- 29 Oct 08, 10:25 GMT
I've just spent a couple of days in a strange country - let's call it PC World, though it has nothing to do with the store of that name.
It has 6,000 inhabitants who at 0800 march into a vast hall for a breakfast organised with military precision. Then at 0845 they all march into another gigantic room to hear inspirational speeches. The rest of their day is occupied attending more educational sessions, though a lot of their time seems to be spent just staring at their laptops. Who are they? Well the clue is in the slogan many sport on those laptops and their t-shirts - "I'm a PC".
This is Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference - quite possibly the geekiest event I've ever attended - and you would struggle to find a collection of people more devoted to the world of Windows. Some are Microsoft employees, the rest are developers who've paid to come here and learn about everything from Windows Azure to "Parallel Programming for C++ Developers in the next version of Microsoft Visual Studio." Sorry, that was one session I missed.
It's the kind of place where if a speaker announces he is going to do some live coding on stage, he's met with a smattering of applause rather than a rush for the exits. These speakers range in quality from the mildly inspired to the deadly, and those from Microsoft sport a variety of extraordinary titles. I loved "Director of Platform Strategy in Developer and Platform Evangelism." The audience is mostly quietly enthusiastic, sometimes cheering "awesome" new software features - the loudest applause was for a Tesco executive presenting a new online shopping application hosted in the cloud. But there's not quite the revivalist meeting atmosphere of a Steve Jobs keynote.
This is also a crowd that has faced intense - and perhaps unfair - mockery over recent months, as the butt of all those "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" adverts. They know they're not cool. But guess what? I don't think they care, and they may be a more tolerant group than the more fanatical members of the Apple crowd.
At this totally PC conference, there was a surprising number of Macs on show - mainly in the media room but also in some developers' hands. But nobody seemed to mind. I'm not sure you would get the same reaction if you walked into MacWorld sporting a Dell.
Many of the innovations unveiled here - from Windows 7, to Azure and the Office web products - appear to show Microsoft following trends rather than leading. Multi-touch on Windows 7? First, seen on the iPhone. Online documents? Google Docs has been around for a while. Azure? As Ray Ozzie conceded, Amazon has a head start in the cloud.
But then a Microsoft internal blogger showed me two products - the 3-d photo mosaic service Photosynth and Worldwide Telescope which allows you to explore the stars. Both the products and the blogger were very impressive. Microsoft is a bureaucratic, sometimes overbearing, often unimaginative company. But it is still home to some smart, creative people, full of enthusiasm about the possibilities that software can offer. All it needs to do now is convince us that it really is cool to be PC.
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