Microsoft greets developers with open arms

When it comes to working with developers, Microsoft seems to have gotten the message: Communicate early and often.

This year's Professional Developers Conference, in many regards, is a way for Microsoft engineers to provide down-and-dirty details on Windows Vista, the forthcoming version of the operating system that the company initially described two years ago at the PDC.

Microsoft has always forecast its product road map but it wasn't known as a company that actively solicited feedback from customers and programmers during the development process. That's clearly changed.

Now Redmond is making early looks at products still in the works part of the development process. Windows Vista, for example, had its first beta in June; here in September, Microsoft is providing a community technology preview.

"I think we're starting to get it. We're living in a different world than five or 10 years ago. And there's incredible value in the feedback we get from the broad developer community," said Greg Sullivan, group product manager in charge of the Windows Vista client.

He said that Microsoft gives customers and developers early looks at the Vista so they can fill out bug reports and test early editions in their corporate networks. "The difference in the quality is noticeable from the feedback," he said.

For Atlas, Microsoft's framework for building interactive Web applications using AJAX, the company intends to release community technology previews every month, said Microsoft's Scott Guthrie. The idea is to provide regular "builds" to its customers who can use the tool set even as new features get added, he said.

Microsoft also provides developers a look at the source code of some products, a technique used in open-source products.

"They're being a bit more open perhaps to combat the biggest threat to the company, which is open source," said Steve Reynolds, vice president of sales and marketing at TeamScope, a company that creates an Outlook add-in for tracking interactions with customers. "They really have to do it because IBM is going wholly the other way and seeding (open-source products) far and wide."

Indeed, Microsoft developers can be overwhelmed with the amount of information via early versions of products and employee blogs, Reynolds.

And another downside to Microsoft's far-ranging forecasts: The company at times changes it mind.

"They're more open in general than you would expect. You get to know things a year ahead," said one attendee who works as a developer at an independent software maker. "The trade-off is that they don't always come true, but that's no surprise."