Microsoft development strategy

As Microsoft development tool product managers gathered on the eve of this month's Tech*Ed 98 Conference in New Orleans, they could not help but feel somewhat embattled. The company, after all, was the target of government antitrust efforts, and the idea of "breaking up Microsoft" was now heard regularly in the various media. With that backdrop, ADT embarked on a series of on-site meetings in Redmond, Wash., with Microsoft tools product managers to see how coherent their strategy is for the enterprise. The lasting impression: The company remains icily determined to deliver on what has long been a core goal -- that is, to make software tools easier to use, to drive mass markets, and to capitalize on its role as provider of the far-and-away dominant desktop operating system.

With IBM's OS/2 and Apple's Mac OS definitely in desktop retreat, Microsoft's development tools efforts have increasingly turned to the wider computing enterprise dominated by powerful hardware combines such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Digital Equipment Corp. and Sun Microsystems. It is clearly evident that the company's higher end Windows NT system is finding a place alongside competitors' midrange Unix systems. The only apparent threat to its desktop hegemony is Java, which Microsoft positions as a language and which competitors position as a platform (if not a way of life).

For application developers, the questions to answer are many. How robust can NT become, and how quickly? Do Microsoft's diverse software tool tactics equal a comprehensive development strategy? As well, they must estimate the odds that Microsoft can provide a multitiered computing architecture suited for the new field of distributed object computing.

In fact, as two-tier client/server computing gives way to multitier computing, Microsoft sees an opportunity to make greater inroads. It will do so under the flag of COM+ transactional middleware, which will be described in more detail at Tech*Ed and in subsequent announcements in the coming weeks. [For regular updates on Tech*Ed and related events during the summer, go to Click on "News."]

Competitors will challenge Microsoft's right to take up the enterprise flag. Among a host of issues in contention are scalability, openness and experience. While ready at times to admit that fully scalable enterprise computing is a long-term goal that Microsoft has yet to achieve, Microsoft development tools managers suggest they are improving in a timely fashion. And they say they are gaining experience along the way. Many are not original Microsoft hires -- they come from stints with competitors and Fortune 500 I/S groups. Openness is something they seldom haggle about. They know big companies have heterogeneous environments that must be accepted, but Windows is the power and the glory.

Conversations unveil an obvious advantage Microsoft managers hold over their foes. They work for one company, not a hodgepodge of companies joined together briefly for tactical purposes. Also, unlike many of its enterprise foes, Microsoft is a company that still reflects the aggressive goals of a founder still at the helm. Chairman and CEO Bill Gates still exhorts his product managers to listen to customers. As a result, as Microsoft takes another run at the fortress of corporate computing, it will do so with easy-to-use tools.

These tools will not satisfy the most sophisticated of developers, but they may enable some I/S directors to employ a less-sophisticated talent pool as they embark on complex, three-tier computing programs. And such ease of use could become an increasingly critical factor for I/S if forecasts of programmer labor shortages prove true.

Tools in tumult

The last three years presented major challenges to Microsoft, despite -- or because of -- its position as the leading independent software company and keeper of the Windows OS flame. The onslaught of Internet and Java, especially, caused the company to completely review its development tools strategy.

Today, the firm still positions Visual Basic as a rapid application development (RAD) tool for the mass of developers, and Visual C++ as the elite tool for "writing to the metal." It created Visual J++ to meet the sudden demand for Java language support. It successfully debuted a Web scripting engine known as Visual InterDev, which targets a whole new class of HTML-savvy programmers that have emerged from the Web-building ferment. For Web page building, the firm bought FrontPage via Vermeer. Meanwhile, it began lab work with the emerging data-aware form of HTML known as XML. For the enterprise developer, strategy today is focused on Visual Studio, a product that will continue to place more and more of Microsoft's team tool offerings into a single, high-end box.

Visual Studio 97 Professional Edition features Visual Basic, Visual C++, Visual J++, Visual InterDev, Visual FoxPro, the Microsoft Repository, Visual SourceSafe, Visual Modeler, Visual Component Manager and a developer version of SQL Server. The company reports that it has penetrated 90% of the Fortune 1000 markets with the product, and that it is now Microsoft's top-selling enterprise-level tool offering. The upcoming 6.0 version of Visual Studio is meant to achieve many of Microsoft's goals in the enterprise computing market.

