Can Components Stretch Your Dev Dollar?

I was talking to the folks at ComponentOne the other day regarding their Studio Enterprise 2008 v3 suite of cross-platform components. The suite was released last week and packages up a wide range of modules for WPF, Silverlight, ASP.NET, WinForms, .NET Compact Framework, iPhone mobile and even ActiveX development.

What, no support for Win16 user interface controls and dialog boxes? I'm disappointed.

One question that did come up during the meeting was the timing of this release, which occurs just as the broader economy (beyond the previously devastated financial and real estate sectors) has begun to accelerate into a dive. Despite widespread calls for sharply reduced IT and dev spending in 2009, Chris Meredith, product manager for ComponentOne, said the downturn may actually increase opportunities for his group to sell components to dev shops.

"In these dire economic times, unfortunately people are looking for the best way to do things in the shortest amount of time for the least amount of money," Meredith said. "And when you factor in the amount of man-hours our controls can offer, I think people are still looking at it as a very necessary and viable option, even with the downturn of the economy. So I don't think we are being that affected by it, to be honest with you."

Could Meredith be whistling past the graveyard? Sure. IDC has adjusted its growth projections for the U.S. IT market in 2009 to 0.9 percent, down from a previously projected 4.2 percent estimate. The collapse of numerous financial institutions and the dire condition of the Big Three automakers will no doubt produce broad IT and development sector dislocations.

But John Gantz, chief research officer at IDC, noted in a statement that "IT is in a better position than ever to resist the downward pull of a slowing economy." He singled out the importance of IT and development in mission-critical operations. In short, businesses that hope to operate throughout the downturn will have to keep producing fresh code and deploying and maintaining IT systems to do it.

What do you think? With dev shops no doubt counting every penny, are pre-packaged component libraries an effective way to stretch developer productivity and get the most code for your dollar? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 12/09/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

JavaFX Launches in Uncertain Times

Sun Microsystems today officially announced the launch of its JavaFX runtime, platform and development tools for rich Internet application (RIA) development. JavaFX consists of the JavaFX Development Environment compiler, libraries and runtime tooling; the JavaFX Production Suite for managing assets and workflow; and the JavaFX Desktop runtime environment. Developers craft applications using the declarative JavaFX Script.

Sun officials also announced JavaFX tooling plug-ins for the Eclipse and NetBeans IDEs, as well as plug-in filters for Adobe PhotoShop and Illustrator design software. The plug-ins enable JavaFX developers and Adobe Creative Suite designers to collaborate on common files, much the way .NET developers can share XAML-based projects between Visual Studio and Expression Blend.

"It lets you take your illustrations and graphics and all the richness...and export into JavaFX format. You get a two-way workflow," Param Singh, Sun senior director of Java marketing, told me. "Initially, the NetBeans plug-in will be somewhat more feature-rich than Eclipse. We are looking to reach [feature] parity in the spring."

JavaFX is designed to run either inside or outside of a client Web browser. As John Waters reports, systems equipped with the Java Standard Edition 6 Update 10 can run JavaFX apps. The JavaFX Mobile Runtime, expected in the spring of 2009, will enable app development for handheld devices and smartphones.

JavaFX 1.0 joins Microsoft Silverlight 2, released in October, and the Adobe stack of Flash, Flex and Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) as the third major RIA offering. While some industry watchers are skeptical of the late entry, Michael Cote, industry analyst for Redmonk Inc, said JavaFX enjoys a key advantage.

"As with Silverlight, JavaFX has the huge advantage of an existing developer community -- namely Java," Cote said. "What comes with that community is a strong understanding and connection to application development and services and back-ends that they require. That community is heavily geared toward Web UI'ed applications now and have been without a GUI layer for a long time."

Peter O'Kelly, principal analyst for O'Kelly Consulting, is less sanguine.

"I believe the best-case scenario for JavaFX is niche status within strongly Java-focused organizations," O'Kelly said. "It may be great technology in many respects, but the odds are against JavaFX reaching anything close to the ecosystem momentum Adobe Flash Player has and Microsoft Silverlight is building -- and of course Sun is not in a position to invest a lot in trying to change that scenario.

