Microsoft’s Syncing Cloud Starting to Clear

Well, there’s only a week left before I set off to the Puget Sound region and my job. Hopefully this will be my last inter-city move for at least a few years. I’m tired of having to keep my daily possessions limited to a volume the size of a car, seeing as I’ve been relocating every four months for the past five years. This might also be a good opportunity to write something Microsoft-related. As always, these are my own thoughts and opinions, and I don’t profess to have any insider information on any of the topics discussed. Okay, without further ado, some musings on Windows (Phone) 7.

Synchronization Made Clear(er)

The Worldwide Partner Conference is well underway, with some keynotes by Microsoft executives. The cloud has been a cornerstone of all the keynotes thus far, and while it may initially appear to be all business-y, comments yesterday by Brad Brooks and Andy Lees shows how consumers will start benefiting immediately. It is all centered upon the Three-Screens-and-the-Cloud mantra. As people begin to own multiple connected devices, data synchronization has become a priority issue. Although in the past Live Mesh, Live Sync, FolderShare, SkyDrive, and others made for a jumbled mess in the space, it appears these ‘experiments’ are paying off in the form of the architecture that is being settled upon for the consumer space: Live Sync + SkyDrive.

All the details aren’t quite available yet, but what has been shown thus far seems to indicate that no matter what platform you’re using, Windows 7 or Windows Phone 7 or Windows Live, SkyDrive will be the place to store all your data. Live Sync provides the syncing technology for Windows on a PC, and a slightly revamped version of MyPhone and specialized version of Live Sync, which will be named Windows Phone Live, syncs smartphone data to SkyDrive. SkyDrive is either already the storage location for the web-based Live apps (Office Live, Live Mail, etc.) or provided as a network-mapped drive for the rich clients, such as the Live Essentials suite. Microsoft is providing 25GB on SkyDrive, which is generous. I doubt the intention is to allow you to store your entire media library on the cloud, but sharing 12MP photos and home videos in private, especially in HD formats will now be easier. I’m excited there’s now a clearly defined way for me to synchronize data between my laptop and desktop (and perhaps my work laptop as well!).

Syncing Smartphone Data

Perhaps more interesting is the benefit for Windows Phone 7. AnandTech’s recently published article on the Kin euthanasia touched upon one of the well-received components of the product, Kin Studio. As sad as the Kin story is, perhaps something can be salvaged – the excellent sync philosophy that underlies Kin Studio. The author, Brian Klug, loved the automatic and near real-time synchronization of photos, messages, contacts, and more. Many of these features are already available with Microsoft MyPhone, but it’s nowhere near real-time. What was shown yesterday at WPC with Windows Phone 7, however, changes that. One of the features touted was: after a photo is taken, a web-quality version is automatically synced with SkyDrive, ready to be shared. In order to conserve some data, the full quality version and any media downloaded, say from Zune, is synced over Wifi once the device is plopped into its charging cradle. Now, I doubt the interface for Windows Phone Live will be anything like Kin Studio and its interesting timeline – Windows Phone 7 simply doesn’t have the same social intention Kin does. However, I imagine many of the core syncing scenarios have been ported over, and that’s the important part. No more is the phone tied to a computer. After all, why should it be?

I’m also super excited that synchronization doesn’t just stop at photos, documents and other files. With multiple social services like Facebook, MySpace, Live, and my work Exchange account, contacts are all over the place, often duplicated and many times incomplete. Windows Live will now start aggregating and merging contacts from multiple providers. This functionality was also shown during the Windows Phone 7 demonstrations at WPC. While Android smartphones and HTC Sense interface devices have been able to integrate with services like Facebook, there isn’t enough control over the resulting list of merged contacts. Furthermore, these merged listings are never stored in a permanent location, meaning a data wipe also wipes out those links. I’m hopeful now that Windows Live is hosting all this data, it will be persistent and available for easy manipulation.

The Data Availability Vision

Okay, lots of words, but what does it mean for us, the end users? You get the data that is important to you on all your devices, all the time, anywhere you go. Microsoft’s bringing together its often-confusing mish-mash of synchronization and web storage services in a much clearer way, enabling data and settings synchronization between multiple Windows PCs, Windows Phone 7 devices, Xbox, and the cloud (SkyDrive).

