Twitter Takes Praise And Grips Public At Microsoft's Mix07

To emphasize Mix07's focus on cutting-edge Web development and design, Microsoft wired the conference to the rafters with the latest in trendy Web 2.0 gadgets and gizmos.

Wifi flowed freely, and attendees took advantage of the ubiquitous connectivity to offer running commentary on the show. "Mix07" edged past "Paris Hilton" on Technorati's top searches list as bloggers racked up nearly a thousand posts about the three-day show.

But attendees also used social apps like photo-sharing site Flickr and chatter aggregator Twitter to offer shorter, pithier, stream-of-conscious feedback about the show. Conferences are always filled with back-room discussions of the show's highlights and lowlights. This time, the discussions -- and the snarking -- happened publicly.

Like the reaction meters networks use to gauge focus-group responses during presidential debates, Twitter offered real-time feedback on Mix07 -- a community groundswell Microsoft encouraged by featuring the running commentary on screensavers on all of its conference computers, using Flittrbook, a stylish application cooked up by one of its engineers.

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During keynotes, with most attendees gathered in one place watching the same presentation, the effect was particularly pronounced. When segments were a hit, the Twittermasses filled the stream with cheers. When they bombed, the hive mind turned vicious.

The full range of crowd responses was on display in Microsoft's opening keynote, which featured the first public demos of Silverlight in action. Mix07's Twitter log filled with raves: "Can't wait for Silverlight mobile and that application," posted larryclarkin, while cubrilovic weighed in with "Flash killer? Looks like it."

But the mood shifted when TechCrunch editor Michel Arrington took the stage to interview Ray Ozzie and Scott Guthrie. Apparently ill at ease and underprepared, Arrington mumbled, kept his eyes glued to his notes, and lobbed questions the Twitter crowd deemed too soft. The jeers started up immediately: "This interview is painful. PAINFUL," pronounced codinghorror

The reaction was even more fanged at Microsoft's second Mix07 keynote, a talk on community marketing helmed by Microsoft EntertainmentDevices Division President Robbie Bach.

Bach's presentation drew a tepid response ("viewer engagement advertising consumer markets social experience interaction viewer blah blah blah," summarized jabancroft), but when he handed the stage over to a group of advertising executives for a panel discussion, the crowd departed in droves. And Twitterheckled.

"Feel like I'm being sold a timeshare," protested programmer jongalloway. One Twitterer who actually works for Microsoft reported, "People are streaming out of the keynote and it isn't even done. Pretty bad." By the time the two-hour keynote wound down, only a few dozen people were left in the room. Laptop battery life may have contributed to the audience's short attention span: clauer, another Microsoft employee, Twittered that battery death would be a "worst case scenario," which would "leave me on my own with no other choice than listening to the talks."

Despite the often caustic nature of the Twittering, attendees generally praised Mix07 -- in person and in their blogs, developers were excited about the new technologies on display. Silverlight also cracked the top-ten searches list on Technorati, and there, the comments trended positive. One typical example: "Finally, people can design awesome UIs and use a programming language that isn't evil," open-source developer Paul Betts wrote in an enthusiastic response to the news about Silverlight's open Dynamic Language Runtime.

And while the Twittering may have been uncomfortable at times for Microsoft's PR department, attendees enjoyed the public conversation it fed.

"Twitter is addictive! It's blogging for lazy people. It's also a great way to interactively gauge audience reaction in real time-- an easier, lower friction form of liveblogging," said Jeff Atwood, technical evangelist of solutions provider Vertigo Software and the prolific Twitterer behind codinghorror. "More practically, it's a way to semi-interactively keep track of what your pals are up to with public IM. Very helpful at an event like Mix."

Enterprise applications developer Bernard Farrell began using Twitter for the first time at the show, and while he doesn't plan to keep at it, he appreciated the running commentary -- particularly during Tuesday's keynote, which he watched remotely from the show's blogger lounge.

"It gave me a different perspective on what was happening," he said. "For a show like this I can see a big benefit because it gives some feedback on what's happening and also provides opportunities to connect with people."

And by rolling with -- and even enabling -- the Twitter punches, Microsoft won kudos from some of the bleeding-edge Web 2.0 developers it desperately wants to attract. Evan Williams, founder of Twitter developer Obvious Corp., praised Mix07's production values as the best of any Web conference he'd been to.

Lyle Ball, vice president of marketing for Web 2.0 development tools start-up Bungee Labs, said Mix07 drove home the point that Microsoft is more willing to play nicely with rival technologies. Lounged on a beanbag chair in the conference's Sandbox development pit, MacBook in hand, Ball said the conference "really showed to me the new Microsoft -- the Microsoft that is embracing what the market demands."

Just how far is Microsoft willing to go? Here's a sign: It allowed the developer who built the show's popular Flittrbook screensaver -- a Windows Presentation Foundation-based mashup of Twitter, Flickr and Facebook -- to open-source the code. Open-source code at a Microsoft show ... maybe at Mix08, we'll see flying penguins.