O'Kelly is referring to Sun's November announcement that it will lay off up to 6,000 employees over the next year, a reduction that could ultimately account for more than 15 percent of Sun's total workforce. Sun's stock price has also been battered, falling below $4 per share from about $20 a year ago.

Sun President and CEO Jonathan Schwartz argued that Sun's financial struggles have little to do with JavaFX's prospects for success.

"It's important not to confuse the global financial crisis and its impact on Sun's high-end systems business, with our strategy to build out and to continue to develop our market opportunity," Schwartz told RDN in an interview. "The Java platform today is our most financially successful software platform at Sun. It's a very profitable enterprise. [JavaFX] will simply accelerate that."

Do you intend to give JavaFX a close look, and could it sway your dev shop from other RIA alternatives? E-mail me at [email protected] and let me know what you think of Sun's RIA effort.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 12/04/2008 at 1:15 PM2 comments

2009: What's Next for Developers?

The final Redmond Developer News issue of 2008 -- due to hit the street on Dec. 15 -- will offer a glimpse into what promises to be a very stressful and no doubt eventful 2009. Among the observations of our expert panelists:

  • The economic downturn will do more than crater IT budgets and throw developers out of their jobs. It will spur programmers to adopt cutting-edge technologies and master new skills that will ultimately position them for the recovery to come. The downturn will also transform dev organizations as they flock to hybrid, open source/proprietary solution stacks in an effort to balance cost and value.

  • 2009 also promises to be a year of catching up, as developers assess new and refreshed technologies like Silverlight 2, WPF, Windows Azure and .NET Framework 4.0. You'll see real interest in cloud computing among firms suddenly strapped for cash to pay for capital expenditures, but the heady task of planning any cloud transition will prove daunting.

  • No surprise, 2009 promises to be a busy year for rich Internet application (RIA) development. But what's really interesting is how enterprises may turn to RIA tools and runtimes to help them deliver cost-effective apps.

What challenges and changes do you think await Microsoft developers as they enter 2009? E-mail me at [email protected] with your prescient takes and we'll look to publish them in an upcoming issue of RDN.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 12/02/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

Three's the Charm with Silverlight 3

You know what they say about Microsoft software: It always takes them three tries to get it right.

Well, if the third time's really the charm in Redmond, we should all be pretty excited about the early news on the next version of Microsoft's Silverlight rich Internet application (RIA) platform and runtime. Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's corporate VP of the .NET Developer Division, offered a sneak peek at what's to come in Silverlight 3 in a blog post on Sunday.

Silverlight 3 will add native support for additional video formats, including MPEG-4/H.264 encoded video. It's the first time a non-Microsoft-developed video format will be supported by Silverlight. Guthrie also said Silverlight 3 will bump up graphics, adding graphics hardware acceleration and enhanced 3-D display capability.

Important for corporate developers, Silverlight 3 will offer enhanced data-binding support, further increasing Silverlight's appeal for line of business application development. Additional controls are expected, as well. On the tool front, Visual Studio and Visual Web Developer Express will support a "fully editable and interactive designer for Silverlight," according to Guthrie. Tool support for data-binding will be included.

Guthrie failed to talk schedules, referring only to "the roadmap in place over the next year." However, the FAQ page on the Microsoft Silverlight Overview Web site indicates "a future version of Silverlight" is due early in 2009. That same page indicates Silverlight will add support for AAC encoded audio -- the same format used by Apple iTunes.

It's clear that Microsoft is continuing to push hard in its effort to advance Silverlight as a platform for serious RIA development. But a lot of questions remain, particularly for business developers who are still clamoring for essentials. Things like printing support, clipboard support and better text-handling facilities are all high on the still-need list among these coders.

