The Challenge of ActiveX

Earlier today we reported on the release of TX Text Controls ActiveX 16.0, a collection of word processing components for ActiveX app development. The new release brings the ActiveX control suite to par with previously released WPF and Windows Forms versions of TX Text Controls 16.0.

For Bjoern Meyer, vice president of product management at component maker Text Control GmbH, the decision to release an ActiveX port of its latest TX Text Controls package was a simple matter of customer demand.

"Overall, we delivered more than 40,000 licenses of TX Text Control. A significant part [of that] was ActiveX and these legacy applications are still maintained," Meyer told me in an email interview. "People need newer document formats such as DOCX or PDF/A, so a newer release is required."

Meyer is quick to point out that many companies developing ActiveX-based applications are looking to move to .NET. And for good reason, Meyer said, noting that Microsoft "moved Visual Basic 6.0 out of extended support starting in 2008." He also added that the 32-bit VB6 runtime files and ActiveX controls may not be supported by newer versions of Windows.

"From a developer point of view, I would do everything to move to .NET as soon as possible," Meyer said, adding that his company offers free migration support to help move customers from ActiveX to .NET.

"Do I think that all applications with several millions of lines of code will be ported to .NET in one or two years?" Meyer asked. "Of course not. That takes time and costs a lot of money. Especially, because porting applications from one to the other technology is nothing innovative."

Meyer continues: "At the end of the day, you [end up with] the same functionality but on a different platform. No, the reasons must be somewhere else. .NET is a future-oriented development platform and it is easier to maintain later. But it is crystal-clear: Porting the code to .NET is very expensive, but not doing it could kill your business.

Are you currently supporting ActiveX applications? If so, how are you going about managing the platform challenge?

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/26/2011 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Model-Driven Development After Oslo

French development tools maker SoftFluent recently announced the release candidate (RC) of its CodeFluent Entities Modeler, a visual interface for the CodeFluent Entities model-driven software factory tool. You can read our coverage of the release here.

CodeFluent Entities Modeler enables dev shops to build out application components using a model-driven approach. What's interesting is that Microsoft had big plans of its own in the model-driven development space, with the project formerly known as Oslo. You can read about Oslo's demise here and here.

I asked SoftFluent co-founder Daniel Cohen-Zardi about how Microsoft's decision to set aside Oslo might impact his company's work on CodeFluent Entities.

"We have been working on our pragmatic, non-UML, model-driven approach for more than five years. We know that this is not an easy topic, from a technical standpoint, but also politically," Cohen-Zardi responded. "For a complex organization such as Microsoft, it requires striking the appropriate balance between various product groups with diverging interests, some of them having a vested interest into sticking customers to Microsoft technology.

Cohen-Zardi said dev shops today have three options. Abandon model-driven development and accept the re-development will have to happen with each new technology wave; take on the cost and risk of building custom domain specific languages (DSL); or commit to a model drive solution like CodeFluent Entities.

"The Oslo failure, as well as the limited success of [Microsoft's] DSL tools approach, validates what we had anticipated based on our 50 years of cumulated field experience as former Microsoft employees," Cohen-Zardi said.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 12/20/2010 at 1:15 PM1 comments

It's a Shame About Ray

The real surprise about Ray Ozzie's departure from Microsoft isn't that he's leaving the high-profile post as chief software architect at Redmond, it's that it took this long to occur.

From the very beginning of Ozzie's tenure, it was clear that the Groove founder and former Lotus executive was something of a misfit in Redmond. A widely-respected technician and innovative thinker, Ozzie was responsible for a pair of game-changing software products -- Lotus Notes and Groove. Early in his career he also worked on VisiCalc with Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. Ray Ozzie's fingerprints are all over the software industry, and he seemed at first glance like an excellent candidate to follow Microsoft founder Bill Gates in the role of chief software architect at the company.

Ozzie, in a word, had it. Vision. Creativity. Technical savvy. And perhaps most important, a fresh perspective.

