The Courtship of the Developers

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2008-06-24 Print this article Print

In the time immediately prior to Microsoft's landmark release of VB 1.0, PC Week Labs analysts were briefly in possession of a remarkable document: a galley proof of the documentation for that breakthrough development tool.

What made that manual especially interesting was its liberal use of three different icons, sprinkled throughout its margins. One denoted features and behaviors specific to Microsoft Windows; the other two, respectively, marked features and behaviors for OS/2 and for dual-platform development.

It's clear that for at least some period of time, long enough to write those detailed instructions, someone at Microsoft thought of VB as a transitional tool that would introduce developers to writing for a GUI-and then to taking those new GUI skills to the company's future OS/2 platform.

Instead, VB was released as a Windows-only tool, and OS/2 might as well have curled up and died right then. It's almost impossible to overstate the impact of VB in triggering a Cambrian explosion of applications that were absolutely, positively Windows applications: At no time since then has it been possible for any mass-market platform to look a customer in the eye without at least some kind of answer to the question, "Will it run my Windows apps?"

The VB maneuver, which deserves to be called brilliant, put Microsoft permanently on a course of using superior development tools at affordable prices to court the developer community. It helped when competitors such as Sun Microsystems made life more than easy for Microsoft. Sun's eagerness to engage Microsoft in putting Java on Windows, for example, led to a license agreement that made it completely legitimate for Microsoft to add Windows-specific enhancements to Java, as long as it fully disclosed those enhancements back to Sun. Sure, why not?

Further, Microsoft's Visual J++ was a well-designed, well-supported Java development tool-more responsive and functionally richer than anything being offered by Sun-that was perfectly capable of producing completely portable Java applications. To do so, however, a developer had to take the time to disable the useful extensions to Java that made applications easier to write and more attractive to use on Windows.

Moreover, Windows was where the vast majority of users running those applications would be, so developers had little motivation to defeature their code or burden their development process in that way. Java's potential to lower Windows' "applications barrier to entry," as the antitrust court famously called it, was substantially offset.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developersÔÇÖ technical requirements on the companyÔÇÖs evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter companyÔÇÖs first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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