What do you urgently need to see in Silverlight 3? Let me know and we'll be sure to bug Scott Guthrie about it next time we get a chance! E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 11/18/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Introducing Redmond Review

The current issue of Redmond Developer News features a newly arrived columnist. Starting in the Nov. 15 issue, which focuses on the just-concluded 2008 Microsoft Professional Developers Conference, Andrew Brust will be penning the Redmond Review column.

Andrew is chief of New Technology for consultancy twentysix New York, a Microsoft regional director, and co-author of Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2008 (Microsoft Press, 2008). He's also deeply engaged with the development community, serving as a member of the Microsoft Advisory Council and as co-chair of the VSLive! family of conferences.

We asked Andrew to write for us because he flat-out knows his stuff. As a regional director (in fact, he was recognized as Microsoft's Regional Director of the Year in 2008), Andrew has links both to the internal workings in Redmond and to the external concerns of Microsoft's customers. His grasp of technical issues and business concerns is both balanced and deep.

Andrew's Redmond Review column will appear every issue in the news section of RDN. He'll offer insight into Microsoft's strategic direction, provide critiques of important new technologies and generally help managers get a better grasp of the shifting development landscape.

You can find Andrew's inaugural Redmond Review column here.

Do you have a question for Andrew or perhaps a topic you'd like him to get after? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 11/18/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Wonking on Windows

We're taking a close, hands-on look at the Windows 7 client operating system for an upcoming issue, and as part of that effort I started talking with developers about their impressions of the 6801 pre-beta build that was distributed at the 2008 Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles last month.

If one theme emerged from my discussions with attendees at PDC and after, it's that Microsoft seems to have delivered a remarkably stable preview product. Anyone who recalls the rough-and-tumble days of the Windows Vista development cycle knows this is a huge win for a group that just three years ago was plagued by ugly delays, buggy code and redacted features.

Stephen Chapman should know. As the author of the UX Evangelist blog, Stephen has been all over the Windows 7 dev cycle and is currently running the pre-beta build on a desktop and a laptop PC.

"Windows 7 performs beautifully in both of those environments, which is excellent news for people with low-end computers who worried about how Windows Vista would perform on their machines," Chapman told me in an e-mail exchange earlier today.

Chapman has his share of complaints, including issues with Internet Explorer 8 performance and problems with some drivers being properly recognized by the OS. But he said the biggest problem facing Windows 7 could be the perception that it's little more than a "dot" release to Vista. Call it Vista-dot-one.

Or don't. Chapman said the new Windows 7 taskbar offers a ton of value to developers looking for ways to better expose their apps on the Windows desktop. More important is the inclusion of .NET Framework 3.5 SP1, which Chapman pointed out includes new ADO.NET and ASP.NET data services and assemblies, as well as improved WPF graphics performance. The updated .NET code certainly adds to Windows 7's dev appeal.

Chapman is enthusiastic about Windows 7. More enthusiastic, certainly, than I am, and I'm generally quite impressed with what I've seen to date. But my positive response has been more about what Microsoft didn't do this time around -- specifically, over-reach on its dev efforts -- than what it did. I honestly like that people are grumbling about Windows 7 being a point release. And I outright love the fact that this pre-beta build is proving fairly stable.

Have you worked with the pre-beta build of Windows 7? Do you think Microsoft didn't go far enough in advancing its latest client OS? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 11/13/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Oslo: Making Models

Microsoft is working overtime to change the way you write software. That message might have gotten lost in all the news about Windows Azure, Windows 7, and all the .NET 4.0 and Visual Studio advances at the Microsoft 2008 Professional Developers Conference (PDC) last month. But one look at the messaging and tooling coming out of the "Oslo" project makes this fact crystal-clear.

We spoke at PDC with Burley Kawasaki, director of product management in the Connected Systems Division at Microsoft. He's in charge of managing the Oslo project, which is comprised of the "M" modeling language, the "Quadrant" visual modeling tool and the Oslo repository. These tools, currently in community technology preview (CTP), allow developers to create their own domain specific languages (DSLs) that are tuned to address a specific set of issues or requirements. Just as important, Oslo encourages developers to further abstract their thinking, building application behaviors based on configurable models that can be reused and reshaped.

