Microsoft's Big Day

On Feb. 27, Microsoft is kicking off a three-headed launch event for Visual Studio 2008, SQL Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008. As ever, with these formal launch events, the actual date of the shindig has little bearing on the state of the software itself. Visual Studio 2008 went final back in November, while SQL Server 2008 won't ship until the second quarter of this year.

What we want to know is: What are your thoughts on the new versions of these landmark Microsoft products? Have you been working with the 2008 versions of Visual Studio, SQL Server or Windows Server? If so, we want to hear from you.

Write me at [email protected], and your input could appear in an upcoming issue of Redmond Developer News magazine.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/24/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

IE 8: Compliance Fix or House of Cards?

Looks like things are heating up around the next version of Internet Explorer, expected to arrive in beta form in the first half of 2008. Back in December 2007, IE Group GM Dean Hachamovitch wrote in a blog posting that IE 8 had passed the Acid2 compatibility test. Microsoft has also made it known that developers will get details about the new browser at the MIX08 conference, scheduled to take place March 5 to 7 in Las Vegas.

Now, a small brouhaha has kicked up around a recent blog posting by IE Platform Architect Chris Wilson, who informed developers that IE 8 will implement a new, super-standards mode as a way to provide optimal standards compatibility in IE 8. The new mode, implemented using meta tags, joins the existing "Standards mode" and "Quirks mode" found in IE 7 to ensure proper rendering of existing Web pages -- even those turned for the compliance-challenged IE 5 and IE 6 browsers.

To Wilson's reasoning, the new mode will let developers strive for aggressive standards compliance (via super-standards mode) without having to worry about IE 8 immediately breaking existing pages. "We also think this approach allows developers to opt in to standards behavior on their own schedule and as it makes sense to them, instead of forcing developers into a responsive mode when a new version of IE has different behavior on their current pages," Wilson wrote.

But a lot of developers see this as Microsoft adding yet another layer of complexity.

"If you've learned anything in developing IE, it's that new versions don't encourage developers to use standards," wrote one poster, identified as jm. "They'll open their site in IE and see that their IE 5 code looks the same now. If it looks the same, then why change coding techniques? I thought IE 8 was about advancing the Web. I thought advancing the Web didn't include stuffing your head with useless meta tags."

Over on, poster potifar had this to say: "Gah, that's a horrible 'solution.' We'll never be able to get a free, open, standards-based Web if Microsoft [is] going to keep forcing us to use their weird hacks to get IE to work properly. I say make IE 8 properly standards-compliant by default, open up the development process and inform the Web developer crowd about what to expect, and solve the IE problem for good."

What do you think? Is Microsoft piling more cards on top of a shaky house of compliance? Or is this truly a way to let Web developers ease their sites away from the legacy of IE 5 and IE 6? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/24/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

Altova's Alexander Falk Discusses OOXML and ODF

Last week, I wrote about the recent Burton Group report that provided an overview of the Office Open XML (OOXML) and OpenDocument Format (ODF) file format specifications. The report, which is aimed at an enterprise readership, concludes that OOXML enjoys a number of critical advantages over ODF, in large part because it maps aggressively to the existing features and functions provided by current and past versions of Microsoft Office. You can find a synopsis of the report here.

One familiar name that came up in the course of talking to Burton Group Research Director Peter O'Kelly about the report he authored was that of Alexander Falk. Falk is CEO of Altova, a leading provider of XML tools and utilities. I had spoken with Falk several months ago in the course of reporting an earlier story for RDN, and figured now was probably a good time to catch up with him again.

Here's a quick Q&A that offers Falk's informed takes on the benefits of the XML transition, prospects for ODF going forward and why it may already be entirely too late to stop Microsoft's OOXML spec.

Redmond Developer News: You mentioned in our previous talk that Altova has had plenty of inquiries about OOXML support, but none at all for ODF. Does that remain the case today? What kind of interest in ODF are you seeing from your customers and the broader industry?
Alexander Falk: That is still largely the case. In terms of actual customer inquiries regarding need for ODF, we have not seen any interest from our customers. What we did start to see -- although very rarely -- are questions from customers who are already using our OOXML features and have read articles about OOXML vs. ODF in the press and want to know if we also plan to add ODF support. But I would categorize those few questions as more out of interest rather than out of need or actual plans to implement, from what I can see.

