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Making Microsoft Human

Russell Shaw
Making Microsoft Human Russell Shaw

When software and platform application developers have wanted to share information with each other, they have relied on mailing lists and -- before the spam pandemic made the medium next to useless -- Usenet newsgroups.

And when these same developers wanted to obtain answers from the company whose applications they were writing code for, they relied on email exchanges, plus occasionally fruitful Knowledge Base and FAQ searches.

Now, add another communications medium to the developer arsenal: blogs maintained as a developer-relations and communications tool by software and platform companies.

Microsoft leads the way

The MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) Channel 9 blog is a leading example of this trend. Launched in March, 2004, MSDN Channel 9 is a rather freewheeling environment run, according to the site's mission statement, by "five guys at Microsoft who want a new level of communication between Microsoft and developers." MSDN Channel 9 offers free registration and carries no advertising.

Led by Microsoft Director of Platform Evangelism Lenn Pryor, these "five guys" post text and streaming video updates, answer questions, and both launch and respond to threaded discussions from more than 10,300 independent Microsoft application developers, consultants and OEM representatives who have registered as MSDN Channel 9 members.

Some of the current discussions and threads feature input and feedback about Microsoft's Portable Media Center, the latest development-related news for the company's MSN Direct smart watches, the applicability of the C++ programming language to .Net game development, and the outlook for cool, upcoming Tablet PC software.

A supplemental source

Pryor does not view Channel 9 as a substitute for more traditional means of communication with independent developers, but a supplementary, somewhat informal communications tool.

"Blogs from Microsoft employees and Channel 9 are not primary resources for delivering product information to our customers, and were never intended to be," Pryor says emphatically. "Microsoft.com has all of the detailed and organized product information and technical information. The bloggers supplement this information with their own thoughts, editorial, ideas, experiences, etc."

Pryor says he views the role of Channel 9 as bringing viewers short, informal and topical videos on a daily basis without the intent of being a source for deep product information.

"Often we see customers posting comments and questions on blogs and forums to get questions answered that they could not find answers to on the Microsoft.com sites," he says. "The two models balance each other out nicely."

Prominent developer community figure Chris Maunder agrees. Maunder is co-founder and editor of The Code Project, an international, online community of more than 1,300,000 coders and developers.

"Developers are (usually) a smart bunch and if they are going to discuss technology they usually want to know as much about it as possible. I would imagine developers would use this resource to get teasers on topics they feel might interest them," says Maunder, whose own background includes developmental work with Microsoft Visual C++, MFC, ASP, ASP.NET and FORTRAN.

"If the presentation was informative then there'd be further investigation within that developer's usual source of .NET information," adds Toronto-based Maunder.

Channel 9's Pryor likens Channel 9 to the type of direct communication Microsoft has long been providing through a range of vehicles and venues -- be it speaking on a one-to-one basis with customers at user group meetings, attending and speaking at key industry and Microsoft events such as the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) or by connecting with the online community through newsgroups.

"We see blogging as a great opportunity for direct and deep two-way conversations with the online community," says Pryor. "We get important, real-time feedback on our products, and customers get greater insight to what is going on with key technologies inside the company, which helps them plan their business and continue to be successful."

What marketers can learn from this

Phillip Winn, technical administrator for the Blogcritics.org, an amalgamation of 500 blogs on all sorts of subjects, views this form of developer communication as both innovative and necessary in today's spam-ridden environment.

"There are several reasons blogs are overtaking other ways of exchanging technical information: spam is ruining email, and knowledge-base entries are too formal and take too long to create," he says. "Web logs hit the sweet-spot: They give a personal voice to these issues, they are so easy to use that things are blogged that might not otherwise be recorded anywhere, and they are archived forever for anyone to find."

And the streaming video? Pryor says Channel 9 uses the blogging format with video instead of just text to provide another level of communication on top of what developers get through text-only blogs.

"Video adds another dimension to communication that I think is especially valuable to people -- faces, voices, gestures," says Pryor. So much of how a person communicates is lost in text. You have no idea if they are speaking passionately, if their face lights up when describing something or if they are being sarcastic. This meta information we give off in face-to-face interactions with each other lets us understand the personality of the person."

Pryor says those visual and audio clips on MSDN Channel 9 "bring that very human aspect to the blogging world and make the already informal communication that much more comfortable."

While The Code Project's Maunder thinks developer-centric blogs such as MSDN Channel 9 are useful, he envisions limits to how practical highly conversational, rich media-enabled online resources such as MSDN Channel 9 can be.

"Watching a person talk about a topic gives you a feel for their motivation, for the parts that are important to them and what they feel should be important to you," he says. "A blog is a great way to find out what a person is thinking or working on at a particular moment in time, but its structure isn't that of a reference site where the information you need can be found easily, searched, ranked and updated in a consistent and clean manner. Reference sites give you information (while) blogs give that information a subjective first-person perspective."

Doug Seven, co-founder and senior consultant of DotNetJunkies.com, an online community of developers using the Microsoft .NET framework, sees utility in the use of blogs for, and by, people in his field.

"Developers now see blogs as a means to get straight and truthful information directly from credible sources -- with the ability to provide feedback," he says.

If only for the virtue of the first-person perspective, Winn of Blogcritics.org also envisions growth in the developer Blogosphere.

"Web logs will continue to grow in nearly every area, but Web logs for developers seem an especially natural fit," he says.

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