To hear Kawasaki tell it, Oslo is just the latest -- albeit, most significant -- move in what has been a years-long trend at Microsoft toward model-driven development.

"We benefit from the fact that the core .NET platform has been getting much more model-driven over the last three-plus years. If you think about things like Silverlight or WPF, they are very model-driven. The presentation layer isn't specified as code, it's specified as XAML, and it's configurable so if I change the definition of the XAML file, it changes the presentation of my application," Kawasaki explained.

"The same is true for Web services. If I change the configuration metadata on a WCF-based service, it can change the behavior of the service. Or ASP.NET with the latest MVC extensions -- very model-driven. The whole structure of your application now is really a set of models, so as a platform it is getting much more model-driven," he concluded.

Microsoft developers seem attentive to Microsoft's modeling mantra. The Lap Around Oslo presentation at PDC, hosted by Microsoft Product Unit Manager Douglas Purdy, was packed with developers anxious to get familiar with the new tooling. Based on the response I saw at the presentation, the Oslo tooling was well-received.

Have you worked with the Oslo CTP? What are your impressions of the M modeling language and Quadrant visual editor? What works and what still needs work? E-mail me at [email protected]. And let me know if you think Microsoft's modeling push can really help dev shops better build and manage their applications.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 11/11/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

Windows 7 Shout-Out

Maybe Steven Sinofsky and the Windows 7 group at Microsoft have mastered the fine art of lowering expectations. Or perhaps Windows Vista did the job for them. Whatever the case, it seems Windows 7 is poised for a warm welcome among IT and development professionals alike, when it ships (possibly) in 2009.

But we're impatient. We want to hear what you think of the next great Microsoft client OS right now. If you've worked with the Windows 7 pre-beta, send us an e-mail with your thoughts. And let us know if the new features and capabilities of the OS might make Windows 7 a more appealing dev target. E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 11/11/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

RIP Windows 3.1

When I read the news that Microsoft was officially ending the licensing of Windows 3.x earlier this month, my first surprised thought was: Microsoft still licenses Windows 3.x?

Windows 3.x, of course, was the last 16-bit operating environment designed to run atop the DOS operating system. Windows 3.0 was introduced in 1990 and it quickly captured broad market share for the struggling brand. Several updates, including Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11 and Windows for Workgroups, would follow over the next four years. By 1995, that run was over, as the vastly successful Windows 95 operating system introduced 32-bit computing to the consumer desktop.

But Windows 3.x wasn't dead. Far from it, the little operating environment that could continued to churn away in businesses and homes for years. Microsoft provided support for Windows 3.x through 2001, at which point the writing was on the wall for most client deployments -- it was high time to high-tail it over to Windows XP and its far more stable and capable, NT-derived, pure-32-bit code base.

And still, like William Shatner's improbable career, Windows 3.x continued to live on. As BBC News' Mark Ward reported, cash registers, ticketing systems, in-flight entertainment systems and sundry other embedded applications made use of the remarkable software that helped launch a juggernaut.

Today, Windows 3.x is a dim memory. And yet, it remains an archetype in the Microsoft pantheon. Its look and feel drove user interface design at Microsoft for years, and still lingers on millions of XP-based PCs. And the product's delayed-action success -- breaking through only on the third version -- established a well-earned industry meme that major Microsoft products take two, three or four versions before they can be considered mature and successful.

Heck, MSN is still trying to break through.

The passing of Windows 3.x honestly doesn't mean much. But it does beg the question: What were you doing in development when Windows 3.x was gracing everyone's desktop? E-mail me at [email protected] and tell your tales of writing software for Win3x.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 11/06/2008 at 1:15 PM4 comments

Get Out the Vote

By this time tomorrow, we'll all finally know the result of what has proven to be the longest and one of the most passionately fought U.S. presidential campaigns in memory.

In fact, my first election-related memory goes way back to 1972. I don't remember much about second grade, to be honest, but I do have a clear memory of marching around with other kids in my classroom, singing: "Nixon, Nixon, he's our man, put McGovern in the can!"