"The first year or two of Internet was a time of internal turmoil," said Jon Roskill, director of marketing for visual tools at Microsoft. "But everybody's been looking at it as an opportunity." While quick to suggest chinks in competitors' (mostly Java-related) armor, Roskill admits that the company has some growing to do if it is to succeed in the enterprise computing space. Increasingly, Visual Studio tools will be used to create transactional (COM+) middleware that, relying on Microsoft Transaction Services nestled in NT, does thread-pooling and the like.

"This is new from Microsoft," said Roskill. "This is a multiyear development/deployment situation.

"We've come from a history where people using Visual Basic have whacked out quick implementations in three to six months," he added. "The shift now is toward a one- to two-year [corporate development] time frame." To better support development teams, said Roskill, new repository features and front-end object modeling capabilities are
being added to the flagship suite. A suite that also shows Microsoft's commitment to the idea of multilanguage application development.

Java? Of course!

The big new tool in the Microsoft arsenal has also been the most controversial. That is J++, which some would call the company's Killer Java tool and others would call its Java Killer tool. Much attention centers on the marketing aspects of the tool. For a company that declines to attribute RAD qualities to its newer versions of Visual C++ -- Visual Basic is the RAD tool in Redmond -- there is little push to admit that Java is a "RAD-like" C++. This is despite the comment from a Visual tool product manager who says "there are a few classes of bugs that are harder to create in Java." In Redmond, what Java is not is a replacement for Windows.

Regarding the debut of VJ++ 6.0, said Evan Quinn, an analyst with International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, Mass., "Microsoft will not just provide J++. It will also bring channel and marketing strengths to bear in an effort to gain the programmer 'middle ground.'" Quinn suggests that there are three distinct programming 'types' today. These are developers who have made up their minds -- one, Microsoft developers content with their Windows tools, and two, non-Microsoft developers that are committed to non-Microsoft tools. Then there is the middle ground of developers. This third group will decide to use or not use Microsoft technology based on the corporation's (or the project's) needs. The decision will often be decided along cost issues. Visual J++'s goal, said Quinn, is to get a majority of those "undecided" developers. He advises not to underestimate Microsoft's proven skills for selling software in such a fray.

Microsoft's decision to offer Visual J++ -- but more importantly its decision to support native Windows calls -- will be another lightning rod for anti-Microsoft sentiment. IBM representatives are just a few among the many that point out that Visual J++ encourages platform-specific API calls (they strip Java of its cross-platform portability), tends to isolate Java usage on the server side, and uses non-standard Java keywords. Visual J++ 6.0, however, does not really mark a change in Microsoft strategy. The company has consistently pushed the Windows platform, as well as the idea that multiple languages should be expected in real-world projects. [See here for a review of the latest version of Visual J++.]

Microsoft's enterprise tools strategy is also centered around COM. Like other tool makers, the company has discovered that customers are less and less impressed with visual tool interfaces. Users want to know what residual middleware glue the tools leave in the applications they build. Today, individual tools -- Visual Basic, Visual C++ and Visual J++ -- have individual ways of programming COM+ distributed objects. Bringing sense to what could be a potential mishmash will continue to be a goal of the company. As in the past, visual metaphors will be employed at the programming bench in order to simplify tasks.

COM on

The company hopes its COM+ implementation can simplify the task of building distributed software objects. The focus is on productivity, though perhaps sometimes at the expense of sophistication. On the main, COM+'s competition is Corba, the object standard backed
by much of the enterprise computing crew.

"We've come from a history where people using Visual Basic have whacked out quick implemen-
tations in three to six months." - John Roskill
According to David Reed, general manager, Microsoft COM technologies, the next release of COM will see the unification of COM and Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS) programming models. New traits will include queued request services, publish-and-subscribe event services and load-balancing services. Improvements to MTS call for the transaction service to auto-launch components and divvy up the task so that programmers do not have to write code to manage that duty.

