Microsoft last month celebrated its 30th anniversary as the company built of, by and for developers.
That is how Microsoft Corp. officials have long described the company, and it is an apt description, as developers continue to be a primary focus for the software giant.
No other company has been able to amass an ecosystem of developers as large as or as committed as Microsoft has, analysts say.
Witness the Microsoft PDC (Professional Developers Conference) in Los Angeles last month.
Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect, said the show set a record in terms of attendance; it sold out faster than ever before, there were more people on the waiting list than ever before and there were double the number of exhibitors as at the last PDC in 2003.
“Developers have really always been Microsofts core customer segment,” said David Treadwell, corporate vice president of the .Net Developer Platform team.
“The companys first product was a BASIC compiler for developers. We know the importance that developers play in the ecosystem of the technology industry. The applications come from developers; theyre the innovation engine for the industry. I cant overstate the importance of developers.”
John Montgomery, director for the Developer Division at Microsoft, said, “The story in a nutshell is theres a complex ecosystem that sits around developing applications and making money off of them … And Microsoft has shown itself pretty good time and again at figuring out how people can make money off of its products.”
Some of that is philosophical, some of that has to do with the technology, and some of it has to do with the types of programs and machinery Microsoft has put in place to help developers make money, Microsoft officials said.
The big waves began with DOS, which created a vibrant software ecosystem around itself. The next curve was Windows and Windows 3.1, which is where the formula really came together and Microsoft introduced Visual Basic, Montgomery said.
Then came Windows 95, and later Windows 2000 and XP. Now the .Net era is here with the Longhorn or Windows Vista wave approaching.
“There are a lot of people in the world that can make software, but there are very few people in the world that can make money off of software,” Montgomery said.
Gates and company early on figured that the concept of high volume, low cost was the model to adopt. And they did. Another key theme was simplicity.
“Make it simple, make it simple to build for, make it widely available and ubiquitous and then show people how to make money,” is the approach with which Microsoft continues to attract and maintain developers, Montgomery said.
Anders Hejlsberg, a technical fellow and chief architect of C# at Microsoft, said when building a new language or platform, “I value simplicity over everything; I always look for simplicity.”
Indeed, Hejlsberg said, “You can see it in the products Ive built over the years—they strive to be simple. Simplicity is important in the quest for developer productivity.”
Hejlsberg also created Borland Software Corp.s Turbo Pascal and Delphi, which have been touted for their simplicity. And Hejlsbergs history at Borland, which has a history of having an almost fanatical developer following, indicates that he knows how to build products developers want to use.
BASIC and Visual Basic have been considered major breakthroughs for Microsoft, as nearly every competitor that brings to market an easy-to-use development platform describes it as “VB-like.”
Importance of BASIC
Tandy Trower, general manager for a product incubation project and a member of Microsofts 20-Year Club, who joined Microsoft in 1981 and was initially charged with heading up Microsofts BASIC products, said BASIC was the most important early breakthrough for the company.
“In developing BASIC, Microsoft provided a lingua franca for the PC industry that made the PC accessible for the first time to people who were not computer gurus,” Trower said in an interview on Microsoft PressPass.
One developer at a Microsoft partner, who credits Visual Basic for increasing the ranks of programmers, said, “Take a poll. Ask how many programmers there are who dont have a computer science degree, but moved into the IT industry by first building Access applications and moved into VB.”
Perhaps that is why so many VB developers felt let down when Microsoft shifted from VB 6 to VB.Net. The switch meant incompatibility for a host of applications and led to a revolt and petition signed by thousands of developers calling for Microsoft to bring back support for the legacy technology.
During the long history of Microsofts developer division, “There have been a few areas to cause tensions, such as the move from VB 6 to VB.Net,” Treadwell said.
Stephen Forte, a Microsoft developer and chief technology officer of Corzen Inc. in New York, said the history of Microsofts developer group is like a “walk down memory lane.” He said as a young graduate working in IT on Wall Street he used tools from many of the major vendors.
However, “As I started to interact with Microsoft and use their stuff, I became loyal,” Forte said. “The other guys did absolutely nothing to win the hearts and minds of the developers—and are still paying the price. Back then it was not always a quality decision. Meaning with access to betas, the speed at which I could do stuff, the amount of time they spent with us and materials/conferences they produced for free, I was willing to sacrifice quality in the early days for ease of use and speed.
