Guathon - new .NET stuff and Windows Phone 7

15 August 2010

On Friday I went to Guathon, a free Microsoft conference all about the latest .NET stuff and Windows Phone 7, held at the Odeon cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue. I was lucky to get a place, as when registration opened last week, the website immediately buckled under the strain. It reminded me of trying to get tickets for Glastonbury - and you’d think Microsoft would be able to get this kind of thing right. But after a lot of refreshing, opening new tabs, and filling in the same registration form multiple times, I eventually got my confirmation email.

Arriving at the Odeon bleary-eyed yesterday morning, I knew I was in the right place when saw a long queue of poorly dressed men - I blended in seamlessly.

Presentations without boredom

[image by Jeff Sandquist]

Scott Guthrie is the man in charge of the .NET teams at Microsoft, and spent three quarters of the day doing presentations. It must have been pretty gruelling, but he didn’t show it - and he really knows his stuff, eschewing slides almost completely for a very hands-on style, mostly writing code in Visual Studio and answering questions as we went along. He’s a hugely effective presenter, and I just wish more people would learn that making a presentation isn’t all about knocking together slides in PowerPoint and then reading out each bullet point in a monotone.

The first session covered Visual Studio 2010 - a mix of new features, such as the improved IntelliSense, plus old features that surprisingly many people haven’t heard of, such as conditonal breakpoints. He also talked for a while about the new IntelliTrace debugging and automatic diagramming features which are sadly only available in the seriously expensive versions - a shame as it looks like these could be a real productivity boost for a lot of programmers. I’m still waiting to get my hands on VS2010 myself, as for some reason it’s taking Microsoft weeks and weeks to process my new Action Pack subscription.

By the end of the first session we were already overrunning massively, and everybody was in desperate need for some fresh air, a trip to the toilet and some coffee. If the Odeon had been prepared, they would have known that 250 developers logically entails a requirement for 250 lattes, but clearly this had been missed somehow as a huge queue quickly developed at the tiny coffee bar, with only one member of staff and the world’s slowest coffee machine.

ASP.NET MVC, 1, 2 and 3

Sessions two and four were all about ASP.NET MVC. This is a framework that sits on top of ASP.NET and provides a quite amazingly neat and elegant way of building web-based applications. I didn’t know anything about it before, but there was a good quick introduction before diving into the new stuff in versions 2 and 3, so I now feel like I’m up to speed and am quite keen to have a play with it - if only Microsoft would hurry up with letting me access the software I’ve ordered…

Instead of a load of slides, the presentation was entirely in Visual Studio, taking us from starting a new ASP.NET MVC project. “What kind of website shall we make?” asked Scott. “An event registration site” was the highly appropriate response, and Scott took us through creating the web application from scratch. He covered a huge amount of functionality in the way that makes the most sense to programmers - by actually writing code. Not only was it a great way of covering lots of material, the fact that he could cover so much during the sessions is testament to how well-designed the MVC framework is - it’s really very quick to start putting things together.

Windows Phone 7

To give Scott a bit of a break from presenting, between the two ASP.NET MVC sessions Mike Ormond stepped in to talk about developing applications for Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows Phone 7 platform. It was a mixture of slides and a more hands-on demonstration, as he demonstrated writing a simple game which he then showed working on both an emulator and an actual prototype phone.

The presentation was good but I was left feeling underwhelmed by the product itself. Despite the name, Microsoft has effectively thrown away its old phone platform to start again, so it’s very much a “1.0” product at the moment. Unfortunately they seem to have taken all the worst bits of the iPhone and then added in some extra limitations of their own. Like Apple, they will be controlling the “Marketplace” (equivalent of the App Store) so they won’t accept certain types of applications. Like Apple, you can’t do proper multi-tasking - the phone will quit applications when you switch to another one, and as a developer you have to manually write code for saving the application’s state. Even the process of using the camera within an application causes it to restart, which seems very cumbersome. And for the moment they’ve even locked down things such as access to the camera flash LED, meaning no flashlight applications are allowed. This just seems dumb.

One of the positive things to come from Apple’s control freakery is that at least mobile network operators can’t stuff the phone with crappy applications themselves, but there are no such limitations on Windows Phone 7. Network operators have more power than ordinary developers, as they will be able to create proper native applications instead of the Silverlight and XNA apps that other developers will be limited to.

They have also taken some decisions with the interface that they probably think of as “innovative”, but I would describe as “strange”. For example, instead of the iPhone’s single “home” button, there is a “back” button which will navigate back through your app, until you reach the first page when it will quit. But there’s also a “Start” button which takes you back to the app launcher. I can’t see the advantage of the additional hardware button here - the iPhone approach of having all app navigation in the touchscreen works perfectly well, so I wonder if Microsoft are forced to go this way to avoid stepping on one of Apple’s many patents.

I have doubts about the “panorama” interface, as shown in the picture above. It looks like this just makes a lot of the menus hard to find - it will be interesting to see how well this works on the devices when they appear later this year.

In summary, I find it hard to see Windows Phone 7 taking off. It would have been a great product five years ago, but Microsoft is clearly desperately chasing Apple and Android and is way behind. I like the idea of .NET on a mobile device - it would certainly make it easier for me to port my own existing applications to a mobile phone - but there’s nothing (yet) that makes it stand out in any area ahead of the competition, so any mobile app developer is going to have an extremely limited potential user base. It’s too little, too late.