The story Ozzie was packing with him when he arrived in Redmond seemed tailor made to the times. Ozzie was pitching services and openness at a time when Microsoft was still very much struggling to decide what it wanted to be on the Internet-enabled landscape. In May 2007, Ozzie was talking Windows Live and open services, even as Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith was lashing out at Linux providers for infringing on 235 Microsoft patents.

A lot has changed since that moment, and I have no doubt that Ray Ozzie is part of the reason for that. Microsoft's Interoperability Pledge, made in February 2008, heralded a strategic change in Microsoft's approach to the market. Specifications and APIs were published, source code was released, and large swaths of IP were open sourced. At the same time, Microsoft VP Scott Guthrie was throwing open the shutters in the Developer Division, creating an organization that would ultimately do things like publish the ASP.NET MVC source code and adopt jQuery. These were huge, strategic changes in Microsoft's philosophical approach to the market, and Ozzie certainly played a role in them.

Yet, Ozzie never seemed comfortable in his role as chief software architect. A reticent speaker, Ozzie's public keynote appearances were few and far between. By summer 2007, the rumblings about Ozzie's lack of visible production were picking up. I wrote a Frameworks column, Prague Spring, in the August 1 issue of Redmond Developer News that questioned Ozzie's impact at Microsoft. Two years later, I found myself surprised at Ozzie's marginalized keynote around Windows Azure (Ray Ozzie as Pitchman) at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2009.

Other issues cropped up. The Live group at Microsoft stumbled under a series of departures and shakeups, and workable products and technology were slow to emerge from the group. And it became clear that Ozzie would simply not emerge as the visible champion for innovation that many Microsoft watchers hoped for. As Andrew Brust notes in his blog today, it was Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and not Ozzie, who gave the speech in March at the University of Washington that announced Microsoft's strategic commitment to the cloud.

So Ray Ozzie is gone. And according to Ballmer, no one is going to replace him in the role of chief software architect. There is real danger in that approach for Microsoft, given the company's famous history of working against itself. In the past few months alone, we've seen big projects like the Kin smartphone and Olso modeling initiative killed outright. And Microsoft continues to support multiple, competing technologies in areas like sync and of course the C# and VB programming languages.

Microsoft may have decided it doesn't need a chief software architect to orchestrate its vision, but I'm not so sure. The problem is, if Ray Ozzie wasn't up to the task of corralling and articulating Microsoft's expansive vision, who is?

Who do you think could step up and serve as Microsoft's chief software architect? Or do you think Microsoft can do well enough without? Let me know in the comments section below.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 10/19/2010 at 1:15 PM3 comments

Microsoft Gets Back into the Mobile Hunt

As reported by Redmond Magazine executive editor Jeffrey Schwartz, Microsoft today officially launched Windows Phone 7. The new phone platform has a decidedly consumer bent, with social networking and other features that will appeal to non-enterprise users. However, Windows Phone 7 offers intriguing SharePoint integration. As IDC Analyst Jeffrey Hammond told Schwartz after the launch, SharePoint integration could be a key differentiator for Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 against the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry platforms.

IDC's Al Hilwa, program director for Applications Development Software, described himself as "quite impressed" by the scope of the launch. He also praised the development environment (kind of important for VSM readers), which he said "raises the bar for productivity for mobile developers."

Mobile gaming could prove a powerful vector for Windows Phone 7 adoption, said Hilwa. With its game savvy and hooks into Xbox Live, Hilwa thinks Windows Phone 7 could entice a lot of .NET developers to begin coding for the platform. The approach doesn’t surprise me. Microsoft has always known that the surest way to win a platform war is to win the developer battle. This is something that Apple, until just a few weeks ago, showed itself to be shockingly tone deaf to.

