Dan Appleman: Kibitzing and Commentary

My personal blog

Microsoft and Blogging

I’ve often stated that the single most important technical innovation at Microsoft was the MSDN library. Many of you probably can’t remember the sheer pain of developing under Windows before it existed. Manually searching through thousands of pages of reference guides and books slowed things down to a crawl. Today, MSDN is our primary reference – even if most of us use Google as its front end.
But over the past couple of years a quiet revolution has happened at Microsoft that is starting to have a huge impact – especially on more advanced developers or those working with newer technologies. An impact on discoverability that is perhaps second only to MSDN itself.
We all know about Microsoft’s initial love-hate relationship with blogging. And of course, former Microsoft evangelist Robert Scoble was probably the single greatest driving force in getting Microsoft to recognize the value of blogging as a communication tool. But Robert was an evangelist, and while he may have exposed us to interesting technology, that’s not where the really important change happened. The really key change is that at some point it became common (encouraged?) for Microsoft developers to blog about their work. I suspect Robert helped bring about this change as well.
When I started working with Microsoft technologies, the developers lived in an ivory tower (with individual offices, of course), and it was extremely difficult for anyone not at Microsoft to actually communicate with them directly. Worse, anything they knew about the technology they created could only be released to the world after going through the filter of the product documentation group, whose expertise often seemed more in the area of obfuscation than communication.
Now, a few years later, the bloggers on the developer team have generated a substantial body of work. And while they do talk about all kinds of things, many of the posts are about the technologies they are working on – and as the ones who wrote the code, the information you’ll find there can be incredibly valuable.
It’s for that reason that when I built searchdotnet.com, one of the first sites I added was blogs.msdn.com – and that I tagged the entire site as “by experts”. These blogs don’t always come up on the top of the results, but I’ve found that the tougher the problem is, the more likely it is I’ll end up there, reading some incredibly detailed explanation of why a particular design choice was made and as a result what I’m trying to do can’t possibly work.

DotNetrocks, Gadgets and a Facelift for SearchDotNet.com

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for SearchDotNet.com. It started late last month when I was interviewed for DotNetRocks.com while at the DevConnections show in Orlando Florida. The topic of the interview was mostly about discoverability – how we as developers go about discovering information and existing solutions to problems. We did stray into various other topics, including some stories about earlier adventures (misadventures?) from way back when….
Shortly after the interview, a listener (at least I believe it was) posted a comment on my post describing the launch of SearchDotNet.com where he noted “A little Google homepage widget would be a nice addition”
What a great idea. Of course, I’d never actually written a “gadget” for Google, but it turned out to be remarkably simple, at least as far as simple gadgets are concerned. First I wrote a “Universal” gadget from use on custom Google Homepages. These were also supposed to work on Google’s desktop, but it turns out the latest version has a bug that prevents this for now. So I went ahead and created a Google Desktop gadget, that’s a somewhat trickier process.
While working on the gadgets I also realized that the site still had the minimalist (i.e. ugly) user interface I’d thrown together on the day I launched. It may seem odd that I hadn’t noticed this, but while I use searchdotnet.com all the time, I actually use it from the browser search box (the site has implemented OpenSearch from almost the beginning, so it’s always available as one of the search providers on my browser).
So I spent the past few days cleaning up the site. Not that I’d call it beautiful, but it’s quite a bit better than it was. More important, it now makes proper use of both CSS and .NET master pages, so I’ll be able to more easily update the design later.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank readers who have recommended additional sites for searchdotnet.com – I didn’t add all of them (there’s a new section of the site that discusses inclusion criteria), but I did add many of them, particularly some great new experts sites.