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Developers like COM, not hype

Developers' reaction to Microsoft?s COM+ announcement is lukewarm. Some like the product but not the marketing blitz.

SAN DIEGO--Microsoft (MSFT) is spending this week trying to convince developers to take advantage of Windows' built-in component architecture called COM (Component Object Model). So far, developers have mostly the same reaction: yes to COM but no to Microsoft's marketing strategy.

COM evolved out of OLE, or Object Linking and Embedding, Microsoft's first attempt to create reusable pieces of software that can be combined to create customized applications. The OLE moniker fell by the wayside, but it in turn spawned ActiveX.

"The marketing keeps changing," said Joseph Benjamin, a client-server consultant for IBM Global Services.

"Give them three more months, and they'll call it 'Active Schmactive Plus,'" said Felix Kasza, a software architect for the German software company Proxess.

Despite their frustration, Kasza, Benjamin, and others interviewed felt that COM will let Windows developers--and to a lesser extent, Unix developers--take advantage of reusable software pieces that can be linked together to build larger applications.

"OLE was not the powerful paradigm they hoped it would be, but Microsoft has been refining it for the past couple of years," said Greg Poirier, technical development manager of Creative Solutions. "Now it solves some basic problems for software developers."

IBM's Benjamin agreed: "It isn't revolutionary and it isn't even new. But if you get a critical mass behind it, you can make assumptions about how people are writing their code."

Microsoft's object strategy isn't necessarily the best technological solution, but it has the advantage of building it into every product and copy of Windows it ships. Recently, company representatives told CNET's NEWS.COM that the number of Windows users--approximately 200 million--equaled the number of COM users. Later, the company refined its statement, citing a survey which identified 833,000 software developers currently using COM, ActiveX, or OLE.

Some Microsoft rivals, including Novell and Netscape Communications, are throwing their weight behind the CORBA (Component Object Request Broker Architecture) framework and hope to convince developers to follow. Sun Microsystems is using CORBA as the mechanism by which its JavaBeans components communicate over a network. The industry consortium that handles CORBA announced today that the architecture will be able to handle video and audio data, allowing developers to build multimedia applications from CORBA components. (See related story)

CORBA does certain tasks better than COM, according to Proxess's Kasza, but it's also more complicated.

"I'll bet that ten percent of the people here grasp how COM really works," he said. "But fewer people understand CORBA. You don't have to understand COM as long as you stick to what Microsoft recommends for tools."

The joint Apple-IBM OpenDoc component architecture project fell through--Apple stopped supporting it during this year's turmoil--not because the technology was inferior but because the platform muscle wasn't there, according to IBM?s Benjamin.

"If that critical mass had gotten behind OpenDoc, it might have taken off," he added.

Still, developers and analysts alike cast a skeptical eye on Microsoft's "COM+" announcement yesterday. "This is basically a repackaging," said Dwight Davis, editor of the Windows Watcher newsletter.

Microsoft representatives disagreed to a certain extent. "COM+ is the next version and not a repackaging," said Cornelius Willis, Microsoft's director of platform marketing.

It will give developers access to services that the company already offers, such as the Java Virtual Machine, transaction processing, and message queueing, but it will be "much easier for developers to use those services," he added. "They'll be using much less code."

COM+ in its beta form will be rolled into Microsoft products by the end of this year and should be finalized by the end of next year, according to Willis.

No matter how frustrating the Microsoft message may be, developers are likely to take advantage of COM simply because it's part of the dominant operating system.

"People are using it more and more," said Poirier. "It takes a while for developers to be convinced that this is in their best interest."