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RSS Guru Goes Offline

When Niall Kennedy abruptly left Microsoft in August, it surprised a lot of Web 2.0 watchers. Many had hailed the RSS guru's arrival from Technorati as a sign that Microsoft was really "getting it" when it came to developing innovative new Web technologies and services. But less than six months after starting at Microsoft, he was gone. Kennedy spoke with us from San Francisco and explains what went wrong and how Microsoft might get it right as it competes with hungry Web 2.0 competitors.

Q. Redmond: If before going in someone had told you, six months from now you will be out the door, would you have believed them?
A. Niall Kennedy: I had people who told me that, actually. And I said, well there is only one way to find out, and it's too good of an opportunity not to try. The ability to shape the future of RSS and Atom feeds and the syndication platform in general at the scale Microsoft has. My response was, well, I at least have to try.

Q. What were your expectations going in?
A. I joined Microsoft because there was an invest-to-win strategy, where the company wanted to make a big splash in the online services base. I felt like they had woken up after many years of Google being triumphant in search and other areas and they were ready to make a serious play in this space. And that was one of the reasons I was hired, because my bosses knew I could attract some talent into the company to work on projects like this with me.

Q. You were at Microsoft during an incredibly busy time, weren't you? Was that a factor?
A. There is definitely a lot going on and a lot of releases happening at the same time in the desktop space, which accounts for the majority of Microsoft's revenue. How that impacted the head count that my division had and my ability to hire is something I still question, because I just didn't have it. There are so many things that are changing within Microsoft I think I would have to hold my breath awhile before getting it done.

Q. Is Ray Ozzie surrounding himself with the right technical people to compete in the Web 2.0 space?
A.
Well, he has some incubation groups that can operate outside the Microsoft bureaucracy. Small groups that are introducing things like Live Clipboard. Some of these different groups that have introduced the things that people look at Microsoft and say, 'Oh that's really cool.' It's the small teams that have been set up just directly reporting into Ozzie, and getting outside of that 72,000-person structure.

The question with Ozzie that will have to be determined long term is that there are a lot of people there who have been there 10 to 14 years. How well will the rank and file react to someone who is fairly new to the company, under a year?

Q. You've talked about opportunities in the spaces between existing vendors and services.
A.
I'll take advantage of that void a bit. Microsoft is not going to pull in del.icio.us links, or for example Google won't display a Virtual Earth Bird's Eye view. But if you have a service such as Zillow, they can give Google Maps as a map view and then they can also provide an additional view on that, using the Bird's Eye view from Microsoft, where none of these big companies can do something like that. It's looking at what is the best data out there, what are the best services out there you want to use.

Q. How is Microsoft positioned today to compete in the Web 2.0 space?
A. They have a tough road ahead of them. I think the Web crowd is a crowd that generally favors more open companies. Microsoft hasn't had an open reputation. [These developers] use tools like PHP, they program in open source tools like Eclipse, so that's a tougher ground to go into.

But there is a big play for Microsoft in Web 2.0 in the enterprise, and that's where people are already using Exchange and Active Directory. Programmers want integration with that kind of back-end. So I see a lot of the tools that are out there in the Web 2.0 Internet world making their way into the new round of applications for the enterprise and how you get work done inside a browser window at work.

Q. Is it hard to keep Web 2.0 talent at Microsoft?
A.
I think it's tough to keep them at Microsoft. You see employees leave for smaller companies. It also depends on a manager referring to his employees as 'warm bodies' -- which is something I heard multiple times at Microsoft -- or are these employees actually intellectual leaders?

One Microsoft employee when I left decided to blog about 10,000 people joining Microsoft over the last year and yeah, some people left -- as if trying to use a pure numbers game to talk about the type of people who are working on these new projects.

Q. Hmm. So all of a sudden you are talking about pork bellies over there.
A.
Right. You're talking about warm bodies, instead of the innovation that is quoted by the executives all the time.

Q. It comes back to respecting the intellectual capital, doesn't it?
A. Right, I think intellectual capital is very important, and recognizing that intellectual capital and keeping those types of performers around, as well as encouraging small teams of developers. Start.com was a very small group that was given support by the management to do something new and now that's the centerpiece of Windows Live. Live.com is what Start.com became.

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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