By arming developers with familiar tools and frameworks, and giving them the ability to do really cool things with those tools, Microsoft immediately makes itself a player in a sector that, quite frankly, it should have no business playing in. Microsoft is so late to the smartphone race that it's not even funny. And yet, here we are. 2011 is going to be a veryinteresting year in mobile development, that's for sure.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 10/12/2010 at 1:15 PM1 comments

Developers Face Big Challenges

As my colleague James Powell reported last week, coding and data tools provider Embarcadero Technologies recently published an interesting study that looked at some of the key challenges facing professional developers. According to the survey of 606 developers, analysts and architects, more than half (52 percent) said they simply do not have enough time to complete their work. Nearly one-third (31 percent) singled out poor unit and system testing as a top challenge.

I spoke with Mike Rozlog, senior director of Delphi Solutions at Embarcadero Technologies, after the survey results were released, and asked him if he thought the results were at all surprising. He said absolutely not.

"As this recession has taken hold and gone worldwide, developers are being asked to take on just monumental tasks," said Rozlog, who described the developer community as increasingly frustrated and cynical.

Rozlog said developers are scrambling to assess new technologies and tooling at a time when companies are simply not investing in training. The focus for organizations, he said, is entirely on short term ROI. "It's right in your face. If you are not delivering value, it is just a waste of time," he said.

Rozlog did offer some advice for developers frustrated by the lack of time and funding for skills training. His take? Developers are often over-anxious to jump on the newest technology.

"There is a feeling inside of many developers right now that if they don't do it right this second they are going to lose it," Rozlog said, adding. "Take a deep breath, relax a little bit. The technology is still going to be there.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 08/11/2010 at 1:15 PM2 comments

VSLive! Conference Continues Welcome Trend

Back in June I blogged about the Microsoft Tech Ed North America 2010 Conference in New Orleans, and the fact that attendance figures at the show went well beyond Microsoft's expectations. I regarded it as a very welcome sign for the industry. In that post I also wondered if more developers might make the trip up to Redmond, Washington, for the VSLive! Conference, which is closing up today.

It seems that the answer to that question was, yes. Before introducing the Day 1 keynote speaker, Redmond Media Group President Henry Allain announced to the audience that this week's VSLive! event had, in fact, sold out. While that's welcome news for my parent company, 1105 Media, which ran the event, it's also great news for anyone involved in software development. It seems that a lot of companies are finding the dollars in their budgets to advance the skill sets of their developers.

The decision to locate VSLive! (this week renamed Visual Studio Live!) on the Microsoft campus may have been a factor. Many attendees I spoke to were enthusiastic about the venue.

"Being on campus adds some magic to the whole experience," said Steve Peach, owner of Peach Business Software, who traveled all the way from Sydney, Australia. "Walking around the campus I could feel the history of the last 30 years, and enjoyed looking at the tiles with the ship dates of each product -- it was a walk through my programming lifetime."

Walter Kimrey, information technology manager for software development at Delta Community Credit Union in Atlanta, called the venue "top notch" and described Microsoft as a gracious host. "It seems that the decision to have the conference at the Microsoft campus is a natural one, and I was surprised to hear this is the first time the conference has been held here," Kimrey said.

Could it be that the full houses at Tech Ed and VSLive! are a harbinger of better things to come in the development space? Tell me what you think. Are we seeing a thaw in software development's nuclear winter?

Posted by Michael Desmond on 08/06/2010 at 1:15 PM3 comments

The LightSwitch Hits Keep Coming

I have to admit, Andrew Brust called it. When I got the first draft of Andrew's take on the new LightSwitch visual development tool for his Redmond Review column in the September issue of Visual Studio Magazine, I scoffed at the notion that LightSwitch would kick off a huge ideological debate over who is, and who is not, a "real" programmer.

But after a few minutes watching VSLive! presenter Billy Hollis tear it up during his spirited Devopalooza routine Wednesday evening, I realized I was sorely mistaken. Billy got started ribbing Microsoft over the increasing complexity of its development tooling, before broaching the subject of LightSwitch, which of course is intended to make .NET development easy. So easy, in fact, that it invites all sorts of people to build .NET applications. It was when Billy started displaying the reaction from the twitterverse that I realized that, whoa, there might be an ideological clash afoot.

