories).  Alias’ Maya, on the other hand, nailed it all in V1—great UI innovation, with a revolutionary product; wow, what a 1.0!.  So, for Expression, specifically the Blend product (at the time code-named “sparkle”) the question was how to really pack in some gorgeous visuals and to have those drive the actual usability and customer success with the product.  I’ll let our customers tell us how we did as far as the results—but I thought I’d share how we did it from a development perspective.

Building the UI of our UI design products

Alas, for the Blend team we had one incredible rocky and complicated development challenge that I don’t think many products have faced, certainly not to this degree.  Expression Blend is a tool for designing WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) based applications, which itself is built using WPF.  In this regard, Blend is the most existential app that I know of.. each change to WPF platform required iterative changes to the app itself, from a UI and behavioral perspective, as well as to the functional capabilities.  It would be as if Flash was actually built on the Flash player, or DVD Studio Pro was a DVD player based tool … it’s patently absurd to suggest such a thing of other tools, but in our case, they had to build using the tool/platform that was still being built.  This led to incredibly difficult development challenges, where every week we had massive breaking changes and as the WPF project iterated through different templating, styling, animation, etc. models the entire Blend app would blow up and need massive re-working.  Amidst this relative chaos, how could we really push the envelope on the interface of the tool itself?  The answer was, we couldn’t!  If you looked at Expression Blend in March of 2006, you saw a generic looking app with some massive usability problems.  I dare say, I for one, thought it was a real stinker, and several former colleagues at Macromedia took great relish in pointing that out to me politely whenever I saw them.  This wasn’t lost to anyone on the team—we just couldn’t pull back and focus on that area because there was literally too much going on at the platform level that had to be addressed first.  Fast forward less than 6 months and look at the app we put out in Beta Dec 2006 (effectively only 3-4 months of actual development work, given the testing and locking down that occurred before Beta), it’s really amazing what transpired.  Huge improvements to usability/utility, and a completely new look feel that goes beyond simple color palette changes, and includes new controls/modalities that we didn’t have at our disposal just weeks earlier.  The reason this was possible was because of the nature of WPF—and speaks to the very core promise of the platform. 

Unlike traditional applications where the way a control looks, behaves, and functions are inexorably intertwined in the code that makes up the control… with WPF these concepts are separated and therefore independently editable and just as importantly iterate-able.  A team of “visual designers’ went to work on a series of mood studies and layouts for the interface, which a separate team of interactive designers ingested and applied the concepts to the interface using XAML. In traditional software UI development the next step would be for the designs to be handed off as Photoshop files or flattened PNGs, nay maybe even just a piece of paper!, and a team of developers would begin scratching their heads thinking of how to recreate those visuals using code and user drawn controls.  Not in our case.  Manuel Clement, the Blend product’s first designer, had this demo he would do internally to other msft teams that would absolutely bowl everyone over where he’d actually use an alpha version of the software to make changes to the interface controls that made up the app itself, then he’d check in his changes, rebuild, and voila—“Sparkle Eats Sparkle as he called it.. the ultimate existentialist demo, where a Blend was used to design Blend itself.  It would be nice if we could have really built the entire UI that way—but the truth is that the rapid changes in the platform and the tools always kept the working solution just beyond our reach except for a few scenarios where we got lucky; for the majority of the work we used Expression Design to design the visuals and generate XAML code, but the actual implementation into our UI set required a lot more manual work than we would have liked.  Still—we were using XAML code from end-to-end, and the inherent power of the WPF platform to fully customize the look/behavior without impacting the functionality.  Samuel Wan, a wicked Flash designer/developer and the Program Manager that did much of the actual implementation of the UI designs created by Aaron Jasinksi (visual designer) was able to work with the XAML UI, using Blend features that were working and manually when not, to rapidly implement the designs.  The speed with which the results took shape were amazing—with daily builds in august showing incredible advances each morning at 8:30 as I eagerly arrived to see what wonders the team had accomplished in the last 24 hours.  It reminded me of my days at Industrial Light and Magic, where each morning I looked forward to “dailies” (viewings of the previous day’s work on the film shots we were cooking up)—“Blend UI Dailies” if you will.  Feedback from beta customers has been very positive, particularly from our Windows Vista ISVs who had been using the product for over a year and were delighted to see their feedback incorporated into the new build(s). 

The best part is that now that we have Expression Blend almost finished, we can increasingly use the tool itself as we design the rest of the product family’s UI and iterate on our next releases coming down the pipe.  I’ve been on numerous projects in the past where the idea of changing anything remotely as complex as what we were able to do with Blend v1 would have been an entire product cycle unto itself… the fact that we were able to ship a solid 1.0 product, with tons of usability innovations and a significant breadth of functional capabilities, plus a innovative and modern look/feel… wow, it bodes very well for software design/development in the years ahead and is harbinger of the many exciting innovations that we will be seeing very soon from the ISV community building WPF apps for Windiows.  As we bring “WPFE” to market this year we will aim to bring similar capabilities to the design-development process for rich web applications and beyond… a cornerstone of our vision for the Expression family of tools.