Microsoft Takes New Development Track

The company is looking to its Express tools to lure casual developers.

In its ongoing quest to win the hearts and minds of increasing numbers of developers, Microsoft Corp. is trying a new tack: catching them while theyre young.

In addition to efforts to recruit developers through its many high-school and college programs, Microsoft is looking to its recently announced Express tools to bring in a new class of developers. Microsoft announced the Express versions of its Visual Studio tools at Tech Ed Europe last month, saying the tools are aimed at casual developers, hobbyists and students.

At the conference, Microsoft announced Express versions of its popular tools, including Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition, for building Web sites and Web services; Visual Basic 2005 Express Edition, which is aimed at helping beginners learn to program; and SQL Server 2005 Express Edition, a lightweight version of SQL Server, also for students and hobbyists, among others.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read eWEEKs interview with Rick LaPlante, general manager of Visual Studio Team System at Microsoft.

Christopher Flores, lead product manager of Microsofts developer division, said that over the past 10 years, "theres been a huge surge in interest by hobbyists and casual developers" in tools to build applications. "The bar for developing applications, especially Web applications, has been lowered," he said, and Microsoft has responded with its set of easy-to-use tools.

"There are roughly 6 million developers out there, but thats dwarfed by the number of people who use peer-to-peer software, MP3 devices, etc.—things that require software," Flores said. "Software is so mainstream. And software development is not for geeks and freaks anymore—its for everybody."

Two developers said they were impressed with the Express tools but put off by Microsofts marketing plans. Tim Huckaby, CEO of InterKnowlogy LLC, in Carlsbad, Calif., said Microsoft is "selling itself short and doing a small disservice to the Express tools when they proclaim them to be for hobbyists, enthusiasts and students. To me, that type of statement implies that the Express line is a set of toys.

"Those who have seen or used them know this is far from the case. There is no reason in the world that highly scalable enterprise software cannot be built in the Express tools," Huckaby said.

Huckaby said he can envision business analysts and nontechnical users using the Express tools to prototype applications. "How perfect is a world where part of the design is a prototype built by the business owner of the project itself?" he asked. "Then they throw it over the wall to the developers to build."

Stephen Forte, chief technology officer of New York-based Corzen Inc., agreed. Forte said he began programming using macros because he found using professional tools "intimidating." But after working with the program for a while, he moved on to master other tools and languages, he said. Forte said the Express tools are quite capable. "Whats great about the Express products is that they use the full-blown .Net Framework," he said.

Still, three Microsoft partners have already signed on to deliver starter kits for the Express tool set: eBay Inc., PayPal and But Flores said Microsoft is in talks with other companies, including game developers, to deliver starter kits for the tools.

"Were courting game development houses," Flores said. "Valve [Corp.] has called us." Valve, of Bellevue, Wash., makes popular games such as Half-Life. Flores said Microsoft will be looking to partner with game makers to deliver starter kits "that every casual gamer out there can use to write programs to manipulate the games" or, in effect, to customize their game experience.

Flores said Microsoft also is interested in partnering with "digital camera makers to enable customers to take this tool and build programs to do things with the camera and manipulate photos."

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about how the Visual Studio Team System is attracting partners.

In addition, Microsoft plans to deliver starter kits with the various Express tools, Flores said.

However, with the Express tools and the push to partner with consumer product companies, Microsoft is not necessarily looking to branch into the consumer world with its tools. Its primary goal is to grow its developer base and make Visual Studio the premier platform for development, said officials.

At Microsofts financial analysts meeting in Redmond, Wash., last month, Eric Rudder, senior vice president of servers and tools at the company, said the Visual Studio Express tools are part of Microsofts plans to grow its developer base.

Among division priorities for fiscal years 2004 and 2005 are to drive server and tools usage and revenue, Rudder said. He said he expects the Express tools to bring more people into Microsofts developer ranks.

"Were not only targeting the top-end developers but also looking to bring new folks in; thats what Express is all about," Rudder said.

Flores said the tools will be easy for anyone to learn to use and will ship with enough prepackaged code for users to get started quickly. "When we ship, well have over 500 snippets of functionality, and we expect the community to provide snippets as well," he said.

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