In the past, the enigmatic positioning of seemingly similar products indicated Microsoft itself didn’t quite know what it wanted to accomplish in the synchronization space. However, recent disclosures about the technologies that will underly the Personal Cloud, as Microsoft calls it, are solidifying the landscape. Past experiences have been drawn upon. Microsoft’s vision for your personal mesh of devices is finally becoming clear, and the scenarios are enticing.

Windows Phone 7 and Thoughts on Multitasking

It’s rumored that Windows Mobile/Phone 7 will be shown to the public for the first time this coming Monday, February 15, 2010 at Mobile World Congress. Based on the comments by executives, such as Robbie Bach, and some pretty specific rumors out of the Windows Mobile camp, it’s not a huge stretch to expect something about the oft-delayed platform to be presented.

Windows PhoneOne point above all else in those rumors that has many staunch Windows Mobile users riled up: no multitasking. I’d like to make a few comments on the matter. Note that the following is not based on my knowledge of the real thing, but simply my thoughts and opinions.

In a smartphone platform, multitasking is not needed for the vast majority. Attempting to do multiple things at once on a smartphone is implicitly limited by the screen real estate. Applications need to take up the entire display (I don’t consider widgets ‘applications’). The scenarios in which one uses a smartphone are distinctly different from a PC, Mac, or arguably, an iPad, where multitasking would be more useful.

What most people want, whether they can verbalize it or not, is session state persistence and background notifications. 95% of the time, that application you want to ‘minimize’ will simply sit in the background, doing nothing except consuming valuable resources. Instead, close the application, save its state, and provide a way for notifications to/from that application to be bubbled up in the operating system. The next time you open that application, it will return from its cryostasis, ready to pick up where you left off.

For example, you open up the email client, read an email from a friend that includes a link to a restaurant website. You click that link, closing the email client, while at the same time opening the browser. The page loads and you decide you want to take a look at where it is on a map. You copy the address and open up a Google Maps application, closing the browser. You paste the address and pan around, getting your bearings. Satisfied, you reopen the browser and find it at the same place on the website you just visited. You don’t even notice that the browser process was terminated. You peruse the menu for the evening and decide to reply to your friend, confirming a reservation. You open up the email client, and you’re back at the email you read to start the scenario. None of this requires ‘multitasking’ support, simply session state persistence.

The key is providing a level of transparency to the user. The operating system may be starting and terminating processes, but as long as the experience of managing multiple applications’ interactions is as the user expects, there is no need for multitasking to accomplish these tasks. Yes, this puts a bit more responsibility on the application developer’s shoulder. The developer must consider session data and how to best store it for their application.

With all that said, I’m certain there will be cursory ‘multitasking’ provided by the operating system, despite the rumors. Some core services, such as music and phone, should be able to run alongside other applications, much like what is possible with the iPhone.

Windows Mobile task manager
No one wants to deal with this.
Apple absolutely had it right when they introduced one of the first no-multitasking mobile operating systems with the iPhone OS. However, they did not add background notifications until several iterations later, which was a bummer. I believe the benefits achieved by removing multitasking on the smartphone platform outweighs the 0.1% power-user scenario, where multitasking might actually be useful. For most people, managing a process list is out of their comfort zone. Applications would simply pile up in the background, with users having little experience with memory management. It would simply appear as though performance were vanishing for no reason. The geeks can whine as much as they like, but at some point or another, they’ll need to realize that mass market success cannot be achieved by catering to their needs alone. I’ve gone through a highly technical computer engineering degree, but I know that when designing features, they cannot be for users like me. Read The Inmates are Running the Asylum if you want to know what designing for programmers and engineers means to the rest of the world.

Windows Mobile/Phone 7 is a well-kept secret even within Microsoft. The intranet portals are walled off from non-team employees. Furthermore, little concrete information is disseminated outside the walls of the Studios. I’m super excited to see what the team had accomplished since my time at Microsoft. They know that this is probably the last chance for them to create something that is at least on par with the best of the best out there. Based on my interactions with the people working on the project and the very different  design mentality within the team, I’m excited about the prospects.

In three days, everyone will see what’s been cooking.