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Last Thursday and Friday I attended the Microsoft Silverlight Partner Summit.  This is our second year as a Silverlight Partner, but our first time attending the summit, and it was well worth the trip to Redmond.  I am still really processing all that was announced for Silverlight 4 this month, and the additional content from the summit, but I wanted to get a few things down here while it is current.  There are some things learned at the conference that I can’t post here quite yet, but the vast majority of important details have been recently announced publically, and more is coming very soon.

1) Community is Critical for Continuous Growth and Progress

Events like the summit just reinforce my belief that the only real and lasting way to learn new skills or technologies is within a community of people who are also learning and creating new projects. The ability to toss ideas off of other people, make discoveries and solve problems together – this is huge. It was great to be in a group where you could hear something and look at another attendee and say something like “That is about as useful as an ‘AG_E_UNKNOWN_ERROR’” and have a quick laugh without the other person looking at you like you are out of your mind (and if you don’t understand the Silverlight reference, insert your own “private joke” here and move on).

The community I’ve had while learning Silverlight has really just been the handful of people on our development team and those Twitter contacts who are working on similar things.  I got to talk to a bunch of people who are also “in the boat” at the summit and made a few lasting contacts that I look forward to staying in touch with.  I am also trying to get a group together in our area who are doing Silverlight (or starting to) – if you are interested let me know.  Even a small group meeting informally would be really nice to get started.

2) Silverlight Video is Something I Have Underutilized – This Needs to Change

Video was the premiere feature of Silverlight 1 and has only grown in features and power since then.  I have spent the majority of my time developing for Silverlight creating business line-of-business (LOB) applications (e.g. data forms, grids, charts, etc.) and not “entertainment” applications (e.g. audio, video, animation).

Seeing what some of the partners have done with the Olympics, NFL, Netflix, etc. is amazing, and on a scale that our customers and applications do not approach.  But I also talked with people who’s companies are working with corporate and educational video management and distribution software for learning and training.  This just makes sense, and is so easy to do now with Silverlight.  If you are going to include a “help” or “about” section in a LOB application, why not include a short video and/or screencast illustrating the point instead of just describing it in text and maybe a few screenshots.  Something to think about and implement as soon as I can.

3) Scott Gu is the Real Deal

There were, of course, many people from Microsoft at the summit. I was really impressed with the attitude and approachability of all of them that I listened to and interacted with.  There was a lot of interest and excitement from the attendees of the summit, but what surprised me was the interest and excitement from the Microsoft staff as well.  As interested as we were in hearing about upcoming technologies, strategies, best practices and key projects using Silverlight, the Microsoft people were very interested to hear what people were using the tools for and what we needed and wanted from the platform going forward.  So in the same way that we were reenergized by what we were hearing and seeing, the Microsoft folks seem reenergized to hear about all the cool, innovative and unexpected things were doing with the tools they were creating.

I guess I have been to so many canned and half-hearted presentations in my life, that I had really lowered my expectations in a way.  I highlighted Scott Guthrie in the title of this section, but this really goes for all of the Microsoft people who we interacted with.  Scott, though, had a few aspects that were, in my mind, even over top of all the rest.  First, he missed the first day of the summit and the keynote because his plane from Paris was stopped, held and searched by authorities which caused connection problems down the line.  But the point is he not only came back from a whirlwind tour of European countries, but scheduled a “Scott Gu Unplugged” session at the beginning of the second day moving our agenda start up an hour.  In this session he opened Notepad and took any and all questions from the group, and answered every one of them – several that I didn’t expect him to answer – and was open and honest about issues and plans going forward.

4) Silverlight 4 and SharePoint 2010 Will Be a LOB Powerhouse

I was really surprised when Silverlight 4 was not only demoed at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) a few weeks ago, but a full-blown beta was released.  This followed the beta release of SharePoint 2010 and Office 2010 in November.  If you haven’t read about the new features in Silverlight 4, go read through one of the great write-ups (like Tim Heuer’s and samples from Karen Corby) and then come back – ok, now consider some of the back-end enterprise power of SharePoint 2010.  Both Silverlight 4 and SharePoint 2010 will be powerful alone – taken together they combine to provide unprecedented power for Rich Enterprise Applications (REAs?).  All the rich user interface tools and potential combined with security, workflow, services, and Office integration will enable some really useful applications – especially if you leverage the Silverlight 4 COM support.

One thing I took away from the first day of the summit was something I guess I knew but really didn’t “get”.  In talking to some of the “big name” customers/developers at the summit, I realized that these big companies had teams using every conceivable technology platform out there including Flash/Flex/AIR, Java FX, and even a few others.  They were not using Silverlight just because it was from Microsoft – they were using Silverlight for new projects because it was simply the best platform currently available for what they need to get done.  For one of them they evaluated Silverlight 2 and decided quickly against it.  Silverlight 3 was significantly improved and they started some initial prototypes and projects with it.  Now with the feature set of Silverlight 4 in preview, and soon to be released to the public, there is a platform that is a generation ahead in many areas.  Beyond this, it sounds like the development team isn’t slowing down with implementing key features even after Silverlight 4 and the mobile/device announcement coming at MIX’10.

5) Great Tools Make Great Things Possible

It is one thing to have a great platform with a lot of power and features.  It is quite another thing to have a full-featured set of tools that enable teams to build and test complex applications.  Visual Studio has been the industry standard for developer productivity for years.  With Visual Studio 2010 and Blend 3 (with SketchFlow) the bar has been raised again.  If you spend days in Visual Studio now doing development, you should try out some other toolsets sometime to just realize how lucky you really are – if you don’t use Visual Studio you might not want to check it out unless you are able to switch.  I know that I have grown to rely on a unified toolset that lets me develop everything from the browser, through the services to the database and back again – in one tool.  Those who are working in other environments face a daunting task of development and testing.