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Visual Studio, openness, and arrogance

Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 isn't in beta yet, but that hasn't kept them from making lots of code available to outside testers already. The Community Technical Preview builds have provided early (and somewhat buggy) exposure to changes coming as Visual Studio .NET nears its next incarnation. But coupled with other Microsoft community efforts, they've also made it easier for outside developers to find out what's coming - and to disagree with it. A few examples that have come out in recent weeks:

  • The default keybindings for Visual C# are changing. So any "muscle memory" you have for such operations as opening Solution Explorer or displaying one of the editing windows will need to be retrained. The responsible manager defends his changes as making sense, but they're certainly upsetting a lot of people who prefer compatability over sensibility.
  • Visual Studio 2005 will include integrated unit testing - but only in the Team System editions. This has outraged developers to the point of triggering an online discussion and petition asking Microsoft to make it available in all editions.
  • Most recently, it's been revealed on the beta newsgroups that the MSDN Universal subscription won't include the full Visual Studio Team System product - a radical departure for what has traditionally been a collection containing every one of Microsoft's development products.

What's going on here? From the outside, it looks like Microsoft is trying to strike a new balance between sharing early code releases and inviting feedback on the one hand, and making hard technical and business decisions on the other. But I suspect that only one part of the equation has changed. Microsoft has always made its own decisions on matters like pricing and features before sending code out into the world for beta testing. What's changed is how early we get the code, and how many channels there are for feedback and information.

There's definitely some danger here for Microsoft. Making information available earlier increases the likelihood of Microsoft being seen as an insensitive monolith (and plenty of people see the company that way already). It's one thing to find out about pricing and edition information when a product ships. It's another to find out a year earlier, complain vocally, and have the company not make any changes in response.

Having started down this road, I think Microsoft will find it necessary to be more responsive than ever to its customers. Placing product and pricing information on the Web early implies a process of negotiation, where customers react to the announcements and Microsoft fine-tunes the end results. If the company draws a series of lines in the sand, and refuses to reconsider or change controversial decisions, it runs the risk of losing an awful lot of hard-won developer goodwill. Instead, they've got to listen to testers, explain the decisions, and change them when necessary. I for one am hoping the end result of more openness is better products.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.

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