"MTS is part of COM now," said Joe Maloney, Microsoft group manager, Objects-ActiveX. "It's about making it easier to build server-side apps. There's a lot of pain there. There's threads, concurrency, object-to-database connections. It's really gory.

"Microsoft has done a lot in [terms of] scalability," he continued. "MTS encourages you to write stateless components. You create the object when you need it. With [COM's] threading architecture, you create a pool of threads. You're not tying up memory with threads."

Said Maloney: "Other vendors are playing 'featuritis.' They've forgotten that the goal is to make it easier for people to do their jobs."

While (in a tacit admission that Corba at least exists) Microsoft earlier this year agreed to license COM to Dublin, Ireland-based Iona Technologies, one of Corba's most significant advocates, Microsoft representatives still fault Corba as difficult to program. In Microsoft's Visual Basic and Visual FoxPro tool sets, more and more, the COM+ programming is to be handled via check boxes, not Interface Definition Language (IDL) or Active Template Library (ATL) coding. The company's reps point out that COM+ programming support will be continuously enhanced across Microsoft tools. [For more on component development, see "COM Momentum Builds."]

"Developers shouldn't have to worry about how thick the [middleware] pipes are," said Chris Flores, Visual Basic product manager. "Those are things people pay Microsoft to worry about." If that troubles a 'non-Microsoft programmer type,' Flores is unrepentant. "A lot of the [most advanced] developers are out there trying to shave a millisecond off transactions. Corporate developers don't live in that world. They live in a world of [application development] backlogs. All these things need to be weighed," he said.

"Visual Basic can handle the ugly complexities of being 'thread safe.' All and all, Visual Basic isn't simple because the code is English-like. It's simple because it handles the complexity," he added.

Said Roskill, director of marketing for Visual tools: "There are certain goals that never go away with our releases. Productivity is one of them. With Visual Studio 6.0, we are taking that productivity to n-tier 'apps.'" Previous versions of COM allowed thread- and database-pooling. Much of the COM development was done via ATL controls and raw C++. "Sometimes you had to be a rocket scientist programmer," admitted Roskill. That, he maintained, is changing.

Attention on Visual Studio, say Microsoft managers, has not diminished attention to the standalone tools. Visual Basic continues to be another Microsoft success story, deftly matching, and perhaps beating, RAD tool success stories of Sybase's PowerBuilder and Borland's (now known as Inprise's) Delphi. The company estimates that, from its March 1997 launch through to January 1998, Visual Basic 5.0 developers licensed more than 1 million copies of the product.

That is the equivalent of almost one Visual Basic license every 25 seconds. A mere 200,000 of those units were licensed as part of Microsoft's Visual Studio 97. Microsoft has also made inroads with its Visual Basic Application (VBA) Edition, which allows independent software vendors to embed the programming tool for end-user customization of applications.

App server trends

In all industry, the middle-tier of n-tier computing is still kind of vague. There is no sign yet that Microsoft will roll out a specific application server offering. But, in fact, NT's success has been as an application server, not as a network server as was envisioned before it took up combat with Novell NetWare. Today, distributed COM is far from a server in a box.

Players like Netscape (via its acquisition of Kiva) Communications Corp., Mountain View, Calif., WebLogic Inc., San Francisco, NetDynamics Inc., Menlo Park, Calif., Bluestone Software Inc., Mount Laurel, N.J., and others have been defining this market for a number of years. Will Microsoft make a purchase here? Roskill cannot say,
although he suggests that the window of opportunity for the application server market will only last two to three years.

That window looks wider to competitor Sharmila Shahani, director, product marketing, Netscape. "What we are doing is focusing on the heterogeneous environment," said Shahani, rightly pointing out that the typical enterprise is heterogeneous in nature. "We have focused on high availability, performance and scalability," she added.

