What I've Learned (So Far) at TechEd 2011

I'm not sure if this year's TechEd has set any records, but it certainly feels bigger than previous shows, and in more ways than one. First of all, Atlanta's conference center—the Georgia World Congress Center—is absolutely humongous, with 3.9 million square feet of space spread out over three gigantic and labyrinthine, multi-level structures, is one of the biggest convention halls I've ever seen. And yes, I've spent considerable time in both Las Vegas and New Orleans. But it's not just the sheer physical scale of this place that impresses. There's something going on with the audience too, which Microsoft tells me is 7,500 strong. It feels like double that. This is a big show.

Trade shows are like a Forrest Gumpism—they are what you make of them. From my arguably unique perspective this year, it's been an interesting mix of pre-briefings, a reviewer workshop, a pre-conference speaking engagement/panel discussion, keynotes, several one-on-one meetings, some nice reunions with friends from around the world, and then even a few sessions, too. Between this, I try to sneak out to a few parties and dinners with co-workers and then, let's not forget, keep up with my normal weekly workload too. It seems like an eternity and then goes by in a flash. That's my week.

As I write this, TechEd has only just begun: I've got the pre-show and first day behind me, but there are still a few more days to go. So there's likely going to be more information as the week progresses, so be sure to keep up with my ongoing coverage on the SuperSite for Windows for the latest news. What's interesting to me is that a Microsoft contact told me on the side that there wasn't really much in the way of "hard news" at the show. Which is hilarious, because I've learned a lot.

MultiPoint Server 2011

Windows IT Pro puts on an annual Best of TechEd awards extravaganza, and while I don't formally play a role in that, I would like to offer up my own early front-runner for best product. And that's Microsoft's MultiPoint Server (MPS) 2011, a replacement of sorts for the much-missed Windows SteadyState solution. MultiPoint isn't free, but it does solve a very real need, especially for the educational markets that it primarily targets.

So what is MPS 2011? Hold on tight: It's a customized version of Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 that utilizes the "Colorado" management and add-in infrastructure (shared with Windows SBS 2011 Essentials and Windows Home Server 2011), provides a pseudo–Windows 7 user interface for the interactive user, and uses Remote Desktop Services (formerly Terminal Services) to enable multiple, simultaneous users to connect to one box, either physically or over a network. And it does this while providing a simple, centralized management interface, so that a teacher or lab leader can project their desktop to clients, lock clients, and perform other useful actions.

Confused? Let me put it this way. Imagine a single tower PC with multiple sets of displays, keyboards, and mice, all of which appear to their users as independent PCs. That's what MPS 2011 does. And those "clients" (for lack of a better term) can take multiple guises. They can be repurposed XP-era PC boxes. They can be traditional thin clients. They can be based off of simple, $50 USB multifunction hubs. Or they can literally just be sets of USB-based keyboards and mice and displays connected directly to the central PC.

MPS 2011 is awesome, and it just works. I'll have a longer write-up available after the show is over and the dust has settled.

Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango"

As an unabashed Windows Phone 7 advocate, I've stewed while Microsoft squandered their first year in the market by improving the base OS at a snail's pace. But the first major update to Windows Phone, codenamed "Mango" and set to be called Windows Phone 7.5, is going to right most of the wrongs. It's due in late 2011, will include important advances for developers, consumers, and business users, and will be free to all existing Windows Phone 7 users. And this week, we found out which enhancements, exactly, Microsoft is planning for business users. And it goes something like this:

Lync client. While not technically included "in" Mango, Mango users will be able to download a free mobile Lync client that provides text messaging but not video chat or, apparently, automatic presence. (You can manually set your presence through the client, however.)

Office 365 integration. While the initial version of Windows Phone supported SharePoint generally, Mango will add explicit Office 365 support, with an Office 365 account type and simple connectivity for SharePoint-based documents in the beautifully redesigned Office hub.

Improvements to the Office Mobile apps. This one was quickly glossed over, but apparently each of the Office Mobile apps in the Office hub (OneNote, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and SharePoint Workspace) are getting upgrades in Mango. I did see a demo of Excel Mobile in which an entire column of figures was selected with a swipe and then dynamic values (like a Sum) were computed on the fly in a slide-up panel.

Better email. Windows Phone's excellent Mail app gets upgraded with Conversation View and pinnable email folders so you can quickly leap to specific email folders from home screen shortcuts. Email search has been dramatically (if obviously) updated to include older, server-based mail that's not on the phone.

New IT features. On the Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) front, Windows Phone gets support for complex passwords (including alphanumeric passwords) but, sadly, not any encryption support, which could limit this system's adoption at enterprises. Mango also adds Information Rights Management (IRM) compatibility for document protection and (finally) supports hidden Wi-Fi networks.

Private app distribution. One of the weird limitations of Windows Phone is that all apps have to be distributed through the public Windows Phone Marketplace, even those that an IT department makes for internal use. Mango won't fix this entirely, but Microsoft is adding something called a "deep link" for internal apps. The idea is that these apps will be hidden so that normal users visiting the market will never see them. But you can send your employees an email with a deep link (essentially a ridiculously long URL) that they can click to trigger the download. It's a bit silly, sure, but it should do the job for some percentage of holdouts.

But wait there's more....

And just like that, I'm out of space. There's so much more—private and public clouds, Virtual Machine Manager 2011 (which really needs to be renamed to something like Cloud Manager, or Fabric Manager), some cool heterogeneous device (iOS, Android, etc.) management in System Center Configuration Manager 2012, Windows Azure, Small Business Server 2011 Essentials and Office 365 (and Windows Phone) integration, Visual Studio Lightswitch, and more. But we'll need to pick this up again next week. Until then, I'll be plugging away in Atlanta: We still have days to go.

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