I like to think I've come a long way since second grade, but the sad fact is that much of our electoral discourse and communication remains as simplistic and silly as that little Nixon-inspired ditty from 1972. Whether it's the partisan shrieking of campaign hacks or the ruthless spin-cycling of mass-media ideologues, modern presidential campaigns can seem to more resemble a simple-minded classroom parade than a reasoned debate over the issues.

But that's changing. And it's changing because bright people are picking up powerful tools to push past the curtain of rhetoric and sloganeering to actually see what's going on.

Take the fantastic Web site, which is fanatically dedicated to breaking down and tracking every poll to create a powerful, aggregate picture of the election. Nate Silver, founder of the site and a partner at sports media firm Baseball Prospectus, publishes the site on a template, and uses Stata Data Analysis and Statistical Software and Microsoft Excel 2007 to produce detailed results and charts.

When the Drudge Report loudly touted a poll in mid-October showing that John McCain had pulled within two points of Barack Obama -- within the poll's margin of error -- offered vital context. Silver's aggregate snapshot of national polls showed no significant movement.

The point is, advancing tools and software are having a very real and visceral impact on the electoral process in the United States. From analyzing and publishing aggregate poll data, to delivering finely targeted blogs and news reports, to making available -- on demand -- countless hours of campaign-related video and content, voters today have more access to more pure electoral information today than ever before.

And much of that is a direct result of advancing development efforts in the area of Web publishing, data handling and media distribution. It's amazing to think, honestly, just how the campaigns of 2012 will look, given the current, rapid-fire advances in underlying Web dev technologies.

What innovations might we see help change the election landscape in 2012? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 11/04/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

PDC: Leaving Los Angeles

As the father of three young children, I can't help but feel a bit of a Christmas afternoon vibe in the air as the 2008 Microsoft Professional Developers Conference closes. The packages have been opened. The gifts have been strewn about the house. Long months of anticipation have given way, inevitably, to a bittersweet mix of contentment and exhaustion.

In short, it's been a very good several days in L.A., both for developers who've learned so much about the future direction of Microsoft-based development, and for Microsoft itself, which I feel did a very good job of articulating its most important strategy since the launch of .NET Framework in 2000. Despite some confusion among attendees around the Windows Azure cloud OS launch, it's apparent to me that Microsoft decisively moved the ball forward on several fronts this PDC.

PDC 2008 also marked a critical changing of the guard. This is, I believe, the first PDC to not feature Bill Gates as a keynote speaker. Mind you, we're talking about PDCs stretching clear back to 1992 and the initial pitch of "Chicago," later known as Windows 95. The fact that things have gone so well is a real testament to the new vanguard in Redmond (I'm looking at you, Ray Ozzie, Steven Sinofsky and Scott Guthrie).

More important, the high-level messaging coming out of this conference was remarkably well-orchestrated and harmonized. Make no mistake, the Azure effort could fall flat on its face two years from now, but the approach Microsoft is taking looks sound: Leverage heavily against .NET, align development on the familiar Visual Studio IDE and provide plenty of choice along the continuum of pure, premises-based server deployments to full-on, Azure-hosted services in the cloud.

Microsoft has a ton of problems to solve in all this, not the least of which is how to mesh these new Microsoft-owned services with the existing channel of value-added resellers and service providers who've moved into managed services and hosting. I'll leave it to my astute colleague Scott Bekker, editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner, to ponder those questions.

But even without the prospect of a channel fight, Microsoft has to deliver a lot of very robust technologies even as it manages server product families that have suddenly spawned services operations (SQL Server now adds SQL Services, for example). As Microsoft Technical Fellow Dave Campbell told us, it's a big job to staff up the services skills to drive the Azure-side development, and there's a lot of additional coordination that needs to be carried forward to keep services and server versions of SQL, Exchange, Office and the like in sync.

