It's All About the Developers

This week, Microsoft will participate in a third-party developer trade show called VSLive! San Francisco. Named for the Visual Studio (VS) suite of programming tools, VSLive! will feature numerous Microsoft program and product managers, testers, MVPs, executives, and other company representatives, all of whom will presumably spend a lot of time this week explaining why the heck VS 2005 is taking so long to ship. Maybe that's the wrong question to ask. The success of this week's developer conference, like that of a smaller but similar event held last week on the Microsoft campus for Microsoft Office developers, shows that Microsoft is starting 2005 on the right foot. Specifically, the company appears to understand that the development community butters its software platform bread, so to speak. And it's this developer focus, I believe, that has really driven much of the software giant's success over the years.

I recall Microsoft's early work seeding developers with technical information about Windows 3.x and, it should be noted, the crucial work Charles Petzold performed to make the information understandable to mere mortals. When Microsoft was still beta testing the initial version of Windows NT, Microsoft Press published a beta version of its Win32 API reference guide so that developers could get up to speed early. And when Windows 95 promised to bring 32-bit computing to the masses a decade ago, the company turned first to its developer community to ease the transition.

Since then, the rush of software platforms has been dizzying and hard to remember. Developers have had to deal with the transition from OLE to COM to COM+; numerous data access standards, including RDO, OLE-DB, ADO, and ADO.NET; and higher level, but less well-defined, initiatives such as ActiveX, Windows DNA, and even Microsoft .NET. But although these and other developer-related topics might be confusing, the platform foundations Microsoft has set in place over the past 2 decades are astonishing. That is, its most successful products aren't just standalone software islands with a static user base. Instead, they're full platforms that you can extend with new functionality and integrate with other products to make them more powerful.

This platform-based strategy can make things complex for Microsoft. VS 2005 is at least a year behind schedule, in part because it's so intimately tied to other products in the so-called Yukon wave of products, which also includes SQL Server 2005 (itself code-named Yukon) and a new version of the Windows .NET Framework. Although part of me cringes at something called a "wave of products," the name is apt in this case because Yukon is a platform on which other solutions will be built. Some of those solutions will come from Microsoft, but many will come from third parties. The model for this is a self-sustaining ecosystem that Microsoft has honed over time with various products.

One might argue that Microsoft's inability to deliver platforms on schedule is problematic. But my problems with Microsoft's apparent tardiness are all about perception. I think the company loses credibility when it makes promises it can't keep. Creating platforms such as Yukon and Longhorn, the next Windows version, is difficult. Developers and other customers understand that these things take time. But they're growing understandably restless with Microsoft's inability to accurately predict how long these projects will take to ship. What we need now from Microsoft is some direction and more realistic scheduling--which is important because 2005 is going to be a huge year for developers, and Yukon is only the start.

By mid-year, Microsoft will also ship its first x64 versions of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP, products it has been educating developers about for more than a year. Longhorn beta 1 and beta 2 will ship this year as well, giving developers key insights into the foundational technologies they'll use to build the applications and services of the next decade. The company will ship two major versions of its Windows Mobile platform over the next 18 months. And of course, Microsoft is hosting shows such as Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), Tech Ed, and the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) this year as well. And you thought you were busy last year.

Microsoft's platforms create opportunities for third-party developers, and the products work better when they interoperate with one another. It's a brilliant plan, one for which the company doesn't get enough credit. But part of the credit, of course, should be extended to the several million people who actively develop software for Microsoft's platforms. I find it heartening that Microsoft has never lost its connection to that community.

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