"Microsoft's definition of scalability is the number of users that can bang on a server," chides Richard Soley, director of the Framingham, Mass.-based Object Management Group (OMG), which oversees the Corba spec. "There's another, more telling type of scalability. That is the number of cooperative processes that can run on lots of machines all around the world." But even the most fervent Corba enthusiast like Soley sees room for both object architectures over time. In fact, OMG notes that 56% of Corba customers also use COM.

COM+ will be a test of Microsoft's commitment to corporate computing. The company made a rare foray into non-Windows platforms recently when it took COM development (as well as channel and end-user support) in-house for a slew of Unix platforms. Much of that work had previously been the sole purview of Software AG. It was a big step, said Microsoft Group Manager Maloney, who had to get Microsoft human resources to sign off on the job requisite for, of all people, Unix developers. "Now we have some nice solid Unix hacks," he said.

Some more sophisticated support of interoperability is evolving, maintains Bob Muglia, vice president of server applications, and others. "It's really important that as we drive new solutions into corporations, and corporations adopt new technology," said Muglia at this year's Web TechEd confab held in Palm Springs, Calif., "that technology [must] integrate with their existing line of business systems, and their existing infrastructure.

"It doesn't do companies much good unless they can get at the existing data they have," he continued. "So interoperability and integration is a key thing."

Whither the Repository?

Visual Studio 6.0's design goals include integrated transaction services, high-end database modeling support, maximized developer productivity and enhanced support for teams. It can be said that the needs of enterprise object computing have moved Microsoft to try Case-style technology once thought far afield.

Handling objects calls for a more robust infrastructure -- today for developers, tomorrow for deployed systems. Here, even allies suggest Microsoft has started very gingerly. They grant that Microsoft is seeding a mass market
for once arcane repository stores, but say that the present Microsoft repository offering is not enterprise class. Maybe that is why the company went outside for help on this one.

"It doesn't do companies much good unless they can get at the existing data they have." - Bob Muglia
Last year, after several years' work with Texas Instruments Software, now part of Dallas-based Sterling Software Inc., Microsoft signed an agreement with Platinum Technology Inc. to collaborate on development of a repository that enables software component sharing in distributed environments. Within the Repository definition is the Open Information Model (OIM), which uses COM-based interfaces. Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based Platinum even relocated part of its extensive repository development team to Microsoft's Redmond headquarters.

"The repository provides a centralized place for storing things consistently," said Lloyd Arrow, product manager for Microsoft Visual SourceSafe. He added, "In Visual 6.0, we expand component management to new levels -- across tools, including third-party tools."

The present repository is best seen as a stepping stone, commented Brian Morrow, senior vice president of component-based development, Select Software Tools Inc., Irvine, Calif., and a former repository technology manager at Texas Instruments. "The first generation was very 'techno-centric.' We are very excited about the next stage of the Repository. Still, [rather than wait for Version 2.0,] we have had to press on with our own initiatives," he said.

Today's component repository support is a stepping stone to the big challenge Microsoft is about to take on, said Morrow. And that is transaction servicing, a space that IBM "owns."

"You see Microsoft investing heavily and intelligently in transaction processing technology. In 18 to 30 months we're going to see a head-to-head battle begin," he said. One of Microsoft's swords in the battle will be what Morrow calls "son of MTS."

IBM and Microsoft are marshaling their forces. 'Switching transactions,' indicates Morrow, are becoming component-switching tasks. And the two firms will stress repository technology.

If the Microsoft Repository at the moment is only a subset of the enterprise needs, that spells opportunity. Said Andrew "Flip" Filipowski, leader of Platinum Technology: "Microsoft has a very precise definition of the nugget of the Repository they want to track. We see that [kernel] as a subset of what's needed. That's why the two of us do well together."

In repositories, Microsoft is an upstart -- as in many of its undertakings, and in much of its history. This is not lost on competitors. Microsoft suggests it can go "from nowhere to everywhere in the repository business in three months," said Ian Fisher, vice president of design products at Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle Corp., a tools and relational database leader.

For its part, Microsoft is likely to improve its Oracle modeling (and native data access) support in Visual Studio 6.0. "We realize Oracle is not going to go away," said Microsoft's Lizzie Parker, product manager, Visual Studio.