Billy read through a dozen or so tweets, each as scathing as the last. One tweet said LightSwitch should be called what it really is, "Visual Studio for Dummies." Another bemoaned the coming flood of amateur apps and the inevitable cries for support their authors would create. The theme, as Billy observed, was clear: A lot of people really, really don't like LightSwitch.

But why? I mean, it's not like the people who will be cranking out LightSwitch apps aren't already producing business logic in Access, SharePoint and Excel. Heck, if LightSwitch manages to lure corporate holdouts away from Visual Basic for Applications, can't we all agree that is a good thing?

As Andrew Brust so adroitly observed in the first cut of his column manuscript, maybe not. Fortunately, you can check out Andrew's blog post on LightSwitch, which includes his observations on the reception the announcement got among developers.

What's your take? Is LightSwitch a welcome return to the productivity-minded tooling that helped make Microsoft the giant that it is, or is LightSwitch a gimmick that opens the field to reckless development?

Posted by Michael Desmond on 08/04/2010 at 1:15 PM15 comments

LightSwitch Q&A

Microsoft today announced the launch of its new Visual Studio LightSwitch business application development environments at the VSLive! Conference in Redmond. Jeffrey Hammond, principal analyst at Forrester Research, has been tracking the LightSwitch project and provided insight into the new solution, which promises to enable robust application development for business users.

Visual Studio Magazine: What's your take on how compelling LightSwitch really is? Will it really enable business users to develop rich .NET apps that can be elevated to native Visual Studio development?

Jeffrey Hammond: I think so, especially if the users can start from the included templates. We've certainly seen tremendous business user use of tools like Excel and Access for basic programming tasks, and I have to say that the digital skills the millennial generation brings to the table constantly surprises me. So many firms have the list of projects the IT "can't get to", and I'd not be surprised if we see LightSwitch apps popping up to fill that gap.

VSM: What shortcomings or issues do you see Microsoft having to still address with the LightSwitch launch?

JH: I think they can always use more out of the box templates to make it easy to create archetypal apps out of the box. The other thing I'd like to see in a future version is a more graphical WYSIWYG designer.

VSM: It seems Microsoft has been working hard to court productivity developers, with efforts like WebMatrix, jQuery and now LightSwitch. Are we seeing a sustained effort by Microsoft to recapture the individual/small-shop developer, after spending years focused on scaling .NET to the enterprise?

JH: I think so. I also think it's an acknowledgment of how our space is shifting. Think how kids are coming into the space that take a programming course or two in high school and college, but aren't professional developers. They think how application architecture is evolving with all the Web based services out there. We're moving into a world where front ends are composed and mashed-up, and with the right tools you don't need a degree in computer science as much as a real understanding of how the business works.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 08/03/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments

VSLive! Workshop Spotlights WPF and Silverlight Dev

VSLive! Conference attendees today took in a series of day-long, pre-conference workshops offering explorations of development in SQL Server 2008 R2, Windows Communication Foundatoin (WCF), and Silverlight/Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). Magenic Principal Technology Evangelist Rocky Lohtka and DotNetMasters founder Billy Hollis headlined the presentation on Silverlight and WPF, detailing a powerful development environment that can be at times inspiring and frustrating.

A good example was Hollis' nifty Master Chief app, which drew applause from the audience. The app lets the user move and size a graphic of the famous Master Chief character from the Halo video game on top of the Windows 7 desktop background. Hollis said he spent days trying to figure out how to create a movable, sizable graphic for the desktop, only to discover that it could be done in exactly one line of WPF code.

Lohtka said Hollis' experience is not atypical. "You could spend hours or days trying to replicate the code, only to realize it is two lines of code in XAML," he said.

Lohtka offered a similar, bittersweet take on databinding in WPF, which he described as superior to any other databinding implementation he has seen. The problem is that the default mode for text control databinding in WPF is two-way, whereas in Silverlight the default is one-way. "You would think almost that WPF and Silverlight were written by different teams," he said. "And in fact, that's true."

Lohtka's solution to this trip wire? Always explicitly set the databinding mode, even if the setting matches the default.

