Tech Industry

Reach, pay drawing developers to Java, Linux

Microsoft is facing its stiffest competition yet for software developers, as a wide variety of development options lure the coding crowd.

Is Microsoft losing its sway over business software developers?

Last month, Microsoft's president Steve Ballmer said that the company is facing its stiffest competition yet for software developers, as a wide variety of development options could "suck away" interest in the various forms of Windows.

Now, based on interviews with developers and two recent studies, it seems Microsoft may have some serious reasons to fret, and there may be more to Ballmer's words than simple posturing intended for antitrust authorities.

The Linux operating system and the Java language appear to be the chief competitors. Programmers interviewed this week said they are moving away from Windows development for three reasons: the need to build Web-based e-commerce applications that span more than just Windows-based systems, the lure of greater financial rewards for Java programming skills, and a deep distrust of Microsoft's overall motives.

Two recent studies support the trend: According to the Gartner Group, the number of programmers targeting Windows as their primary development environment will fall from 65 percent in 1998 to 40 percent next year. At the same time, developers writing browser-based software will rise from 18 percent to 40 percent. While many of those browser-based applications will run in Microsoft's Internet Explorer, they could run equally well in Netscape Communications' Navigator browser or embedded browsers from other makers.

Another study by Forrester Research found that programmers using the Java and CORBA (common object request broker architecture) programming models outnumber those targeting Microsoft's COM programming model by nearly a 2-to-1 margin: 44 percent to 24 percent.

Focus on the Web
"The world has changed," said analyst Mike Gilpin of Giga Information Group. "The conversation years ago was primarily, 'Which Windows development tools will you use?' That's not the conversation anymore. Now, it's which Web development tools they should use, and Microsoft is just one of the options."

Jon Roskill, Microsoft's director of marketing in the developer division disputes the notion that Microsoft is losing developers, saying an internal study found that 78 percent of programmers are developing on Windows now, and that number will inch up to 79 percent next year. He also cited studies that show Windows NT servers outselling Unix servers.

In response to the threats, Microsoft is promising a new development tool package that will do for Web development what its Visual Basic tool did for Windows programmers eight years ago. The company is also refining its Web development architecture to make it easier for developers to build Web and e-commerce applications. As for Linux, an open source clone of the Unix operating system, Microsoft has formed a group within the company to figure out a way to combat it. The software giant is even considering releasing some of Windows source code to cool off the Linux frenzy.

Software programmers interviewed said the lure of the Internet, the potential for a higher salary and anti-Microsoft sentiment is luring them to other development environments.

Knowledge of Java helps pad a software developer's resume, because there's a major shortage of good Java developers, said John Rommel, founder of CityJava, San Francisco's Java users group.

While Microsoft claims to have 1 million software programmers signed up for its developer program, Gartner estimates there are only 300,000 experienced Java developers.

Java is hot
As a result, Java developers with two or three years' experience can charge $75 to $100 an hour, while a Windows Visual Basic programmer can charge $40 to $50 on average. In fact, companies often call up Rommel begging him to help find them Java programmers.

"I have four or five clients who are waiting for people who have Enterprise JavaBeans experience," said Rommel, who owns a consulting firm called Future Presence. "They're just not out there."

Of CityJava's 220 members, 60 percent are Windows developers just starting to learn Java development. Java developer Danny Eng, who previously programmed with the C++ language for OS/2 and Windows environments, said Java's ease of use and the high demand for Java developers is driving people to the new language. "It's more lucrative now, and that's what they're drawn to," he said.

Other programmers switching from Windows to other environments simply dislike Microsoft's technology.

Efrem Lipkin, chief technology officer of ePills, used to code in Fortran, C, and C++. But nowadays, his start-up, an online drugstore, uses Java and the Linux operating system.

"It's not a very good server environment," he said of Microsoft's technology, "and a fairly crappy desktop environment."

Some developers feel that a Windows-only development plan is too limiting--and risky, given the growing popularity of Linux. Harvest Technology, a San Francisco Web start-up, was almost done developing its software, but after eight months of work, the company scrapped it and started over with Java because the language can support a variety of platforms, not just Windows.

Using Java for its software allows the start-up to reach every potential customer on the Internet, said Michelle Devereaux, senior developer for Harvest. "With Microsoft, we're basically tied to their environment the rest of our product's life. With Java, we get this huge customer base who can use Sun Solaris, Linux, or any new computer that comes out in the future."

The switch from Windows to Java delayed the company's launch by six months, but company executives say it's worth it.

Company president Roderick Mason said the start-up aims to become a Web portal for businesses to communicate, get news, and do business with each other. "Our customers need information as fast as possible," Mason said. "We wanted platform independence. And Java is Internet-centric. Could you make a Windows program work? Sure you can, but it takes a lot more work."

Developing in a Windows-only world can be easier than building Java and Unix systems, especially for smaller applications, as developers only need to target Microsoft's operating system and server software.

For instance, Bela Labovitch, Web development director at Toysmart.com, uses only Microsoft technology, including NT servers, and hasn't had any problems.

"We've been dedicated to Microsoft because they sell an integrated solution. They have an integrated vision of all the tools playing together. If you're committed to their platform and leverage that, it gives you productivity. You can do things quickly," she said. "With cross-platform [Java], you pay the price and have to work out the issues."

But Labovitch isn't ruling out using Java or Linux in the future. She said she's reading up on all the news, but she feels the technology isn't mature enough yet.

Analysts say most large businesses prefer Unix servers over Windows NT servers, because Unix offers better performance and reliability.

Gilpin says Microsoft has the potential to lure back any Windows defectors with better development tools.

"It's always been a strategy of Microsoft's to bring people to their platform through the excellence of their development tools," he said.

One thing Microsoft may not be able to fix, at least immediately, is recurring anti-Microsoft sentiment cited by developers moving away from Windows. Many say the company has become too powerful and fault the company for some of its business practices, the center of debate during the government's antitrust investigation.