Day 1 - About the 2011 PDC

Technical content of this issue - 2 out of 5

Welcome to the 2011 edition of Biff's PDC Newsletter. If you pay careful attention, you may notice two big changes to the PDC this year. Since I'm pretty sure that most of you will not pay careful attention, I'll just spell them out-

  • There is no Professional Developers Conference this year! Microsoft has thrown out years of careful branding and abandoned the name - the conference is now call Build Windows. Same forward looking peaks at technology, same swag seeking geekfest, brand new name. Since I still have 500 reams of Biff's PDC Newsletter stationary (probably an ill-advised purchase for an email based newsletter), this newsletter will not change it's name. I'll be fine next year when Microsoft changes their mind and reverts to Professional Developers Conference Classic.
  • I'm not actually at the conference that was formerly named the PDC. This year's pilgrimage in search of a precious glimpse of the future fell to funding cutbacks. I'm fine, but unfortunately I had to lay off the entire staff here at the Biff'S PDC Newsletter office. I was hoping that I would qualify for some stimulus funding - I don't think there are any regular readers out there that won't agree this newsletter is a "shovel ready" project.

You might think that not attending a conference would be an impediment to reporting on that conference. Nonsense! Thanks to Microsoft providing video of all the sessions over the Internet, the same content is available to me here in my basement - only without the charming company. The main issue is that, since I'm not there, I am not totally immersed and focused on the conference. Nuisances like holding a full time job will limit my ability to focus like a laser beam on getting you the best information possible, so the four day conference may take me a little longer to cover, some writeups may be a little briefer, and the content will only be published directly to the web so I don't need to spend time formatting it twice.

Oh yes, you also won't have to put up my complaining about my flights and hotel!

Session - Keynote Address

Microsoft always keeps the specifics of the conference under wraps each year, making the keynote address the first revelation of the technology they are announcing this year. This year the big news is Windows 8. Before you yawn and decide to go look for funny YouTube videos, this is actually bigger news than you might think. They are claiming the Windows 8 "re-imagines" what Windows can be, and when you see the run you realize 2 things-

  • This truly is a very different Windows, it's actually very striking and woke up a jaded old ink-stained wretch like me
  • Perhaps their "re-imagining" was slightly influenced by other products...

In the interest of brevity (my interest, perhaps not yours...), here is quick synopsis of some key terms that look like they are going to be important throughout the week and onwards-

  • Metro style apps - This is the big deal. These are apps written specifically to run under Windows 8. The next talk goes much more into detail about what this means.
  • Windows Store - A web service for devs to upload applications for sale to the public, get them certified by Microsoft, allow trial use, etc.
  • ARM architecture - A Reduced Instruction Set Chip (RISC) designed to run with low power requirements for devices like phones. (This is not new, and many readers probably already knew this, but I didn't and I'm sure other readers didn't as well. I will reveal my ignorance publicly and save them the embarrassment.

They spent quite a bit of time showing different hardware under development that was being built specifically to support Windows 8. These included-

  • A huge, powerful box that completed a cold boot in 7 seconds
  • A currently available notebook the booted in 8 seconds even with an encrypted drive
  • Several notebooks that were extremely thin and light
  • Several tablet or pad PCs (of which any resemblance an Apple product was surely coincidence...)

Beyond that there were lots of fast paced demos by hypercaffienated Softies that were full of sound and fury and signified nothing.

There was one very cool feature that I wanted to be sure to mention. The start screen (prior to login) can have a user defined picture displayed. The password can be a set of touch motions on that picture, for the first demo'er, the password was to touch each of her daughter's eye then trace her smile. I've been using shape passwords for years, just remembering a design on the keyboard, but this was way cooler.

Session - 8 Traits of Great Metro Style Apps

This session focused on what exactly made an app an Metro Style App and did it pretty well. The presenter opened by displaying a relatively straightforward RSS reader under Windows 7, then flipping over to a Windows 8 app that he said was the same app as a Metro Style App. It was attractive, but it wasn't clear to me that being pretty meant that it had all the same functionality or was easy to use. The presenter treated it as if it were the Mona Lisa, rhapsodizing on about it like a oenophile. "It's Beautiful", "It's Immersive", "There's less chrome", "It focuses on the content", "It's woody, with a hint of berry flavor." Oops, that last one really was from a oenophile.

If there's one literary device that I feel is the absolute worst in the history of all language, it's hyperbole, so I was a bit put off at this point. But as he explained the 8 traits of a Metro Style app I could see it was well thought out and very interesting. Here's the list, then I will go into detail on each one-

  1. Metro Style Design
  2. Fast and Fluid
  3. Snap and Scale Beautifully
  4. Use the Right Contracts
  5. Invest in a Great Tile
  6. Feel Connected and Alive
  7. Roam to the Cloud
  8. Embrace Metro Principles

Metro Style Design

There are certain things that Metro Style app should do to look and feel right while operating alongside other apps in the Windows 8 environment.

It should have the right silhouette. By this they mean that the structure and layout is the same as other Metro apps. For instance, the title in the upper left should be in the exact same place for all apps - this avoids the title dancing around when flipping through apps. The rows of tiles that appear should line up in the same place on the screen in every app for the same reason. This makes a unified, consisent appearance and would greatly contribute to the overall feel. The tools for building Metro Style apps have templates so these rules will get largely followed automatically unless the developer proactively chooses to break them.