At the end of the day, said Lohtka, there is no substitute for developer experience. He urged developers to get familiar with the quirks, twitches and traps of the development environment. "This is the body of knowledge we have to build up," he said.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 08/02/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Heads up on Another PDC in 2010

Looks like Microsoft is planning to host another Professional Developers Conference (PDC) this year. The event is slated to run for just two days, October 28 and 29, and to take place at the Redmond, Washington campus.

The upcoming PDC10 is unusual on a number of fronts. For one thing, PDCs have never been annual events, instead only taking place when Microsoft has pulled together enough strategic developer content to drive the conference. PDC08, for instance, featured the Windows Azure announcement and Windows 7 beta launch, in addition to a host of other critical technology updates. PDC09, by contrast, was short on new stuff, but long on important updates to previously released strategic initiatives. It was an important show for developers.

PDC10 will be the first time Microsoft has held three PDCs in a row. It will also be the first time the event has been held on Microsoft's campus -- the show in the past has typically taken place in Los Angeles. Perhaps the decision to host a downsized PDC event this year was driven by the surprisingly high turnout at the Microsoft Tech-Ed Conference held in May in New Orleans.

What's on the agenda for PDC10? It's a good question and one I'll be looking to answer this week.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 07/12/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments

What's New in F#?

Visual Studio 2010 and .NET Framework 4, released in April, brought a number of critical changes to mainstream managed languages like C# and Visual Basic. But the latest version of Microsoft's integrated development environment and managed framework also shifted the playing field for dynamic and functional languages, like F# and IronRuby.

We posed three questions to Mark Hoban, Microsoft senior program manager for F#. Here's what he had to say:

Visual Studio Magazine: How significant an update is the version of F# appearing with Visual Studio 2010? What key features or capabilities should developers be looking for in the new version?

Mark Hoban: Visual Studio 2010 includes the F# 2.0 version of the F# language. This is a major release of the F# language, and includes important new features and brings F# to its first supported release.

Key features of this release include simple and succinct functional syntax, rich .NET Framework object-oriented programming model, integrated parallel and asynchronous programming features, units of measure and the F# Interactive. (Details on these features can be found here.) Note that this same version of the F# language will also continue to be made available in CTP form for developers using Visual Studio 2008.

VSM: Why is F# not being fully integrated into .NET Framework 4? What must developers do to enable the F# core libraries and compiler?

MH: We view F# as a true first class member of Visual Studio and the .NET Framework, but due to the development process we are releasing this version as an additional runtime that customers will need to install on the target machines. We will review that with our next release.

VSM: Who is Microsoft looking to serve with the F# language? Has the original scope of F# expanded over time?

MH: F# extends the .NET Framework by offering a productive language for developers working in technical, algorithmic, parallel and data-rich areas. This has included applications in domains such as financial services, data analytics, games, sciences and machine learning. This is largely the same audience we’ve historically targeted with F#, though the scope has expanded slightly in response to the breadth of adoption we’ve seen over the last 2 years.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 06/14/2010 at 1:15 PM0 comments

The Big News Out of Tech Ed

The biggest news to come out of the Tech Ed North America 2010 Conference has little to do with Windows Azure or Windows Phone 7 or Microsoft's expanded business intelligence stack. No, the most important thing that I learned at the show was that more than 10,000 people attended the Tech Ed event in New Orleans this week.

That figure is significantly higher than the 8,000 or so that Microsoft expected, according to a couple people I spoke with. Apparently a late rush of registrations in the past month or so drove the attendance numbers well above Redmond's expectations. And given the calamitous state of the events industry in the IT and dev space over the past few years, the figures are a certainly welcome sign.

My question is, could the positive numbers out of Tech Ed be the harbinger of better things ahead in our industry? Andrew Brust certainly seems to think so.

Were you at the Tech Ed event? What's your take on the activity trends in the .NET development space? And might we expect to see more of you traveling to upcoming events like our VSLive! conference in Redmond in August?

Posted by Michael Desmond on 06/11/2010 at 1:15 PM4 comments