Do you feel that ISO approval will significantly enhance adoption of OOXML? Or will OOXML use grow regardless of what happens at the end of February?
I see the ISO vote as a non-event. In my opinion, the real-world adoption of OOXML is primarily driven by the ubiquity of Microsoft Office much more than any standards body. However, a positive ISO vote would probably have a positive impact on the rate of adoption, especially in the government sector and possibly in Europe, where Microsoft is still facing some antitrust issues and other up-hill regulatory battles.

The larger-picture challenge of XML-based file formats is the change from an application-based model to a content-based model. Do you have any advice for dev shops as they craft solutions to take advantage of open, XML-based documents and files? Are there any specific challenges or pitfalls ahead?
My advice to dev shops is to start working with OOXML as early as possible. The best way to get started is to get the developers to experiment with OOXML documents, look inside them and understand how they work. This can be done most easily with the OOXML support in XMLSpy.

Altova's royalty-free XML engine, AltovaXML, can also be used by developers to apply XSLT 1.0 or 2.0 transformations or XQuery 1.0 to any OOXML document to reuse and repurpose the data from such documents in an open, standards-based way. The same is true for other open, XML-based document formats and files.

What do the arrival of OOXML and ODF mean for Altova's business? Can you give us a sense of the opportunity and challenges that face your company?
We see the arrival of OOXML and ODF just like any other new XML-based industry standard: a validation of XML as a powerful technology for information exchange and a tremendous opportunity not just for Altova, but for developers in all organizations who need to work with data from a variety of different sources. The fact that office productivity applications now emit XML data is a gigantic opportunity to reuse and repurpose that data and develop a whole new class of applications.

Here at Altova, our focus is on creating the best developer tools for working with all XML data and making our customers' lives easier by introducing productivity enhancements and other cool new features that take advantage of new technologies, and as such we will continue to increase and enhance OOXML support throughout our entire product line.

Do you, as an XML expert, see any scenario by which ODF can gain ground on Microsoft and OOXML? Any suggestions, as it were, for that community to succeed?
No, I really don't see how ODF could win. There may be a place for ODF in the open source community and maybe in some developing countries, where license fees for Microsoft Office could be a barrier to entry, but this is really not a technical question, so XML expertise is not going to provide the answer. The recent Burton Group report very much brings it to the point and shows that ODF may end up coexisting with OOXML, but in a much smaller niche role than the ODF camp would have people believe.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/22/2008 at 1:15 PM23 comments

Standard or Not, OOXML Has a Lot Going for It

With the February vote approaching to ratify Microsoft Office Open XML as a standard under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), we're keeping a close eye on developments in both OOXML and the Open Document Format (ODF) specifications.

Last week, Burton Group analyst Peter O'Kelly published a detailed report that looked at both OOXML and ODF, and assessed their relative position in the XML file format space. You can find that report here.

There's a lot of noise and consternation about the approaching vote, but O'Kelly points out that the two specifications share a fundamental likeness. Both OOXML and ODF are essentially XML-based serializations of their respective office productivity suite file formats. In short, neither is positioned as a true, "universal" file format.

That said, O'Kelly's report finds that OOXML enjoys a significant edge -- particularly among larger organizations -- because it is, in essence, a de facto standard. OOXML is designed to work seamlessly with all versions of Microsoft Office, an application suite that Microsoft estimates is being used today by more than half a billion people.

"While ISO standardization would accelerate the use of OOXML in many standards-focused organizations, the February 2008 ISO ballot will not determine the overall fate of OOXML," O'Kelly writes in the report.

There's also Microsoft's rich history in the arena of standards-making combat. ODF versus OOXML is only the latest broadly supported industry standard to challenge the Redmond machine. Whether it's VIM versus MAPI, IDAPI versus ODBC, or OpenDoc versus OLE, it seems Microsoft doesn't lose too many of these battles.

With the vast fulcrum of the Microsoft Office suite to apply to the current fight, I'm hard-pressed to see how ODF will gain ground against OOXML, even if OOXML fails to gain ISO approval next month.

Ultimately, O'Kelly said it best in his report: "The relative success of ODF and OOXML, in any case, will be determined more by its utility and which community effectively exploits W3C standards than it will by one or the other more effectively navigating through ISO standards procedures."

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/17/2008 at 1:15 PM7 comments

Sun Snaps Up MySQL

MySQL has emerged as the database engine of choice among open source and LAMP application developers. But now that Sun Microsystems has snapped up the little database-company-that-could for $1 billion, you have to wonder -- what next?