Microsoft also turned outside for help with object modeling. To facilitate the sharing of this data across multiple tool environments, Microsoft selected the Unified Modeling Language (UML) as the core information model for Microsoft Repository. In 1996, UML had already been endorsed by its then-repository collaborator Texas Instruments. UML creator Rational's Rose Visual Modeler is now to be included with the enterprise editions of both Microsoft Visual Basic and Visual Studio. Cupertino, Calif.-based Rational, like Platinum, has moved some developers to Redmond. Today, for "typical Microsoft developers," object modeling may be an arcane RAD extension that takes too long to learn. Nevertheless, perhaps haltingly, here it comes.

Dancing with the DOS father

How good is Microsoft as a partner? "People say they are a partner that might take over your market, but I don't think that's any different than when IBM was dominant. Microsoft has unduly got a gun to their head," said Mark Ulan, chief technology officer at Elsinore Technologies Inc., a Raleigh, N.C.-based maker of bug-tracking software that works with Microsoft Visual SourceSafe. Elsinore has decided to pursue the Microsoft developers' market specifically. "Microsoft has created an environment for creating tools," said August Turak, CEO of Raleigh Group International, Raleigh, N.C., and co-founder of Elsinore.

"If their operating systems were unduly expensive it would be different," said Turak. "Microsoft is pervasive because years ago Bill Gates said: 'Let's make compelling products that people can afford on platforms that are cheap.' [Apple founder] Steve Jobs could have been the guy. But he didn't price it appropriately."

A lot of people fault Microsoft technology as closed. "They are proprietary and [yet] accessible. All their interfaces are available," counters UML proponent Adam Frankel, director of marketing at Rational.

For a software component maker, being a partner (and a competitor) with Microsoft is "pretty daunting," according to Scot Wingo, vice president of Rogue Wave Software's Stingray division in Morriseville, N.C. "They are always expanding. We have to always stay a step ahead of them. It's like running away from a nuclear explosion. But they do take care of developers."

Platinum's Filipowski sees Microsoft as a partner willing to share part of the pie. "Microsoft has been a very good partner to us. They are capable of establishing standards. A lot of people complain about one-sidedness [in Microsoft] deals, but I don't feel this way. The Repository for us is a very strategic product."

But how quickly can Microsoft enter enterprise computing? "First remember," said Filipowski, "Microsoft is not interested in the heterogeneous enterprise environment. Their interest is to build a moat around the high-value areas of the enterprise, and to make sure nobody encroaches on the franchise they have on the desktop. Their enterprise strategy is to maintain the desk and the small server marketplace.

"They despise the kind of low margin, people-intensive market [that the enterprise] is," continued Filipowski. "They'd prefer to produce Barney CDs and Web TV and collect the $29 per every human on the planet. The big customers are not going to be NT. But with NT, Microsoft has a piece of the action, and they like the piece they have."

Filipowski emphasizes the fact that enterprise computing means heterogeneity. But interoperability is as far as Microsoft is likely to go. It is not going into heterogeneous system support, indicated Bill Gates as he spoke at CA World last month in New Orleans. In his speech, Gates also touched on Microsoft's relationship with another lately prominent partner, Computer Associates International Inc., Islandia, N.Y.

"CA brings us expertise in heterogeneous systems," he said. "That's an important area, but it's not an area that Microsoft has decided to invest in."

Gates also said that "Microsoft gets 80% of [its] revenue from Windows, Office and BackOffice. I see that continuing for 10 years." In press releases the company is still clear about its identity. It is 'the worldwide leader in software for personal computers.'

"It's the law!"

Despite Microsoft's prowess in the high-stakes poker game of corporate software, there is a wild card yet to be played. The specter of government regulation is always a threat. Attention required by legal battles and a complex rollout of the Windows 98 desktop operating system could divert attention from the rollout of Windows NT 5.0.

The latter is crucial to Microsoft's enterprise plans. Although foes challenge COM scalability, what they are often referring to is NT's operating system scalability or SQL Server database scalability. That is not entirely unfair, because so much of what Microsoft seeks to do with COM is tied to these other system elements.