Microsoft Taps Nonpro Tools

Several companies are looking to cash in on market for empowering amateurs

Who wants to be a programmer?

Microsoft is hoping everyday folks will take the challenge by using its nonprofessional programming tools, and other vendors are following suit.

Microsoft is poised to tap the nascent market for development tools to enable nonprofessionals to create applications, having established a team specifically built for this push and planning several initiatives, including a new Web site strictly for beginners. Moreover, Microsoft hopes to tap into the power of its new Windows Vista operating system with its new user interface and communications subsystems to further empower nonprofessionals. Meanwhile, Borland Software and Sun Microsystems also are positioning tools for beginners and nontraditional programmers.

Earlier this year Microsoft spun out a group within its Developer Division to address this. The Non-Professional Tools Team is tasked with coming up with a strategy for the Redmond, Wash., company to support what the company sees as a large untapped market.

John Montgomery, program manager in the Non-Professional Tools Team, has said the groups primary project is code-named Tuscany. Although Microsoft would not discuss details of Tuscany, sources say its aimed at bringing a SAAS (software as a service) spin to the Visual Studio platform, or what might be viewed as a Visual Studio Live initiative.

In an interview, Montgomery said Microsoft research found that there are 7 million professional developers in the world, about 40 percent of whom code for fun after work hours. About 70 percent hold a computer science or some sort of engineering degree. However, "the nonprofessional segment is about three to four times larger than the professional segment, and thats just people over the age of 18," Montgomery said.

Microsofts research shows that only 10 percent of the 30 million or so non-professional developers aspire to be professionals.

"Were interested in the end-user developers," Montgomery said, citing macro writers, students and hobbyists among the first tier he is targeting. Women also represent an untapped segment, he said. "Women represent 51 percent of the world population, but only 6 percent of all developers are female," he said.

Montgomery identified three main types of development: code-oriented, using tools such as Microsofts Visual Basic; animation-oriented, using tools such as Adobes Flash; and template-oriented, as in blogging platforms and wikis. "You can use any of them to build applications, but there are not that many companies who have offerings in all three areas," Montgomery said, adding that Microsoft plans to be one of them.

Microsoft will launch a new Web site aimed at beginning developers by the end of this year. Dan Fernandez, Microsofts lead product manager for Visual Studio Express, said Microsoft also is giving a makeover to its Web site aimed at hobbyists, known as Coding4Fun. The new version will launch at the end of October, he said.

Thomas Murphy, an analyst with Gartner in Redmond, said there "certainly is a space" in the non-professional tools market. "But I dont know if the right way to address it is from a traditional language," he said. "At least not for modern applications, and I wonder if this space isnt already filled by [Adobes] FlashFX."

Murphy said that "Flash does it for the graphically minded, but not as well for others, and it doesnt help when you want to do much computing." Yet, there are platforms that help domain experts who arent programmers build applications for their jobs, he said.

Kevin Wortham, CEO of AssureTech, in Upper Marlboro, Md., agreed with Murphy, but with a caveat. Wortham said there is no single answer to empowering nonprofessionals to create applications, but it helps if a company standardizes on a platform.

"Some IT shops look down on their end users using tools to build departmental applications, but if they would standardize on a specific platform that is supported by the organization, that is a positive," he said.

However, Theresa Lanowitz, an analyst at Voke, in Minden, Nev., said the existence of business users using nonprofessional tools in the enterprise is a step back.

"We have IT professionals who need to act as point people to the technical developers," Lanowitz said. "These people do not need development tools for the nondeveloper. They need tools that will make the task of being in a strategic enterprise IT line of business role easier."

Microsoft and others arent claiming to be wooing enterprise developers with their new tools, though they say they hope developers who use their beginner platforms will continue to learn and use their professional tools. Indeed, Microsofts Visual Studio Express tools are used by professionals and novices alike. Many professionals admit to using the free tools for prototyping and building small applications.

Microsofts Fernandez said there have been more than 6 million downloads of the Visual Studio Express tools. Moreover, Microsoft is broadening the reach of its Express tools. In August, the company announced XNA Game Studio Express, which puts tools into the hands of novice and hobbyist programmers. Microsoft also is contemplating an Express version aimed at young girls to grow the ranks of female developers, sources said.

Also in August, Borland relaunched its Turbo product. For its part, Sun last month launched NetBeans IDE/BlueJ Edition, an educational tool that provides a migration path for students transitioning from educational tools to a full-featured, professional development environment.

Toys for App-Dev Tots

Helping nonprofessionals build applications are:


* Markets Visual Studio Express tools to hobbyists and beginners

* Initiated Non-Professional Tools Team in Developer Division

* Working on "Tuscany," a project to deliver a development platform that appeals to nonprofessionals

* Creating a developer Web site for beginners


* Has brought back its Turbo line of tools, with the Explorer Edition targeting beginners and nontraditional programmers


* Has launched the NetBeans IDE/BlueJ Edition, a Java development tool aimed at students and beginners

Source: eWEEK reporting