It should minimize of eliminate the use of chrome (menus, borders, status bars, etc). For all the example apps on Windows 8, the content of the app took up the entire screen (this is what they mean when they keep talking about "immersive").

Use the edge correctly. Flicking the edge will temporarily display controls that allow functionality. The left and right edge are reserved for Windows 8 and bring up "charms" or command icons. For instance if you flick the right edge you can choose the Search charm and a search box will appear. The top and bottom are reserved for the app. For instance, IE 10 is completely chrome-less by default (no pun intended), but flicking the bottom edge brings up charms for things link home page.

Comfort and touch - they did extensive research on how people hold their tablets, then did more research on what that meant to touching the screen and gradually defined areas that are easy to touch, less easy and difficult. This concept addresses putting frequently touched areas in the right place for people to touch them easily. He showed how they had a split keyboard that broke the letters into two groups and each was under an easily accessible area.

Fast and Fluid

He pointed out how the mouse introduced an abstraction between your hand and what happens on the screen, so if there's a delay in the action occurring it's less jarring and over time becomes expected. When a user touches the screen that abstraction is gone and if the action doesn't match the touch nearly instantly it's a jarring user experiece. Speed and responsiveness is important for touch apps.

Animation - everything in a Metro App should be going somewhere or coming from somewhere, things should just appear and disappear or jump to a different spot instantly. He compared an old app, where pictures didn't move smoothly when being rearranged or moved after a deletion, they just disappeared from where they had been and appeared where they were going. Then he showed a Metro App where everything slid and moved smoothly. Back came his hyperbole - "One thing says 'quality, fast and fluid, beautiful'; the other thing says 'crap'"

They realized that a touch screen interface couldn't just be a mouse interface where you touch the screen, because the mechanics are different and attempts to map them led to weird things like "hold your finger down for 2 seconds" for a double click. They determined what kind of interaction was needed and defined a new interaction language for touch, with 7 motions (check out the video for more).

Snap and Scale Beautifully

Windows 8 can run on such a large set of machines and devices, with greatly differing screen sizes and aspect ratios. The OS will help your app adapt to different presentation layouts (a huge screen gets 5 rows of tiles rather than 2 on a tiny tablet or phone), but your app must supply some stuff to help out. Everything should be available in 3 sizes and be prepared to be rendered in several defined views.

Use the Right Contracts

There are interactions between Metro Apps that are predefined, and the interaction between apps (or app and OS) is defined by contracts.

Rather than every app implementing a search UI, an OS charm on the right edge will bring up a search box that will then execute the search on the app through the contract.

Invest in a Great Tile

The boxes you see on the screen (in video or in the header of this page) are called Tiles. At their core, they are program launchers, comparable to icons. The raving then starts again - "Icons are yesterdays way of representing apps, they're antiquated, they're not alive, they're not interesting, they're not helpful, they're just a picture and a line of text." Tiles can have animation, and should change display to reveal what's going on inside the app - really be an extension of the app. For instance, a weather app may alwasy display current conditions on the tile.

I saw his point, but I think he was a little hard on icons.

Feel Connected and Alive

This was more nebulous and seemed to boil down to the tiles either moving or reflecting the operation or content of the app. These are called Live tiles

Roam to the Cloud

Your app runs only when it is on the screen, but it must feel as if it is always alive. For instance-

  • When you come back after 15 min it should be as if you never left
  • When you finish a level of a game you should never have to play it again on any device
  • When you change a setting you should never have to set it again

I'm skeptical as I'm listening, because this means all apps need access to your Web connection to upload and download data and I'm not comfortable with that just to ease my game experience. Then he explained that a Windows 8 account can be associated with a Windows Live ID, and that all Windows 8 apps would be granted storage space per user for storing these roaming settings and data.

One catch - apps should continually save data and not require explicit saving. When your app goes off the screen it has about 5 seconds to finish persisting what it wants before it is put in suspeneded mode.

Embrace Metro Principles

This was just a bunch of platitudes, so I'll leave them out rather than waste your time.

This was really a great explanation of what a Metro Style app is, and probably worth watching yourself if you're so inclined. The video is here. If you go back to the video above you will probably recognize many of the topics discussed in this presentation now that they've been pointed out (you'll also notice the demo'er use the terribly awkward adverb "fast and fluidly")

Letters! We Get Letters!

Once again this year we will close each newsletter by answering selected items from the Biff's PDC Newsletter mail bag (it's not really a bag). Normally for the first issue I use a letter from a previous year to fill the space, this time choosing a letter from last year that took issue with a reference to Grover Cleveland Rest Area on the Jersey Turnpike.

SC from NJ protests - Please don't mock the only president to be born in NJ, Snooky is running next year - there will be enough at that time to mock."

Dude! I would never mock not only the only President t o be born in NJ, but also the only one to have a Sesame Street character names after him (unless you count all the appearances of the leter "W" on the show). I can't speak to Snooky candidacy, but I do know that Bruce Springsteen was doing well in the polls until he realized that President was a pay cut from his job as the Boss (he then determined that he wasn't "Born to Run") - Ed.

If you have anything you want to say, any technical questions or anything comment that gives me the opportunity to make a witty retort, send your mail to

Next Issue

With trying to fit the PDC into my regular life, I don't know when the next issue will appear, let alone what will be in it!

The guy all alone here in the Newsletter offices typing 4 8 15 16 23 42