Microsoft Tech Center Day

A while ago I posted about how I had won the Windows Phone 7 Student Incentive Competition which allowed me to “spend a day honing (my) skills and (my) apps with (Microsoft’s) deep technical experts”. In a fantastic turn of events my housemate and great friend Rob Crocombe also won the competition meaning we could meet up in London, travel into Reading together and have a catch up after the long Summer Holidays at the same time as learning some really cool stuff at the Microsoft HQ.

When we eventually got to reading around 10:30 — I’d set off from home around 7:30 — we were given a security card to allow us to go around the building and shown to the demo room in the Microsoft Technology Center.

The demo room had seats along the back and a stage like area with several different sections, showing an office scenario, to a home scenario, to a living room scenario with various computers, display technologies and communications tech. Slap bang in the middle of the room was a “Samsung SUR40 with Microsoft Pixel Sense”. Even the softies laugh at how bad the product name is since a certain other piece of Microsoft Technology cannibalized its original name, Microsoft Surface, to retain its secrecy!

The Student App Winners, Including Rob and I join Dr. David Brown round the SUR40 running NUIverse for a group photo
The Student App Winners, Including Rob and I join Dr. David Brown round the SUR40 running NUIverse for a group photo

The first talk we had was about NUI – Natural User Interfaces – and how they are changing the way computing works. We were very lucky to have this talk delivered to us by Dr. David Brown, the man who single handedly created NUIverse — an application which allows you to explore the universe using a natural user interface on the Samsung SUR40. We wound back all the way to Command Line Interfaces and how GUI greatly improved on the usability of computer systems for the average person, but still required some training to use, whereas Natural User Interface attempts to require no, or as little as possible, training to use.

NUIverse by Dr. David Brown - which was demo'd to us - Image credit:
NUIverse by Dr. David Brown – which was demo’d to us – Image credit:

We spoke in depth about how some parts of NUI, such as touch screens are already mainstream whilst some others, such as object identification isn’t.

After this fascinating talk we went on a break for lunch (Tip: Go to as many Microsoft events as you can, the free food is always great ;)) in which we spoke to other competition winners. After the break we were shown into a conference room where Ben Nunney — the same man who did the Windows Phone 7 Camp at Hull University at the beginning of the year —  was getting ready to do a talk on preparing for Windows 8 application development.

The talk was on the same day as Windows 8 was released to manufacturing (also known as “going gold”) meaning that the code was finalized and sent off to the device manufacturers. In other words Windows 8 version 1 was finished. There was a clear excitement around the campus, especially with Ben — for whom it was his second RTM day having joined the company just after “that operating system between XP and Windows 7 that didn’t exist” was released (Also known as Windows Vista :P)

Ben’s talk focused on introducing people to Windows 8 from a complete novice stand point and built up to showing off the development tools and telling us where and how we could get more help to port our Windows Phone apps or create entirely new apps for the system. A highlight of the talk was trying to make the Visual Studio Windows 8 Simulator work in the simulator, A.K.A “simception” 😛

After this talk the 10 of us sat down with Phil Cross — the Academic Audience Manager at MS UK — to discuss how to improve the Microsoft UK Student developer group, and how some of the talks could be improved, made more interesting and become more likely to have an affect on the number of people actively developing for Microsoft platforms. I said I thought students needed greater access to systems such as tablets for testing, perhaps through borrowing them from Microsoft and that “Dev Camps” at universities needed to be less about convincing people the platform was worth buying – almost like a sales pitch – and more about showing them developer opportunities and practically how to do things.

Obviously there are some logistical and financial reasons why not everything is possible, but it was good to have the dialogue. In the end I think both the students who won the competition and the Academic Staff at Microsoft both got quite a lot out of the day — I certainly learnt a lot and enjoyed myself.


Modern Experience Development

Windows 8 App Excellence Lab

A few weeks ago I attended an App Excellence Lab which I had previously booked at the WP7 – W8 conference in London a few months ago. This meant a trip to Microsoft’s UK headquarters, which was an experience in and of itself. The headquarters is located in the Thames Valley Park in Reading, a plot formally owned entirely by Oracle. When Oracle realized they had no use for such a large area of land they sold it off to a holding company who allowed other tech companies to move in including Microsoft, Websense and Computacenter – creating England’s mini Silicon Valley.

My appointment was in building 3 of Microsoft’s campus and you can see the reception in the above photo. Once I had gone to the desk to get my security card – which allowed me to move around the building for that day – and had got hold of the wireless password (always important!) I proceeded to wait for my mentor to arrive and take me to the lab.

Once he did to I was shown to quite a nice office in the Microsoft Tech Center, where we worked though a tick sheet of requirements for the Windows 8 marketplace and compared them to what I had achieved with my application. I haven’t as of yet got any of the front end done, but my ideas all seemed to fit within Marketplace guidelines. To help me produce a good user experience, which is what the lab was all about, we had a look at some well designed applications together and worked on an improvement of the design I had worked on with Andrew Spooner at the WP7 – W8 conference.

After this we had a bit of a mini Question and Answer session in which I could ask any questions I had about Windows 8, the Windows 8 ecosystem and developing for both, I learnt a lot and would recommend an AEL to any aspiring Windows 8 Developer for this alone!

Once all my questions had been answered we discussed the next steps, which include a virtual App Excellence Lab once my application’s front end is finished and then hopefully I will recieve a token which will allow me early access to the Windows 8 store, well before general availability on the 26th of October.

As an interesting side note, the day I went for my Lab was the day all Microsoft Employees got an email telling them to stop the use of the word “Metro” in regards to the Windows 8 Design language. The news didn’t come out until the next day, but it seems there has been confusion ever since about what Windows RT apps are going to be called for marketing purposes. Personally I think “Windows 8 Experience Apps” is too long, and “Windows 8 Apps” will make no sense assuming they will be compatible with Windows 9. Similarly “Windows RT” isn’t exactly a marketing friendly term. The term I like to most is “Modern Experience App” or “Modern App”, shortened to “MX”, which is what Microsoft have called their own Windows RT app for OneNote. 🙂


Mobile Application Development

Microsoft Windows Phone Student Incentive – Winner!

Today I recieved an Email from Phil Cross congratulating me on being “selected as a Top Apps winner” in the Microsoft UK Students Student Incentive Program.

Here is an overview of what the incentive scheme consisted of:

We know you love the way Windows Phone puts People First. Do you want to win one? Course you do!

We have put together a competition for those people who like writing apps for mobile devices. With our latest programme, only available to students aged 16 or over in the UK, we want to encourage you to write an app and submit it into the Marketplace.

For EVERY app you write, during the periods of the competition, (see the detailed terms and conditions here) you’ll have a chance to win one of 100 Nokia Lumia Windows Phones. We also want to reward those who write top quality apps so we are complimenting the random prize draw with a judged competition, the top prize being a trip to our offices to spend a day honing your skills and your apps with our deep technical experts.

I didn’t win the in random monthly draw, but I did win for writing a “top quality app” — this means I get to go to the Microsoft Technology Centre in Reading for a day to spend time with the experts improving my applications in the store! Definitely something for the CV and a chance to improve my products and brand image! Microsoft are even paying my travel expenses!

I’d like to thank Phil Cross and everyone at Microsoft for giving me another great oppertunity, especially so soon after the last one.