Can Microsoft Change? Part 2

On Tuesday I wrote about my personal cynicism regarding Microsoft's prospects, as it transforms from a shrink-wrap software outfit into a company committed to hybrid open and close-source software and services.

It drew some interesting responses:

"Microsoft has a troubled future ahead of it. The only way it can compete with cloud computing is to adopt the Google business model -- why do you think it so desperately needs Yahoo?" wrote RedDevNews reader Mike. "It knows that a large majority of the shrink-wrapped software's days are numbered. And if it loses the Office cash cow, it's gonna hit the bottom line hard."

Another reader compared present-day Microsoft to a struggling mastodon caught in a tar pit, implying that the company is doomed to sink to the bottom, much the way Digital Equipment Corp. did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Reader Shea Riley said Microsoft has mastered the model for staying on top: Win the hearts and minds of developers. But that challenge is getting tougher.

"Developer assimilation has always been the driving strategy of Microsoft and it'll have to stay ahead of the game to succeed in a semi-open configuration, so that other developers don't create replacements for the non-open parts that support the open parts or formats," Riley wrote.

A blog reader who goes by the handle "smehaffie" said past results should predict future performance.

"Microsoft has a history of changing with the times, otherwise they would not have been so successful for almost three decades," smehaffie wrote. "For example: VB6 was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then Java came along with J2EE and it was the Microsoft killer. As we all know, J2EE was way too hard to use and thus never really adopted to its fullest extent. [Microsoft's] .NET is J2EE done right."

As smehaffie put it, Microsoft can afford to bide its time to fully address issues related to cloud computing, and then swoop in with a solution that is superior to its competition. "Suddenly, Microsoft will have a better offering with millions of developers ready to jump on and with very little learning curve get the full benefits of cloud computing. Never count out Microsoft."

I disagree with smehaffie's stance, largely because of the unique scope and scale of the challenge facing Microsoft today. Also, the management team seems ill-equipped to pull a solution out of a hat. The ongoing car chase that is the Microsoft-Yahoo merger conversation offers a glimpse of the problem.

More to the point, there's a growing drumbeat around the performance of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. For all its success, Microsoft has been more or less treading water for years. The company's efforts to establish an online presence (MSN), to break into media (MSNBC) and to counter Google in the search and consumer Web portal space (Windows Live) have all fallen flat. The troubled Vista product launch offered a stark look into an organization that had calcified badly since XP rolled out 2001.

Not that Microsoft is without weapons in the fight. Strategically, .NET has emerged as the successor to Windows, providing the crucial pivot point against which Microsoft can leverage other products and technologies. Visual Studio is an incredibly broad and deep IDE that does a marvelous job of keeping developers close to home. The Expression Suite is opening a flank on Adobe and Apple. And, hey, there's always Office.

Make no mistake: Microsoft is a development powerhouse that is only getting stronger over time. But Redmond has struggled to advance its position in far too many markets. Despite the strategic advantages of .NET, Windows, Office and development tools like Visual Studio, I remain skeptical that Microsoft as it looks today will be able to sit atop a services-centric software market.

My question is: What needs to change to get Microsoft from here to there? E-mail me at mdesmond@reddevnews.com.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 07/10/2008 at 1:15 PM3 comments


Can Microsoft Really Change?

Like so many publications and Web sites in the IT industry, Redmond Developer News has spent a lot of time pondering the future of Microsoft after Bill Gates. RDN columnist Will Zachmann just wrote a feature story that looks at Gates' developer legacy. And frequent RDN contributor and Redmond magazine columnist Mary Jo Foley has written an entire book about what Microsoft must do in the Web 2.0 (and, by definition, post-Gates) computing era.

Yet, I struggle with almost every scenario that involves a sharp divergence from the status quo. The problem, in the short- and mid-term, is that Microsoft seems to have a lot more to lose by changing course than it does by holding tight to its vast, strategic advantage.

Sure, Microsoft has unleashed a torrent of valuable protocol and API documentation under the aegis of its interoperability pledge. And yes, Redmond has done once-unthinkable things like open its Office file formats under an XML-based industry standard.

It's even found ways to play nicely with open source developers, extending a hand to the Mono and Moonlight projects for Linux, and providing the CodePlex and Port 25 sites to promote open source development for Windows.

But none of this answers an inescapable question: How is Microsoft supposed to adequately monetize the coming world of free and services-based software when it can apply a vast premium for its shrink-wrapped goods?

Every time I hear open source proponents argue the upside of a more open Microsoft strategy, I feel like Tom Hanks' character Josh in the movie Big. Sitting in a product meeting, the boy in a man's body listens to a rather badly considered pitch for a child's toy (a building that turns into a robot). The adults all quietly nod their heads, but Josh raises his hand and says flatly: "I don't get it."

Maybe the future of Microsoft does include service-centric applications, modular operating systems and hybrid open and closed-source software. Maybe the product wizards in Redmond can scheme a way to ever higher profits and indomitable market share. But I have to believe that an awful lot has to go just right for Microsoft to see its way through such a transformation.

As a developer, do you believe Microsoft should open its business and its software even further? And if so, do you see a way for Redmond to profit from such an approach? E-mail me at mdesmond@reddevnews.com.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 07/08/2008 at 1:15 PM6 comments


Bill Moves On

Michael Desmond, editor in chief of Redmond Developer News and Desmond File blogger, is on vacation. Filling in for him today is Kathleen Richards, RDN's senior editor.

Bill Gates is finishing up his final week at Microsoft on Friday to work full-time for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates ends his stint in Redmond as one of the richest men in the world and the face of the PC industry that he envisioned with his childhood friend and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in the mid-'70s.

In our June 15 cover story "Decoding Bill," author and RDN .NET columnist William F. Zachmann checked in with several of the rockstar programmers of the '70s and '80s to find out what they thought of Gates' legacy as a software developer and technologist.

We were actually surprised by the admiration and respect that these landmark developers -- C. Wayne Ratliff (dBASE), Robert Carr (Frameworks) and Dan Bricklin (VisiCalc), among others -- had for Bill.

"It is very clear that these folks that competed with Bill long before Microsoft was a monopoly have a high regard for him," Zachmann said.

He pointed out that today, many of the technologists who faced Microsoft after it became a monopoly have a negative view of the company, and of Gates' contributions to the industry at large.

"It's nice to have another perspective," Zachmann said. "The developers that knew Bill early on just realized that they were out-competed."

Tell us what you'll miss most about Bill, and weigh in on his legacy as a developer and technologist at krichards@reddevnews.com.

--Kathleen Richards

Posted on 06/24/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Microsoft's Data Access Roadmap

Michael Desmond, editor in chief of Redmond Developer News and Desmond File blogger, is on vacation. Filling in for him today is Kathleen Richards, RDN's senior editor.

Yesterday, Microsoft's Entity Framework program manager Tim Mallalieu announced in his blog the beginnings of engineering work on ADO.NET Entity Framework V2.0.

In the works are some key features that address some of the early backlash related to the V1 betas, including support for persistence ignorance, n-tier and test-driven development scenarios.

The Entity Framework V1 (still in beta) is part of Visual Studio 2008 Service Pack 1 and .NET 3.5 SP1, which are also available in beta. The Entity Framework has involved years of work and faced several road bumps along the way.

With .NET 3.5 ushering in LINQ, and VS 2008 SP1 and .NET 3.5 SP1 bringing ADO.NET Entity Framework, ASP.NET Dynamic Data, ADO.NET Data Services (Astoria) and even SQL Server 2008 tools into the equation, what strategies does your organization have for adopting Microsoft's various data access technologies? Tell us what you're looking at and what questions you need answered. Send me an e-mail at krichards@reddevnews.com.

--Kathleen Richards

Posted on 06/24/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Silverlight Not Plugged In to Firefox 3

Michael Desmond, editor in chief of Redmond Developer News and Desmond File blogger, is on vacation. Filling in for him today is Kathleen Richards, RDN's senior editor.

Microsoft is running into some compatibility issues with Silverlight and the latest release of Firefox. Available as a free download earlier this week, Firefox 3 is a major upgrade to the popular Mozilla browser.

"From what I've seen, the older versions of Firefox are fine," said John Papa, a senior .NET consultant at ASPSOFT and author of an upcoming book on data access and Silverlight 2. "There is a list of browsers on the Silverlight site and they all work very well – the only one I have seen issues with is the new version of Firefox."

He continued, "Some of the biggest issues, quite honestly, are getting the right version of Silverlight installed."

Tim Heuer, developer evangelist for Silverlight at Microsoft, addressed some of the Firefox 3 issues in his blog:

"The nutshell version is that there was an apparent change in how NPAPI model was implemented in FF3. Despite the back and forth in the bug report, Microsoft has made some servicing updates as well as SDK updates that make FF3 and Silverlight play nice together. There still seems to be some broader concern over the FF3 implementation (as there were a number of plugins that stopped working as well), but at least a level of work around has been established for Silverlight."

Cynics may say that Microsoft is probably in no hurry to make Silverlight compatible with other operating systems and browsers, especially Firefox, its top competitor in the browser market.

"I don't see it as a problem," Papa said, "because Microsoft is totally aware that if they don't solve that problem, [Silverlight] is certainly not going to take off. They really want it to be a viable option to Flash and if they want that, they can't just make it work on IE."

Although the problems may have resulted from changes in Firefox, Silverlight is still a brand-new technology, and many developers are waiting to see how it all shakes out before they decide to build apps with it. Microsoft released Silverlight 1 in September 2007 and Silverlight 2 beta 2 early last month.

Web developer Jeffrey McManus, the chief executive of Platform Associates and Approver.com, said he's sticking with HTML and AJAX for now, and taking a wait-and-see approach with Silverlight.

"I am holding off doing anything with it," he said. "If something crazy happens and it really starts catching on or they were to make it more open in the sense that it was less of a Microsoft proprietary kind of thing -- I know there is the Moonlight implementation that the Mono guys are working on...The learning curve and risk of working with Silverlight is not going to outweigh the benefits of sticking with the trendier stuff – that's just kind of where I am with that stuff."

Are you holding off on Silverlight development because the technology is proprietary? Are you building apps with Silverlight, or waiting to see if it catches on? Weigh in on all things Silverlight at krichards@reddevnews.com.

--Kathleen Richards

Posted on 06/19/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments


SharePoint Skills Shortfall

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably noticed that Microsoft SharePoint is on a serious roll. With Windows SharePoint Server (WSS) and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007, Microsoft has cooked up a one-two portal punch that has surprised even longtime industry watchers.

SharePoint, it seems, is everywhere. And that's creating a huge opportunity for development shops to begin rolling out some exciting new applications and services against the platform.

There's just one problem: There's not nearly enough experienced, SharePoint development talent to go around.

Vincent Rothwell, a London-based consultant and principal of SPWorks, put it bluntly. "Every single person I talk to wants to employ SharePoint developers and nobody can find them," he said. "A lot of people don't necessarily want to train people up, though they will."

Rothwell said ASP.NET developers, with their background in Web application programming, are typically best suited for the transition into SharePoint work. But he said that gets you only so far.

Chris Wasser, solution architect at consultancy Competitive Computing in Colchester, Vt., agreed.

"People with that experience are in the best position to develop on top of SharePoint. But it's different, that's the bottom line. People need to adjust to that change to be able to develop on SharePoint. Our experience with newer folks is it's a challenge," Wasser said.

"In a lot of ways," he continued, "the product got out ahead of [Microsoft's] developers, which is not really a good situation, in my opinion. They weren't prepared for what was going to happen when they released it, really."

The good news, Wasser said, is that Microsoft is starting to catch up with itself. "Now there's more information out there," he said. "I think Microsoft is taking steps in the right direction. They just launched a site that is specifically focused on SharePoint development." Check it out for yourself here.

Is your shop struggling to find competent SharePoint developers? Let me know how you're working around the skills shortfall at mdesmond@reddevnews.com.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 06/17/2008 at 1:15 PM6 comments


Microsoft's Open Source Faux Pas

File this under: Things that make you say "Oops."

Microsoft has been hosting on its CodePlex shared source site a project called Sandcastle, which is an XML documentation compiler for managed class libraries. The project was published under the Microsoft Permissive License (Ms-PL) and promoted as an open source project. Ms-PL is one of two Microsoft license programs to earn the approval of the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

There was just one problem: Sandcastle wasn't open source at all. The team producing the project at Microsoft had failed to publish and share the project source code, which violates the OSI's terms and conditions.

After a flurry of complaints, Microsoft open source guru Sam Ramji quickly published a public apology on the Port 25 blog page and announced that Sandcastle was being removed from the CodePlex site. You can read his entry here.

Ramji said Sandcastle might return to CodePlex once the team commits to releasing the source code, but no decision has been made yet.

The fix to Microsoft's open source faux pas creates another problem: Developers were relying on Sandcastle to produce code documentation. Numerous responses to Ramji's blog post indicate real frustration over having the documentation tool summarily yanked out from under their projects. One comment from poster JohnC sums up the issue nicely:

"A lot of people rely on Sandcastle. I use it for my business and would gladly pay for it if it was commercial software and reasonably priced.

I have no beef with open source particularly, but I couldn't care less about having the source code for a utility program that I use in my business. This is a bit draconian and just the sort of bizarre, unthinking and most importantly unaccountable exploit that continues to cement the bad reputation of open source projects in my mind and others.

Surely some other place could have been found in a timely manner to host the binaries before removing it from CodePlex. Yanking widely used and important software without warning is not something a respectable for-profit company *accountable* to its customers could ever afford to do."

What do you think of Microsoft's decision to yank Sandcastle? Is Microsoft doing that right thing in moving to comply right away, or is it being short-sighted by hurting customers who value the Sandcastle code? E-mail me at mdesmond@reddevnews.com.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 06/12/2008 at 1:15 PM8 comments


Getting SharePoint-Savvy

At the Tech-Ed Developers Conference last week in Orlando, Bill Gates and Co. spent most of the keynote talking about Silverlight, Visual Studio and even its refreshed Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio product.

However, one topic that looks like developers are very anxious to hear a lot more about is SharePoint Server.

The Q&A session after Bill Gates' conference keynote offered a glimpse, as one attendee, Bill King of BrightPlanet, specifically criticized the lack of code support for SharePoint developers. Gates' response was telling.

"So, the need now to take and say, 'OK, when I'm working in SharePoint I can connect over to Visual Studio and have the applications stored there,' that's something that we need to support," Gates admitted. "Today...you have to manually move it into the SharePoint store. So, you don't have the same rich representation that we have over in that Visual Studio world. So, it's a natural evolution for us to connect up SharePoint to Visual Studio."

The show floor echoed King's sentiments. You couldn't turn down an aisle without running into another SharePoint-related vendor booth. Companies like AVIcode, dynaTrace, K2, Quest and SoftArtisans all featured SharePoint-specific solutions. Developers are looking for ways to integrate, extend and enable their SharePoint deployments, and it's clear that vendors are moving fast to meet that need.

Now it's Microsoft's turn. The company has unleashed a platform, in part by baking Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) into every copy of Windows Server. Strong Office integration has enabled Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) to emerge as a phenomenon. Those efforts have given rise to a grassroots movement, with companies suddenly finding hundreds of sites and portals popping up at the departmental level to enable all manner of workflows.

The effort to tie those disparate sites together and shape them into a more capable and strategic enterprise tool is beginning. And for both Microsoft and SharePoint-bound developers, that means some very important work lies ahead.

We plan to explore in-depth the arena of SharePoint-based development, but we want to hear from you first. What kind of challenges are you facing with SharePoint as a development platform, and what kinds of things do you want to see Microsoft deliver as you move forward? E-mail me at mdesmond@reddevnews.com.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 06/10/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments


Silverlight 2 Beta 2 On Track

Good news on the Silverlight 2 front. The new beta, which is now expected to drop on Friday, should provide a fairly smooth ride for developers currently working with beta 1 or interim builds.

Anthony Lombardo, lead technical evangelist at Infragistics, said his teams were ready to "stay up all night" to update their Silverlight 2-based grid and gauge controls for the new beta. They needn't have bothered.

"The last three past builds we got from Microsoft we were able to apply without making a single change to our code, and that's pretty impressive at this point," Lombardo said. "The biggest thing we've seen between beta 1 and beta 2 is just the solidification of a few things. Now that we're at beta 2, we pretty much know if [a feature] made it or didn't make it."

Julian Bucknall, CTO of Developer Express, agreed. His company has Silverlight versions of grid and panel controls under development, and the move from Silverlight beta 1 to beta 2 has been smoother.

One mystery: Lombardo said he noticed a Silverlight presentation on Wednesday that featured triggers in a demo. "I need to talk to some people about that," he laughed.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 06/05/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments


Tech-Ed Developer Conference a Mixed Bag

Bill Gates' sometimes-inspired, sometimes-tired keynote may have been a harbinger of the first week of this year's Tech-Ed Conference, which, for the first time, has been split into two parts: the developer conference this week and the IT professional conference next week.

While the focus on dev tools and issues is a boon for developers and guys like me who watch this industry for a living, it's a mixed bag for vendors.

Alexander Falk, CEO of XML and data tools maker Altova, believes the quality of the audience is better than it was in previous Tech-Ed conferences. His problem: Altova markets high-volume, client-side tooling like XMLSpy, and he'd like to see more people exposed to Altova's newly released tools suite. He's hoping next week's IT conference makes up the difference.

From a news standpoint, Gates' keynote ushered in a lot of new technologies for developers to sink their teeth into, but failed to go in-depth into most of them. Victor Mushkatin, CTO of application monitoring solution maker AVIcode, singles out the lip service paid to Oslo, the far-reaching initiative to establish model-driven application development and a unified repository for code, assets and resources. He says the keynote failed to move the discussion forward. Granted, there were some sessions this week that did go deeper into Oslo, and Microsoft is planning to put more meat on the bone at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles in October.

Mushkatin did praise Microsoft's new modeling approach, demoed by Microsoft Technical Fellow Brian Harry at the Tuesday morning keynote. Mushkatin said Microsoft is making progress in combating what he calls the "complexity crisis" around SOA and services development, where far-flung dependencies pose a serious threat to application performance and reliability.

"It's extremely important to make models live," Mushkatin said. "Without that, models will die. It's just another artifact that you print and you put on paper. Only if you can look at the code or switch view and see that code on the model, that's when it makes sense."

Posted by Michael Desmond on 06/05/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments


Tech-Ed: Silverlight Goes Silverdark

You know the old adage: "It ain't a conference until some poor schmuck loses his job for mangling a demo."

Well, the Microsoft Tech-Ed 2008 developers confab reached conference status right off the bat, when Microsoft's Webcast of Bill Gates' anticipated keynote address failed to...well, cast.

Unlucky journos and developers stuck in the hinterlands (that is, outside of the Orlando Convention Center) enjoyed an endless loop of peppy, spacey music as they waited for the live Silverlight feed of Gates' speech to kick off. It never did.

According to Microsoft folks, the Silverlight Webcast fell victim to technical difficulties. While both a transcript and stored video of Gates' presentation were being made available online after the fact, neither action remedies the collective abuse suffered by eardrums worldwide, as hopeful attendees sat and waited.

I eventually found an alternate, non-Silverlight ASX video feed on MSDN. That, at least, put an end to the music loop.

Now, I'm not one to make cheap judgments. But if I'm Bill Gates, pitching enterprise-class, mission-critical foundation technologies like the Oslo application modeling and repository project and the newly announced Velocity in-memory distributed application caching technology, I am not pleased.

Silverlight had a chance to do its thing in front of thousands of attentive developers worldwide. This was a real opportunity missed.

We're covering the Tech-Ed proceedings online at RedDevNews.com. But here are a few quick thoughts on the session:

Best Demo: In the interest of full disclosure, I despise demos. But the look into the architectural design tooling in Visual Studio Team System by Microsoft Technical Fellow Brian Harry was pretty compelling.

Scariest moment: Without doubt, the Ballmer Bot. When the 3-foot-tall robot, topped with an LCD screen displaying Steve Ballmer's mug, started chanting, "Developers, developers, developers," I briefly feared I might pass out. Amusing, yes, but too scary, man.

Best Audience Question: The Q&A sessions included developer Bill King's query about the disconnect between Visual Studio and SharePoint. Gates admitted that SharePoint has grown into a true development platform and that the SharePoint product needs to advance to support the types of applications it is now hosting. Look for SharePoint to get a lot of attention in the year to come.

Channeling Roger Ebert: Microsoft has done plenty of video spots over the years, and the 15-minute spoof chronicling Bill's last days at Redmond is a credible effort. The segment with Matthew McConaughey bringing his loose-limbed, stoner-inspired humor in the role of Bill's personal trainer is outstanding. Alas, this thing was one hard-nosed edit away from being brilliant, but the unfunny political cameos and long-winded parade of celebs weighed it down. Bonus points to Brian Williams for his crack about Bill's $7 haircuts.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 06/03/2008 at 1:15 PM2 comments


The MinWin Meme

A few months back, conventional wisdom said that Microsoft had big plans afoot for the next version of the Windows client after Vista, known currently as Windows 7.

Much of that expectation arose not from whisper releases or leaks out of the Redmond campus, but rather from an innocuous technical presentation given by Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Eric Traut at the University of Illinois. (You can view the portion touching on Windows 7 at the I Started Something blog.)

In the presentation, Traut spent a few minutes demoing Windows 7 to the audience and referred to the MinWin kernel, the bare-bones, stripped-down, core OS code base that industry watchers think may end up driving a new generation of Windows development. At points, Traut seemed to imply that MinWin is to be the core of Windows 7 itself and that it's an internal project not for public release. In short, he seemed to contradict himself.

"We created what we call MinWin. This is an internal only -- you won't see us productizing this, but you can imagine this being used as the basis for products in the future," Traut said, before launching a new window on screen. "This is the Windows 7 source code base. It's about 25 megs on disk. Compare that to the about 4 gigs on disk that the full Windows Vista takes up."

That's all it took. Bloggers and Microsoft watchers speculated that Windows 7 would feature a radically streamlined core. The implication was that the next OS waypoint would be a sharp departure from the legacy established by Windows 2000/XP/Vista.

The thing is, Traut never said -- or intended to say -- anything of the sort. The kernel project known as MinWin, which does seem designed to undo Vista's vast and lumbering code base, won't be in Windows 7. The next client OS out of Microsoft, we've recently learned, will be very much based on a refined Vista core, albeit with enhanced mobile support and aggressive integration with Microsoft's Windows Live online services.

But Traut's presentation and the misdirected meme it launched are a telling preview of what's to come in the arena of Windows and Windows Live development.

As Mary Jo Foley reported in our May 15 issue, Windows is being developed under strict radio silence. And that means an army of bloggers, reporters and pundits will be watching every cough and twitch out of Redmond in an effort to glean where the company is going next. And I think we can expect a lot of false alarms as a result.

What do you think of Microsoft's decision to lock down information about Windows and Live development? E-mail me at mdesmonds@reddevnews.com.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/29/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments


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