Welp, I’m back from Tech-Ed. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t blog here the entire time I was gone! I did keep the Exchange blog up to date at least, we’re posting content related to SP1 and the recent update to our tools that we did, check it out. I had a fantastic time at Tech-Ed, I barely kept up on work email because I spent most of every day hanging out in the Cabana talking to customers. A lot of people came up and told me they read the Exchange blog as well as mine, which was fantastic. And a few times I was able to answer someone’s question by pulling up a recent post on the Exchange blog – gotta love when that happens.
OK back to business: Charlie from the SBS team mentions a download notification tool, and I wanted to follow up on that since that project is something I’ve owned sice its inception, and I’m really excited about it.
Disclaimer: We don’t know yet if, how or when it will be made publicly available (getting an application onto microsoft.com is a heckuva lot harder than getting a web page or site up), but as soon as I do have an answer to that I’ll make sure to blog it.
The RSS feed for the download center that Susan mentions is indeed great, but one of the problems with it is that it can be information overload – it’s not segmented by product and it doesn’t give the user any option on how frequently they want to be notified of a certain type of information. Plus, you need access to your RSS reader in order to get that information, and depending on what reader you use, that might not be readily available wherever you are. In combination with search folders in Outlook 2003, you can work around some of this (I have the SF just look for downloads with “exchange“ in the title), but the engine we’ve been building has a few more neat features in it. Here’s the current UI which is pretty unpolished, but should give you an idea of the end-user experience:
As you can see, you can choose the type of information to be notified about (hotfix, security patch, white paper, etc) as well as the frequency. My thinking is that an Exchange administrator would probably want a monthly rollup of everything we release, but a daily notification of any service packs or hotfixes.
One beauty of this system is that it’s easily extensible to any product, it’s not specific to Exchange (we just happened to be the team that decided to spend the resources to develop it, but we always intended on making it microsoft-wide). Adding support for notifications for a new product takes a couple of minutes and doesn’t require any code. And each product can choose the defaults that make sense – perhaps a product that is many years old won’t have any new white papers released, but may still have security updates, for example.
Another neat thing about this system is that it uses the download center as one datasource, but it’s not hard coded to the download center, that’s just the first datasource we chose to work on. Very long term, we might extend it to support notifying users of updates to other data sources with web services or remote data access. And although we started out focusing on email notifications (we are Exchange geeks, after all), long term our vision is that it will support many different types of notifications – RSS (of course!), SMS, email. Ideally you’d be able to say something like “I want RSS feeds for all my exchange whitepapers, but send me an SMS for any exchange hotfixes“. We’re a pretty long ways from supporting that right now, but it’s in our long term vision.
As I mentioned though, I don’t know when it will be public – or if the system as it is written will ever be public or will it be replaced by something else with similar functionality. There are many hoops to jump through in getting this kind of a thing to be available to all customers, especially for multiple products, and we’re only partway through that process. We need to fit into a corporate-wide strategy for notifications as well as obey all security & privacy policies regarding contacting our customers (the last thing we want is for the email notifications to be seen as spam from microsoft), we have to find a team that owns a Microsoft web site to own it long-term, etc. It was also developed by a vendor (but tested/PM’d in-house), and his contract will be ending soon. There have been many challenges on the road, we’ve worked through a bunch, but there are more coming. And since I’m changing jobs, I will not be the person to realize the long term vision, which is a bummer, but I’m handing it off to a very capable team and I know they will do their best.
So why am I talking about it, if it’s not available? Doesn’t that just make me a tease? Well, I decided it was better to be open about our plans, even though I can’t commit to anything. I wanted to make sure you know that lack of awareness about our updates is a problem that I want to solve, and that we’re doing our best. I know that sometimes it seems like Microsoft is locked up in a tower designing away without any regard to customer need, and I’m hoping to help change that perception. We live and breathe customer need, and I’m excited to be part of the group of bloggers that is (hopefully!) helping change that perception.