“Nowadays Microsoft is equal or better in the quality department and I dont have to make this tradeoff, but in the early days, when they were behind, their developer focus made the difference and tipped the scales in their favor.”
Forte said his conversion and loyalty started with Visual Basic 4.0 for Windows 95. “It started there; Microsoft seemed to actually care about developers and had lots of geeks while the other vendors sent people in suits and talked about licensing only.”
Patrick Hynds, CTO at CriticalSites Inc. of Nashua, N.H. and longtime Microsoft developer, said Microsofts ability to empower developers appealed to him as well. “I would say that the thing that has drawn me to Microsofts products over the decades is that there has always been, and remains, a sense that productivity is the focus.”
Hynds said at every job he works on the mantra is to get the work done in a hurry. “I have used non-Microsoft languages and the products that go with them, including Java, Perl and the usual suspects, but none of them seems to continually emphasis maximizing my time. After all, time is what I sell in the final analysis.”
What Microsofts Reorganization Means
Meanwhile, perhaps further signaling the importance of developers to the company, in announcing a reorganization of the company last month, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced that Eric Rudder, senior vice president of servers and tools at Microsoft, would begin to report directly to Gates.
“That will be helpful for the division,” Treadwell said. “Eric deeply understands developers and what they want and need.”
In fact, Treadwell said, Rudder is largely responsible for Microsofts move to become more transparent and to show developers what the company is working on in the way of CTPs (Community Technology Previews) of key technologies on the horizon.
Cornelius Willis, a vice president at SourceLabs Inc. in Seattle who used to work in Microsofts developer division helping build out the Microsoft developer ecosystem, said, “Contrary to popular opinion, Microsoft does have a strong culture of transparency. It spends a ton of money sharing its plans and is also pretty clear about where it wants to play in the market. There is also an amazing depth and breadth of technical information available on the platform, there really is nothing comparable anywhere else.”
Willis also said the MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) plays a major role in getting developers to coalesce around Microsofts platforms.
“The value of MSDN is huge, and not well understood,” Willis said. “Developers most critical resource is their time, and Microsoft optimizes that well.”
“What really turned the tide was MSDN,” Forte said. “By the late 90s MSDN subscriptions and the MSDN Web site were critical. MS really catered to us…”
However, at times developers have questioned whether the developer ranks or the Microsoft Windows franchise have been most important to the company. But Microsoft officials say the two go hand in hand.
“The most important thing for Windows is being compelling to developers,” Treadwell said. “Developers are the linchpin for the success of Windows.”
Jim Allchin, co-president of the new Microsoft Platform Products & Services Division, said, “Well, developers do want to touch a lot of customers. We have to make our platform very popular in order for them to do that. If we make their jobs easier then theyll be more likely to stay on the Windows platform. At the same time, we have to listen to them and forget about competitors in terms of the platform.”
Meanwhile, after high volume, low cost, “the second thing they figured out was Dont get too hung up on pure computer science,” Montgomery said. “Making it easy is more important than adhering to strict rules of object orientation and polymorphism.
“And the third thing they figured out is that having events like the PDC is really important because you need to show people what youre doing—show them a lot of leg so they know where youre going to go and make it easy for them to adopt these technologies and at the same time talk about business ideas for how they can make money.”
At PDC 2000, Microsoft introduced its .Net platform.
“We showed a lot of leg really early in—two years before we shipped foundational technology,” Montgomery said. “And we said were making a big change. We believe in this Web services infrastructure, we believe in managed code as the primary programming model for most types of applications. Now over half of all professional developers all use .Net.”
Also along the way, Microsofts developer group adjusted to various inflection points in the industry, such as the Internet, Java and open-source software.
Microsoft licensed Java and created tools for the language. The licensing soon became tenuous and led to a series of legal battles with Sun Microsystems Inc. that were finally settled last year. Hejlsberg called Java “an inspiration” to Microsoft and to the industry at large.
Moreover, the open-source movement forced Microsoft to become more transparent. Microsoft adopted XML and Web services as part of its effort to leverage its products for the Web.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has moved into modeling technology with its Visual Studio Team System. And the company has embarked on a whole new effort to appeal not only to developers, but to designers as well with its upcoming Expression Studio product line. Visual Studio 2005 will be launched on November 7.