Saturday, October 27, 2007

Previewing Microsoft's Unified Communications

Yesterday, I had the privilege of providing feedback on a "dry run" for the technical track for the forthcoming Unified Communications Launch 2007 tour for Microsoft Canada.

To say I am impressed with Microsoft and the technology as an IT pro and an IT manager would be an understatement. I have to add that both those perspectives - IT pro and IT manager - are distinct and provide very useful ways of providing context to the technical presentations. More about that in a moment.

So why am I impressed? Some of it is about the mechanics and dedication of the people involved. Having now been part of two separate "dry run" experiences, it is readily apparent to me just how committed Microsoft Canada is to these launch tours. Presenters are grilled not once, but twice, in preparation for the tour, the first time to deal with content and overall objectives of each session, the second dealing more with fine-tuning, vocabulary choice, emphasis and tone.

The critical comments of "dry run" audience members are direct, sometimes brutally so. But the overall tenor is constructive and always delivered within a collateral objective of team building and empowerment. From my Toastmasters background, I find this very refreshing and another indication of why the corporate culture of Microsoft Canada is so highly regarded (among the top 10 for 2006 in the Canadian Corporate Culture Study).

Because these tours are so highly technical in nature, it is also critical that bugs be found and eliminated, and that both presenter and supporting audio-visual staff members feel comfortable with the technical components of the presentation.

But I am also impressed with the target audience analysis done by IT pro advisors and product managers. They know who will be attending these events and are constantly rehearsing how target groups will react to aspects of the presentations and demos.

Still, what impresses me most - beyond the way Microsoft Canada handles these event preparations - is the suite of technologies exposed by the moniker Unified Communications. As Damir Bersinic mentioned in a recent Canadian IT professionals blog post, incorporating these technologies into the overall IT environment means that IT pros will have to stretch once again. Telco pros know a lot that we don't, but we will have to learn much of what they know and do daily in order to make unified communications a reality in our environments. For the upcoming tour, this means that IT pros like me will have to listen very carefully to some of the telecommunications technical vocabulary, take copious notes, and be prepared to research those areas with which we are uncomfortable. But we've done it before and we can do it again.

But IT pros will feel very comfortable once the software demonstrations begin. Once presenters show Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communicator 2007, Microsoft Live Meeting 2007 and the older Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005 - not to mention the show stopping Microsoft RoundTable - IT pros will feel right at home. Telephony will seem like just another software service.

As an IT pro, I look at these enabling technologies and realize that although the infrastructural details are intimidating, our end users will get used to the experience of unified communications very quickly. Like so much else of what we do, if we do it right, our "customers" won't even notice. End users will simply get used to identity and presence indicators in their Office software applications; they'll get used to starting instant message threads, conference calls, video conferencing and sharing of key collaborative documents with a click of the mouse and maybe a drag-and-drop operation. In a few days, it will be standard fare with productivity improving substantially. Sure, there are a lot of technical details we will have to master, but end-user training won't require much additional work for us.

As an IT manager, I look at these technologies and see business benefits staring right back at me. It won't take much to deliver these benefits and return-on-investment messages to business managers. Unified communications is, as Bill Gates said in an interview at the San Francisco launch, "taking your phone calls and making them far simpler and far more effective." That's the message. It doesn't get much simpler than that.

Whether you're an IT pro or an IT manager, make sure you get to one of these events.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Photosynth - a breath-taking glimpse into the future of photo viewing

Thank you to Ruth Morton for a blog entry mentioning one of the most spectacular software developments occurring at Microsoft these days. If you go to Microsoft Live Labs to their Photosynth web site, be prepared to be amazed! In fact, take a few minutes right now and watch what Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Facebook, said was "Perhaps the most amazing demo I've seen this year." -available here). 

Imagine all the world's photos synchronized and organized within a 3D interface that can cater to both those who prefer a slide-show automated demonstration and to those who prefer the self-directed, virtual game-world ambience. OK, so if imagining all the world's photos is a bit too grand, simply imagine your own photo collection tagged by similarities and organized according to the Photosynth model. Now you can launch your photo collection into a 3D space and navigate, zooming, re-organizing, panning, detailing, re-arranging the photos according to likeness, etc. In effect, you've completely renovated your 2D photo collections into a 3D virtual world with emergent characteristics greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Emergent characteristics of a Photosynth collection are something you have to experience directly to fully appreciate. Imagine, for instance, that you were able to assemble all the photographs of yourself for your entire lifetime. Then imagine tagging those photographs by subject, time, place, perhaps even mood. Then the photographs are processed within Photosynth into a single panorama whereby you can rearrange instantly the way you view the collection with all the attendant capabilities of zooming, panning, and moving around objects.

For a few seconds, you view your life chronologically; then you see a friend in one of the photos and you wonder, "what about my other friends at that time of my life?". So, as long as you've tagged images of friends as "friends", you can instantly rearrange the collection according to the similarity of the photographs to "friends". Or, perhaps you want to view family connections, or locations and events.

The possibilities are truly staggering. But again, you've got to experience this to appreciate the possibilities. If you have sufficient graphical capabilities on your computer, you can download and install the Photosynth trial and then view the online collections which include NASA, buildings of Great Britain, a South Korean palace under reconstruction, the Gary Faigin art studio, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, the Grassi Lakes in the Canadian Rockies, or the Piazza San Pietro in Rome. Truly spectacular!