Mix 06: cynically monetising the web

I’ve got to admit to being a bit uneasy about Microsoft’s upcoming conference in Las Vegas, Mix ’06. Maybe it’s the chummy way the website proclaims it’s a “72 hour conversation”. Maybe it’s the friendly but oh-so-slightly smug picture of Bill Gates in the top right, or the playful eighties chic images designed to appeal directly to today’s crop of web programmers. Maybe it’s the cynical use of web 2.0 gradients and bold buttons as an advertising look-and-feel. Or maybe it’s because it crashes Firefox on my machine every time.

Whatever the reason, it’s interesting to see the company that allegedly dismissed the Internet as a passing fad embrace it so wholeheartedly – or at least, appear to. Although the website has a blog on it, it’s powered by Telligent’s Community Server, literally the only viable blogging system for the .NET platform. Similarly, in education, you see lots of people in Windows-dominated environments harnessing Sharepoint as a VLE because they don’t have much else available to them. You have to wonder about the usefulness of an operating system for a particular purpose if there is only one available title.

Here’s the pitch from the website:

If you do business on the Web today, it’s likely that more than 90% of your customers reach you via Microsoft Internet Explorer and/or Microsoft Windows. Come to MIX and learn how the next versions of these products, due later this year, are going to dramatically improve your customers’ experience. Explore a wide range of new Web technologies that Microsoft is delivering to help you unlock new revenue opportunities and lower development costs. Learn about the future of Internet Explorer and join us in a discussion about how we can build the ideal Web surfing platform to meet your needs and those of your customers.

Friends page in IE7Now, I’ve tried Internet Explorer 7 (pictured right), and I’ve compared my experiences with other IT professionals who have also tried it. Put simply, it stinks. The CSS bugs that made it hated by the development community are still there, the interface has been somehow made infinitely worse, and the new rendering engine has a magic ability to make any website you visit look rubbish. Seriously. I’m not sure what it is, it may be the anti-aliasing or the font handling, but everything is subtly worse. Suffice to say that when they say “the ideal Web surfing platform to meet your needs and those of your customers,” by your they don’t mean end users. The user experience is secondary to the business provider experience.

The “wide range of new Web technologies,” meanwhile, are something called Live, which comes in two delicious flavours: Windows and Office.

Windows Live appears to be an AJAX desktop, except one where all the cool features only work on Windows, and then only if you have certain plugins installed. (For example, if you’re running Internet Explorer with the requisite widgets, you can apparently phone people from the website.) You can see a list of features on their Live Ideas page, which aren’t so much live ideas as knock-offs from other startups (and a certain brightly-coloured, lava lamp friendly search engine). Okay, so they’re all on one page and will almost certainly have a prominent link from the upcoming Windows Vista – but really, it’s nothing new.

Office Live is a little more interesting, and looks a bit like a hosted, cut-down version of Microsoft Sharepoint. The interfaces, for example, are identical. This actually is genuinely useful: you can upload Office documents and collaboratively edit them, share them with exactly who you want to share them with (like another web application I know and love), and save them back into Office again. Of course, if you’re not using an Office formatted document, forget it; for this reason, I foresee a comparable product that can read the Open Document Format in our future. If Writely are smart, they’ll be placing a call to Google, Sun or IBM sometime very soon.

But back to Mix 06. Looking through the session list, I can’t help but feel like the web 2.0 culture is being exploited for the bits that business can use, but the underlying values of open information sharing and collaboration are being quietly tucked away. One of the seminars is on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, one of the must exploitative web services I’ve ever heard of. Rather than developing artificial intelligence algorithms to deal with certain simple choices, developers can key into an API that will hire a human perform a task for you. In return for performing this task set by a computer program, the human gets a handful of pennies and moves onto the next task. A quick perusal reveals that right now, if I wanted, I could get paid 3 cents to draw a sheep.

Another seminar is on creating advertising podcasts and video blogs; there’s another one on monetising RSS, and another one on how to get customers to pay for an AJAX redesign. You get the idea; this is a conference for suits in a room who’ve seen a new crop of profitable websites spring up and want to ride off that success without any of the imagination or innovation. All of these seminars are about how to build it or how to take advantage of it; I don’t see any about why you would want to build these things.

As I was saying while musing on our underdog status, “it’s not about slow-cooked kebabs, fridges full of Evian or rounded boxes with little cartoon characters” – or AJAX interfaces, RSS feeds, FOAF or mashing pages up – “It’s about ethos, vision, and ultimately the usability of an idea.” I see lots of ethos coming from Microsoft, but it’s not one I like.

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