Bridging the web-Windows divide

Ray Ozzie's move is a good one, says Jon Udell

At Microsoft’s PDC (Professional Developers Conference) a decade ago, the company took the first steps towards a union of Windows and the web. Adam Bosworth showed off the technologies we now call AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), while J Allard demonstrated Active Server Pages. Hakon Lie, now Opera’s CTO, talked about a proposed standard called CSS, and the tools division rolled out a suite of components that would make internet protocols available to Win32 programmers and Office scripters.

The rift had begun to close between Windows and the web. Then progress slowed and by the time the boom went bust, it had ground to a halt. The web was gradually de-emphasised and then, with Longhorn/Vista, actively deprecated. Internet Explorer lay fallow. There was action in the WS-Heavy arena, but nobody was minding the WS-Lite store.

At the last year’s PDC, a marked fascination with RSS showed that Microsoft was again rumbling webward. In two interviews, Amar Ghandi told me about Vista’s RSS sub-system and Bill Gates described the broad role he envisioned for it.

Then, earlier this month, Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie blew the doors wide open. In the opening keynote speech at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, he demonstrated a new prototype, called Live Clipboard, which boldly aims to build three bridges at once.

The first bridge connects web and Windows applications: copy from one website, paste into another; copy from the web, paste to Outlook; copy from Excel, paste to the web. Web-style data, including RSS feeds and micro-formatted pages, is augmented on the clipboard, with Windows-style representations. Finally!

The second bridge connects web-users to emerging web activities. Subscribing to an RSS feed, for example, has never conformed to any familiar user-interface pattern. Soon copying and pasting RSS feeds will feel natural to everyone, and Ozzie hopes the copy/paste metaphor will also make advanced capabilities more accessible. Consider my LibraryLookup bookmarklet. Dragging it onto the browser’s toolbar isn’t something easily understood or explained. Using the clipboard as the wiring junction will make a lot more sense to most people.

The same metaphor can accommodate what I’ve called lightweight service composition and what Ozzie calls “wiring the web.” He showed how RSS feeds, acting as service end-points can be pasted into apps to create dynamically updating views. Anyone can master this approach to self-serve mashups.

The third bridge connects cultures. O’Reilly conferences are ground zero for the open-source alpha geek tribe. Encounters with visitors from Microsoft have sometimes been tense. But Ozzie strode into the midst of this gathering bearing an olive branch and an offering. The olive branch was Firefox, which he used for his demo. The offering was Live Clipboard, which he called a “gift to the web”. This was exactly the right way to ask for the broad support that will be necessary if Live Clipboard is to become a web-wide standard on all platforms.

“Imagine what it will be like,” one conference attendee said to me, “The first time somebody reaches for right-click/copy in a web app and it does exactly what they expect”. Indeed. Ray Ozzie and his team have planted a tree that will bear fruit both inside Microsoft and across the web.

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