Yes, the acquisition immediately vaults Sun into a position to approach Oracle, IBM and Microsoft as a viable database vendor. "It changes the landscape," said Gartner Vice President Donald Feinberg. "It's immediate in some areas but it's really more of a play for the longer term. I think over the next five years, it will really start to grow."

Grow where? Industry watchers see Sun moving into the data warehouse appliance market, where open source databases are widely used. There are also opportunities for Sun to bolster its Solaris OS, which currently ships with the open source PostgreSQL. With Solaris, Java and MySQL, Sun now has a very compelling platform for application and database development.

Of course, a lot of developers are probably thinking what I'm thinking right now, which is: Will Sun blow this? It blew the StorageTek acquisition. And with MySQL suddenly operating under corporate cover, you wonder if the open source community might someday pine for the salad days of MySQL.

What do you think? Is Sun's purchase of MySQL a good or bad thing for developers? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/17/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Microsoft's Musical Chairs

Last week, Microsoft announced that Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division, will retire in September. The gentle, nine-month transition will allow plenty of time for Raikes' replacement, former Juniper Networks COO Stephen Elop, to step in. Elop will be taking over the Information Worker, Microsoft Business Solutions and Unified Communications branches at Microsoft. It's worth noting that before arriving at Juniper, Elop was the former CEO of Macromedia and president of worldwide field operations at Adobe.

The rest of Raikes' job will be handled by longtime Microsoft executive Bob Muglia. Microsoft is elevating the Server and Tools Business headed by Muglia out of the Microsoft Business Division. The result is that Muglia will be reporting directly to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

As Mary Jo Foley notes in her blog, Raikes' delay-action departure is only the most noticeable in a spate of leavings. Since around the start of the new year, Microsoft has lost or moved Mergers & Acquisition Chief Bruce Jaffe, General Manager of Platform Strategy Charles Fitzgerald, Developer and Platform Evangelism Chief Sanjay Parthasarathy, and General Manager of Community Support Services and MVP Program Sean O'Driscoll.

Oh, and there's the little matter of Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates retiring in June.

Greg DeMichillie, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft and a guy who spends entirely too much time thinking about all things Redmond, had this to say to me about the Raikes depature:

"Our best read on this is that Raikes was a long-serving and loyal soldier who had been successful at just about every job at Microsoft and who was looking at what's next. The next logical step for him is to be a CEO, and that is simply not a job opening that Microsoft is going to have any time soon. So he probably decided to leave a year or so ago with the understanding that it wouldn't be announced until a replacement was found.

"The surprising thing is that Microsoft had to look outside for his replacement. It doesn't speak well to Microsoft's ability to grow and develop its management ranks if, out of a nearly 80,000-person company, there was no one ready to step up to this role."

What do you think? Does the Raikes retirement and the hiring of Elop portend a company in trouble? Or are we simply looking at another one of those Redmond retirement runs that seem to occur every so often? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/15/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

Readers Respond: 100 Million Vistas?

Last time, I blogged about Bill Gates' boast that Microsoft has sold 100 million copies of its latest OS. Here are some of your thoughts:

Don't Drink the Kool-Aid!
"There's a need for a reality check. How many of the 100 million copies are actually used? Were they shipped with PCs that got immediately 'downgraded'? Were upgrades installed and removed? I know of some that were and it's not an urban legend.

How many people have the time to learn a new interface for no real reason other than 'it's cool'? Businesses can't support it. For instance, Microsoft has a complete set of standalone tools to show people where things once were in Office 2003 and where they now are in Office 2007. Seems to me that answers a problem with the rollout of the product.

By the way, for real businesses, if they have to learn a new user interface, why not look at Linux or OpenOffice? Yes, there's a support cost, but there's a support cost to Microsoft as well -- what's the cost delta? Besides, it's free, which somehow seems to cover some of the cost of support and training since you aren't in the position of using your prior product experience.

Once you make major improvements to the user interface, you open the door for re-evaluation of the product. For the record, my company develops Microsoft-focused applications using the .NET platform.

You should also give some thought to where the market for information use is going. Most users need a subset of functionality and not the bloatware they're presented. More and more, I seem to be getting requests for BlackBerry, PDA and SmartPhone functionality and not PC platform applications, which are used more by 'clerical types' and not by managers, road-warriors, floor-staff, etc. At least, that's been my recent experience with several of the [small to medium sized-businesses] my company deals with.

