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Microsoft fights talent drain with new tools, API

The company admits that in order to maintain Windows' appeal as a development platform, new tools and a new approach are needed.

It's Microsoft's game to lose.

With a hammerlock on the Web browser and PC operating system markets, if Microsoft loses sway with developers it has only itself to blame.

Executives at the Redmond, Washington-based software maker admit that in order to maintain Windows' appeal as a development platform, the company needs to make Web application development on Windows as simple as writing a Windows-only program.

"We're hitting the saturation mark as we approach 100 percent. We've got as many people out there creating Windows apps as we're going to be able to get," said Jon Roskill, director of marketing in the company's developer division. To stem the flow of developers away from the fold, the company needs a development tool that does for Web development what its Visual Basic tool did to revolutionize Windows development back in 1991.

"We can do a better job of simplifying the programming model here, and the way to do that is with tools," said Roskill.

This fall, Microsoft will detail a new development toolset and programming interfaces intended to combine a handful of Web-related technologies with its Windows operating system and applications.

Roskill said the tools will be delivered as Visual Studio 7.0, set to ship next year. Overall, the new tools will make writing and deploying a single application across multiple servers much simpler.

"It's still quite difficult to build large-scale Web sites. Today, you need to know all of the interfaces with our Internet Information Server, how it works with HTTP calls, and how you work with messaging transactions. We're [planning] to provide a set of tools which make programming Web applications easier."

The new tools will provide many new features, including better integration with Microsoft's upcoming BizTalk Server for supporting Extensible Markup Language (XML), e-commerce servers, and a new integration server code-named Babylon. Visual Studio 7.0 will also include better code deployment tools, application modeling features, and "state" management, which lets Web sites track user movement.

Analysts said Microsoft has so far done a good job of retrofitting its existing tools to work with the Web. But a "Visual Basic for the Web" is what developers and analysts have been waiting for.

"It's not easy to [build server-side applications], especially in a Microsoft environment, because there's been no cohesive tool that combines all of their technology," said Craig Roth, an analyst at the Meta Group. "You still have to pretty much do all the coding yourself. Visual InterDev is a lower level tool for Web page design and scripting. But there has been no equivalent of Visual Basic--a very easy to use, visually oriented tool that ties all of the services together."

Roth cites tools from SilverStream and Elemental Software as good examples of what Microsoft should emulate.

"They need a more cohesive vision of how to do Web development in the Microsoft environment," Roth said. "So that means adding a series of missing features: state and session management and a tool that ties all of [their] technologies together." Roth said a number of Java application server makers already offer such features.

The Java question
Another point of contention is support for Java. While future Microsoft Java-related development plans are currently in limbo due to the lawsuit with Java creator Sun Microsystems, Roskill believes Microsoft's forthcoming Web development environment with improved development tools will recruit new programmers and entice existing developers to stay with Microsoft for the long haul.

Microsoft and Java supporters are fighting it out over the programming model that will help businesses build Web software that integrates with human resources and Enterprise Resource Planning applications, he said. On one side is Enterprise JavaBeans and the CORBA programming models and on the other side is Microsoft's COM. Microsoft this fall will build direct links to CORBA to make the two technologies compatible.

Microsoft is integrating its operating system, e-commerce software, and development tools to make it less complicated for businesses to build Web applications.

Larry Podmolik, vice president of Strategic Technology Resources, a systems integrator which uses both Microsoft and Java technologies, said Microsoft's claims for its Web development environment sound good, but he'll remain skeptical until he sees it.

"Their reputation for doing quality innovative technology is at an all-time low. Maybe they can build some of that back in with honest and good research," he said. "There's certainly space to innovate and improve things, but it's meaningless until they show some meat behind it.