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Eyes on the enterprise

Facing the possibility of a slowdown in the growth of its desktop operating systems and applications business, Microsoft has its eye on a new prize: the enterprise application development tool market.

Facing the possibility of a slowdown in the growth of its desktop operating systems and applications business, Microsoft (MSFT) has its eye on a new prize: the enterprise application development tool market.

The software giant is going upscale, so to speak, with its development tool lineup, and has inked a deal with object-oriented modeling tool maker Rational Software that will result in new, enterprise-class toolsets from Microsoft next year.

Rational, which earlier this week announced the purchase of Microsoft's Visual Test, an automated software testing tool, will license technology from its Rational Rose visual modeling tool to Microsoft for inclusion in future versions of Microsoft's Visual Basic, Visual C++, Visual J++, and other upcoming tools, according to Bob Muglia, Microsoft vice president of development tools.

Rational will in turn license Microsoft's Developer Studio development tool user interface technology, along with Microsoft's upcoming development repository for storing reusable object code, and build a new set of enterprise-scale modeling tools designed to interface with Microsoft tools, said Mike Devlin, Rational's president. The company will also extend Visual SourceSafe, Microsoft's version control software, by adding software change management and process automation features.

"Microsoft does not have expertise in the modeling field, so we looked for a partner," said Muglia. Modeling tools let developers sketch out how pieces of a large-scale application will interact. Currently, Microsoft's core tools do not include a modeling function, since they have been aimed at developers building either small applications, or pieces of a larger application. Muglia said the modeling tools will help developers move to a component development model for enterprise-scale applications, a market that the company has been coveting for some time.

The big picture from Microsoft's point of view is to have a set of well-integrated tools for building enterprise-class applications using ActiveX, Microsoft's component architecture, and ActiveX-based technologies, including Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) and Microsoft Transaction Server, an upcoming transaction management tool also known by the code-name Viper.

"Before the Internet hit them over the head, Microsoft was talking a lot about the enterprise. They have wanted to be a player in the development tool space for a long time," said Judith Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz Group. "Now they are trying to get their ducks in a row to provide a lot more development software so that they get more revenue, and are not so dependent on Office and Windows 95."

Muglia said developers can expect to see the new modeling technology first in an upcoming revision of Visual Basic, due in the first part of next year. "We will target VB first, and will spread the technology across our product lines," said Muglia.

Adding modeling tools, along with a development repository will place Microsoft directly in competition with tools such as Powersoft's Powerbuilder, and other tools well-known to IS developers.

"If anyone should be scared, it's tool providers on the low- to mid-level, like Powersoft. They are clearly at risk here," said Hurwitz. "Microsoft's goal is to say to developers, 'You can develop in VB and we will take care of the back end.' If they can do that, they will be very successful."

Microsoft's development repository--a project in development for several years with partner Texas Instruments--is nearing completion, according to sources. A portion of the technology is already included in the company's Visual SourceSafe toolset, and will be part of Microsoft's data warehousing framework called Active Data Warehouse framework, announced last month.

Shedding Visual Test will free up Microsoft's in-house developers to concentrate on core development tools. Muglia said the tool, once unique in the market, is now just one of many testing tools. Sources also speculate that the company may sell of other peripheral products, possibly including its Visual SourceSafe tool, at a future time.