Do I think Microsoft can pull it off? Yeah, I do. But if Microsoft stays true to form, it won't happen as quickly and as smoothly as you might hope or think.

Consider the sudden emergence of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) at this year's PDC. This is a technology that was released to a good deal of internal excitement within Microsoft, but got squelched by a combination of missing tools, wildfire AJAX Web development and the poor uptake of Windows Vista. Microsoft all but set WPF aside, at least publicly, while it stumped heavily for WPF's kissing cousin: the Silverlight rich Internet application platform and runtime that uses the same Extensible Markup Language (XAML) technology and tooling as WPF.

And now, at PDC 2008, it turns out that WPF is at work all over the place -- from Windows 7 to the compelling Surface touch UI, and even to the design surface in the Visual Studio 2010 CTP and new Oslo Quadrant visual modeling tool. Component makers like Infragistics and DevExpress say they saw a ton of interest among developers anxious to get started with WPF. As the old saw goes: It took three years, but WPF may finally be an overnight success.

Which is fitting. Because at the end of the day, PDC is about the long view. And it has almost always been Microsoft's dogged willingness to invest and invest and invest into its new products and tooling that have ultimately brought success to the same. So yes, we might still be scoffing a bit at Azure at PDC 2010 or whenever the next confab occurs -- but that doesn't mean we should be counting it out.

We'll be covering the PDC extensively in our upcoming issues and want to include your insight! Send us your thoughts on the PDC 2008 event and how it was useful (or not-so-useful) to you. E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 10/31/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

PDC: Pushing Parallel

Lost amid all the sturm und drang of the Windows Azure launch and Windows 7 preview and Visual Studio 2010 CTP is a rather intriguing tale about Microsoft's effort to introduce and support parallel programming across both the native C++ and .NET dev stacks. Not so ironically, as it turns out, Microsoft is getting very busy with parallel.

On the one side is Lynne Hill's Parallel Computing Platform organization, which is tasked with infusing parallelism into the .NET stack and providing a means for .NET developers to enable concurrency in their managed code projects using familiar languages like C# and VB.NET.

This stuff is happening already, Hill pointed out. The F# functional programming language provides for parallelism through its declarative, side-effect-free nature, while LINQ and parallel LINQ (pLINQ) enable queries to be run in parallel. The Visual Studio 2010 CTP provides parallelism support, including a profiler for assessing how existing applications might be adapted for concurrent operation.

Hill provides a measured, thoughtful and strategic approach to parallelism, one that will no doubt merge well with the growing list of capabilities in the .NET stack.

On the other side are Tandy Trower and George Chrysanthakopoulos from the Microsoft Robotics Group. As GM of the Robotics Group, Trower said he inherited from Craig Mundie an intriguing incubation project, which has emerged today as the Decentralized Software Services (DSS) and the Concurrency and Coordination Runtime (CCR) technologies. Engineered by Partner Software Architect Chrysanthakopoulos, DSS and CCR have emerged as an attractive parallelism solution for enterprise customers like Siemens and Tyco.

The CCR and DSS technologies will eventually end up in the .NET stack. But for the time being, a growing list of enterprise customers are turning to this point solution to enable massively parallel code infrastructures.

It's not the first time that Microsoft has delivered multiple technologies and approaches to a single problem, and no doubt it will not be the last. What's remarkable is just how different the approaches are. Chrysanthakopoulos and Trower couldn't help but laugh when I characterized them as guerilla developers, wearing camouflage and face paint as they worked their way through the high grass toward their goal.

"We're not in Dev Div, we're a very small group," Chrysanthakopoulos said. "We're always kind of in the back corner, but we knew it was a solid model. And we also knew that if we go out there and we become public at least in one market, people will see the power of this thing and they did. Now we have things like Siemens and Tyco and some other really big names I can't talk about yet that really are doing stuff at a scale that, with most Microsoft products, we don't advertise at that scale."

Expect to hear more about Microsoft's parallelism efforts this week and in our Nov. 15 issue. Are you looking hard to parallelize your existing code? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 10/30/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments