It's Platform Time

When people think about Microsoft platforms, they typically think Windows. But Microsoft has many more platforms beyond Windows, and this spring is shaping up as a bumper crop for those non-Windows platforms. Key among them are upcoming versions of Microsoft Office, Visual Studio, .NET Framework, Silverlight, and SQL Server. Here's what to expect.

Microsoft Office 2010

Microsoft will launch the next major version of its Office productivity suite as well as related servers and online services in mid-May. (Well, at least the business-oriented versions. The retail/consumer Office 2010 launch happens a month later.) Office is a big suite and as necessary as ever (see "The Enduring Value of Microsoft Office") but the big news this time around isn't so much the suite—sorry, Microsoft—as it is the ancillary stuff around it. I'm talking about Office Web Apps—a half-step toward Google Docs, but an important move nonetheless—as well as the server capabilities, which are getting truly impressive.

Consider Office Communications Server "14," which is still named that way since it will ship later in the year. This version of Microsoft's unified communications solution—also available as hosted solution for you cloud computing fans—will offer enterprise-class telephony capabilities that operate over IP, driving cost reductions and simplicity into a market that has typically been dominated by expensive and complex solutions.

Microsoft's unified communications work starts with Exchange. While Exchange 2010 has been out for a while, Microsoft detailed some interesting information about Exchange 2010 SP1, which is expected out later this year as well. Many of the changes coming with SP1 appear to be feedback-related, including further UI enhancements for Outlook Web App (formerly Outlook Web Access), major improvements to email archiving and discovery, and new Exchange Management Console (EMC) capabilities.

Visual Studio 2010, .NET Framework 4, and Silverlight 4

Microsoft delivered Visual Studio 2010 and .NET Framework 4 on Monday and it expects to ship the related Silverlight 4 release later this week as well. (Microsoft isn't commenting on when the new generation of Expression tools will ship, however.) Visual Studio is Microsoft's integrated development environment for PC- and web-based programmers. Visual Studio 2010 is a major release that targets recent enhancements in all of the company's biggest platforms.

This means features like multitouch and ribbons in Windows 7, and collaborative websites based on SharePoint. And Visual Studio can be fairly agnostic, letting you target the web with Web 2.0/Rich Internet Applications (RIA) based on Silverlight.

Microsoft's efforts at moving .NET to the web via Silverlight have picked up considerable steam in a short period of time. Silverlight 4 is big news. It advances the runtime engine outside of the browser for the first time, letting developers easily create rich, connected applications similar to what you may have seen with Adobe AIR, but using familiar .NET managed code languages like C#.

Silverlight, too, is the primary development model for the upcoming Windows Phone platform (along with XNA, which is being used for games). So developers who have progressed with Microsoft's various .NET releases and managed code languages are in a good place with regard to using their skills across the Microsoft platform stack.

SQL Server 2008 R2

Sometime this month, or by May 6 at the latest, Microsoft will finalize SQL Server 2008 R2, the unfortunately named next release of its database server. And don't be fooled by that R2 moniker, which suggests a relatively minor release. (Has Microsoft ever really delivered on the promise of these R2 releases? I mean, aside from Windows Server 2003 R2, haven't they all been pretty big deals?)

There are tons of tiny improvements, but also some major changes. Key among these advances in SQL Server R2 is PowerPivot support for Excel and SharePoint, an example of where Microsoft's "better together" marketing mantra actually makes some sense. Now, you can assemble massive PowerPivot workbooks with more than 1 million rows of data from many different sources. This works in both the desktop version of Excel and Excel Services in SharePoint.

Microsoft is also implementing Master Data Services in this release, providing SQL Server R2 with an object-oriented repository that can integrate with other systems that need to process metadata and, perhaps, run reports against that information.

Looking Ahead

While I'm sure the second half of the year will be dominated by Windows Phone and the all-important SP1 release for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, you don't have to look that far into the future to see some major platform upgrades. And if you've got any stake in the Microsoft stack at all, you'll want to check out what's happening right now first. There's a lot going on.

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