Contrary to popular belief at Microsoft, I don't think the majority of users (programmers included) like having to (re)learn how to use products they once knew how to use, and at the same time meet business-driven deadlines. Maybe that works in consumer products, but it's different when your boss is breathing down your neck.

But that's just my opinion. And frankly, I never developed a taste for Kool-Aid.
-Gus Coniglio
Vice-President of Software Engineering and Operations
Newport Beach, Calif.

Vista Is Better
I know that there is an undercurrent about Vista; however, I develop for both XP and Vista and I have to tell you that I much prefer Vista to that of XP.

Just for the record, I have personally developed software for all Windows operating systems. Yes, from Windows 1.0 and up. Vista is the best so far.
Pete Smietana, Ph.D.
Danville, Calif.

Got more thoughts on Vista? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/10/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

The Coming OOXML Showdown

Forget about the Super Tuesday presidential primaries. The biggest election in February could be the long-awaited vote to approve Microsoft Office Open XML (OOXML) as an industry standard under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

You want to get a rise out of a group of developers? Tell them you see no difference between Open Document Format (ODF) and OOXML, since both simply map the features and functions of their respective, underlying Office application suites, OpenOffice and Microsoft Office.

Yeah, I can feel the hate mail already.

Peter O'Kelly knows a thing or three about the upcoming fight. He spent a good deal of December and January finishing up a Burton Group report titled: "What's Up, .DOC? ODF, OOXML, and the Revolutionary Implications of XML in Productivity Applications." You can read an excerpt of his report, due to go up tomorrow, here.

To hear Peter tell it, the ISO vote, scheduled for late February, is probably second only to the Super Tuesday primaries in terms of its importance. Like the Super Tuesday contests, the ISO vote won't decide if OOXML wins or loses. Rather, it will set the stage for the next phase of the battle.

In the case of OOXML, the ISO vote is all about position. Win, and Microsoft OOXML gains access to a larger body of organizations, companies and government bureaucracies requiring open, standards-based file formats for their applications. Lose, and OOXML could find itself shut out of some major contracts. Either way, the overwhelming dominance of Microsoft Office in the field all but ensures that OOXML is with us for the long haul.

And like a hard-fought presidential primary, the ODF-OOXML battle has all the passion and drama of the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama primary fight. As O'Kelly wrote in his report:

"It's a story that has many elements appropriate for a James Bond movie, with multibillion dollar business empires at risk, global political intrigue, and even some conspiracy theories at the intersection of capitalism (commercial software products), democracy (industry standards), and communism (e.g., related standards controlled by the People's Republic of China). This is improbably heady stuff for what's ultimately a debate about something as mundane as file formats."

What are your thoughts on the upcoming ISO vote -- and will the result, honestly, even matter when it comes to blunting OOXML? And tell me, what would it take to fix OOXML to make it a palatable candidate as an ISO standard? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/10/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Search Spending Spree

When Microsoft announced today that it would buy enterprise search firm Fast Search & Technology for a cool $1.2 billion, it signaled Microsoft's serious commitment to staving off the threat of both Google and IBM's OmniFind in the enterprise search arena.

FST will give Microsoft the ability to woo developers with a richer set of tools around enterprise search, enabling sophisticated functions like pivot searches and expanding the scope of search beyond data to people in the organization. The purchase also promises to amp up the scalability of Microsoft's enterprise search offerings. Ultimately, FST CEO John Lervik expects search to emerge as a bonafide platform that handles all search "in a unified manner."

According to Redmond insiders, FST will become the core of Microsoft's top-end enterprise search offering, running atop SharePoint Search Server. You can read Barbara Darrow's report on the purchase here.

Microsoft is well-known for buying its way into the party. What do you think of the decision to purchase FST, and what advice might you want to share with Microsoft as it forges a strategy around the new acquisition? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/08/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Vista: Over 100 Million Sold

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates announced at the Consumer Electronics Show this week that Microsoft had sold 100 million copies of Windows Vista, which brings to mind comparisons to the signs McDonald's puts up on its roadside restaurant banners, trumpeting the number of burgers sold. And I found myself wondering, if Microsoft were McDonald's, what would the fast-food industry look like today?

Well, for one thing, you'd be hard-put to find a Wendy's or Burger King or Jack in the Box, since Microsoft would've driven all of these competing franchises into near ruin years ago. Burger King might look something like Novell, a twice re-spun shadow of its former self, now selling barbeque out of a couple dozen franchises in Utah and the American Southwest. And pay no attention to that subversive, open source burger shop on the corner -- there's no telling where their beef comes from.

Not that McDonald's success wouldn't come without struggle. I can imagine McDonald's replacing the well-loved Big Mac 95 and even tastier Big Mac 98 with the ill-considered Big Mac Me, resulting in a widespread E. coli outbreak that angers consumers. All would be forgiven by the time Big Mac XP rolls around -- at least, until Microsoft replaces the beloved burger with the 4,000-calorie Big Mac Vista, a meal so large that the company has to develop all-new packaging and larger paper bags to hold it.

One hundred million units is a notable threshold for Vista. With SP1 nearing, the company has made gains in compatibility, performance and overall suitability of the OS. But the fact is, we liked our Big Mac XP.

Are you sticking with the old burger, or does your shop plan to move to Vista now that SP1 is around the corner? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/08/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

What's Your Plan for 2008?

2008 promises to be a terrific year, as dev shops scramble to make use of all the shiny new tools and technologies Microsoft has delivered over the past year. How does your shop plan to assimilate all the new resources? Shoot me an e-mail at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 12/19/2007 at 1:15 PM0 comments

A Few Predictions for Next Year

The first 2008 issue of Redmond Developer News will hit the streets in about three weeks and will feature a bevy of developer-related predictions to help managers anticipate challenges in the coming year. We got some terrific feedback from key experts in areas such as .NET data-centric programming and WPF development. In fact, we got so much feedback, we couldn't fit it all into the issue. So here are a few tidbits that are well worth sharing:

Peter O'Kelly, analyst, Burton Group, on the exploding RIA market:

"If Silverlight 2.0 successfully delivers on Microsoft's goals (i.e., feature-complete, multi-platform/device-type, high-performance, relatively small and unobtrusive download), it will be the first serious competition for Adobe Flash. Adobe is also investing major resources in Flash development, so it's going to be a very vibrant, competitive landscape between Flash/AIR and Silverlight 2.0. JavaFX may appeal to developers who are singularly focused on Java, but I expect it will be a very distant third place behind Adobe and Microsoft.

"I think RIA development -- Flash/AIR and Silverlight 2.0 -- will become the default for desktop-targeted development by the end of 2008; Flash/AIR and Silverlight are definitely not just for Web apps."

O'Kelly on what's ahead for Microsoft's data access solutions, including LINQ and EF:

"I think LINQ and XQuery will be very influential in 2008 and beyond, but I expect Entity Frameworks will be relatively less successful. LINQ is the strategic bet, and LINQ will be likely to evolve to generate optimized XQuery code, so there is very strong potential synergy between LINQ and XQuery."

Chad Brown, senior vice president of component-maker IdentityMine, on RIA competition:

"Adobe will not gain any more traction than it already has within enterprises. If anything, I believe having Silverlight 2.0 available will actually result in Adobe losing traction within enterprises. Silverlight may not make converts of existing Adobe enterprise customers, but it will be an offering to extend the existing Microsoft enterprise stack onto the Web, a place that in the past was primarily owned by Adobe Flash.

"JavaFX? What's that? Seriously, unless someone is bent on using Java technologies, Microsoft and Adobe are locked in an arms race that will most likely render JavaFX a non-starter platform. Unless Sun comes up with better tools and a good story for JavaFX, it will have only niche adoption."

Brad Johnson, director of product marketing, Borland Software Corp., on struggles enterprises face adopting agile methods:

"Enterprise customers will continue to struggle to understand the implications of what it means to be agile in the enterprise. Some development teams may be adopting agile approaches, but the remainder of the business still operates in a 'traditional' world with 12-month planning cycles -- a typical agile development team deals with a two- to three-week horizon. Cultural changes and basic development practices at the higher management level will be critical to merging agile and traditional approaches in the enterprise."

Marc Brown, vice president of product marketing, Borland Software Corp., on how bad metrics will hamper dev efforts in 2008:

"Subjective estimates and irrelevant metrics are still the norm for managing the delivery of software. These practices lack the information needed to improve performance, understand delivery capacity and respond to changing business demands -- adding to application development's perception as the 'black box' of IT."

Posted by Michael Desmond on 12/19/2007 at 1:15 PM0 comments

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