Thoughts of a PDC (2008) Gone By...

PDC 2008 in LA is over now, and like most PDCs, it definitely didn't disappoint on the technical front--Microsoft tossed out a whole slew of new technologies, ideas, releases, and prototypes, all with the eye towards getting bits (in this case, a Western Digital 160 GB USB hard drive) out to the developer community and getting back feedback, either through the usual channels or, more recently, the blogosphere.

These are the things I think I think about this past PDC:

  • Windows 7 will be an interesting thing to watch--they handed out DVDs in both 32- and 64-bit versions, and it's somewhat reminiscent of the Longhorn DVDs of the last PDC. If you recall, Longhorn (what eventually became known as Vista) looked surprisingly good--if a bit unstable, something common to any release this early--for a while, then Vista itself pretty much fell flat. I think it will be interesting, as a social experiment, to look at what people say about Windows 7 now, compare it to what was said about Vista back in 2004 (which is I think when the last PDC was), and then compare what people say 1, 2 and 3 years after the PDC release.
  • Azure dominated a lot of the focus, commensurate with the growing interest/hype around "the cloud". All of this sounds suspiciously familiar to me, thinking back to the early days of SOAP/WSDL, and the intense pressure for Web services to revolutionize IT as we know it. This didn't happen, largely for technical reasons at first (incompatibilities between toolkits most of all), then because people treated it as CORBA++ or DCOM-with-angle-brackets. Azure and "cloud computing" have a different problem: clear definition of purpose. I think too many people have no idea what "the cloud" really is for this to be something to pay much attention to just yet.
  • Conference get-togethers and parties are becoming more and more lavish each year, as the various product teams challenge one another for the coveted title of The "Dude, were you there last night? It was amazing!" Party of PDC. For my money, that party was the party at the J Lounge on Wednesday night, complete with three floors of fun, including a wall-projected image of Rock Band, but--here's the rub--I couldn't tell you which team actually hosted the party. There was a Microsoft Dynamics CRM poster up in the middle of the gaming floor (bunch of XBox 360s, though not networked together, which I found disappointing), so I'm assuming it had something to do with them, but.... I think Microsoft product teams may want to consider saving some budget and instead of hiring six LA Lakers Cheerleaders to sit on a couch and allow drooling geeks to take pictures with them (no touching!), use the money to make the party--and the hosts--stick in my mind more effectively, or at least use it to hand out technical data on whatever it is they're building.
  • The vendor floor competition for attention is getting a little cutthroat. DevExpress stole the show this year, importing--no joke--an actor, "Mini-Me", Vern, to essentially echo (badly) anything Mark Miller (dressed, of course, as Austin Powers' arch-nemesis Dr. Evil) tried to say about the most recent version of CodeRush. Granted, Mark's new "do" (and the absurdly large head that was hiding underneath) makes it easy for him to do a good Dr. Evil impression, but other than that, there was really nothing parallel in the situation--despite Mark's insistence on writing code with evil Flying Spaghetti Monsters or what not in it. I think if you're a vendor and you want to make a splash at PDC, you think long and hard about an effective tie-in, like Infragistics' clever "I flew 1500 miles for this T-shirt" they were giving away.
  • The language world was a bit abuzz at the barely-concealed C# 4.0 features, mostly centering around the new "dynamic" keyword and the C# REPL loop capabilities, but noticeably absent was any similar kind of talk or buzz around VB 10. Even C++ got more attention than VB did, with a presentation clearly intending to call out a direct reference to Visual C++'s heyday, "Visual C++: Why 10 is the new 6". Conversations I had with a few Microsofties make it pretty clear that VB is now the red-headed stepchild of the .NET language family, and that fact is going to start making itself widely felt through the rest of the ecosystem before long, particularly now that rumors are beginning to circulate that pretty much all the "gifted kids" that were on the VB team have gone to find other places to exercise their intellect and innovation, such as the Oslo team. I think Microsoft is going to find itself in an uncomfortable position soon, of trying to kill VB off without appearing like they are trying to kill VB off, lest they create another "VB revolution" like the one in 2001 when unmanaged VB'ers ("Classic VBers"?) looked at VB.NET and collectively puked.
  • Speaking of collective revolution, anybody remember Visual FoxPro? Those guys are still kicking, and they were always a small fraction of the developer community, comparatively against VB, at least. I think Microsoft is in trouble here, of their own making, for not defining distinct and clearly differentiated roles for Visual Basic and C#.
  • The DLR is quickly moving into a position of high importance in my mind, and the fact that it now builds on top of expression trees (from C# 3.0/LINQ) and builds its trees in such a way that they look almost identical to what a corresponding C# or VB tree would look like means that the DLR is about a half-step away from becoming the most critical part of the .NET ecosystem, second only to the CLR itself. I think that while certain Microsoft releases, like Oslo, PowerShell, C# or VB, won't adopt the DLR as a core component to their implementation, developers looking to explore the DSL space will find the DLR a very happy place to be, particularly in combination with F# Parser Expression Grammars.
  • Speaking of F#, it's pretty clear that it was the developer darling--if not the media darling--of the show. The F# Hands-on-Lab looked to be one of the more popular ones used there, and every time I or my co-author, Amanda Laucher, talked with somebody who didn't already know we were working on F# in a Nutshell, they were asking questions about it and trying to understand its role in the world. I think the "cool kids" of the development community are going to come to check out F#, find that it can do a lot of what the O-O minded C# and VB can do, discover that the functional approach works well in certain scenarios, and start looking to use that on their new projects.
  • I think that if the Microsoft languages family were Weasley family from Harry Potter, C++ would be one of the two older brothers (probably Bill or Charlie, the cool older brothers who've gone on to make their name and don't need to impress anybody any more), Visual Basic would be Percy (desperate for validation and respect), C# would be Ron (cleary an up-and-comer in the world, even if he was a little awkward while growing up), and F# would be Ginny (the spunky one who clearly charts her own path despite her initial shyness, her accidental involvement in a Voldemortian scheme and her parents' and big brothers' interference in her life). Oslo, of course, is Professor Snape--we can't be sure if he's a good guy or a bad guy until the last book.
  • Continuing that analogy, by the way, I think Java is clearly Hermione: wickedly book smart, but sometimes too clever by half.

Overall, PDC was an amazing show, and there's clearly a lot of stuff to track. I personally plan to take a deep dive into Oslo, and will probably blog about what I find, but in the meantime, remember that all of the PDC bits that we got on the hard drives are available through the various DevCenters (or so I've been told), so have a look. There's a lot more there than just what I mentioned above.

Update: Lisa Feigenbaum emailed me with a correction: there was a session on VB 10 at PDC, and I simply missed it in the schedule. In fact, she was very subtle about it, simply asking me, "Did you make it to the VB talk?" and posted this URL along with it. Lisa, I stand corrected. :-) Having said that, though, I still stand by the other points of that piece: that the buzz I was hearing (which may very well have simply been the social circles I run in, I'll be the first to admit it, but I can only speak to my experience here and am very willing to be told I'm full of poopie on this one) was all C#, no VB, and that it bothers me that notable members of the VB team have departed for other parts of the company. Please, nothing would make me happier than to see VB stand as a full and equal partner in the .NET family of languages, but right now, it really still feels like the red-headed stepchild. Please, prove me wrong.