The software giant is set to take its all-important Web services plan to its most important clientele: software developers.
After four years of development and two years of marketing hype, Microsoft will on Wednesday release Visual Studio.Net, a bundle of development tools crucial to translating its Windows monopoly into a key advantage in the growing market for Web services technology.
The tools bundle replaces the existing Visual Studio tools--used by some 5 million developers, according to Microsoft--and includes several new features, along with updates to existing products such as the company's popular Visual Basic and Visual C++ tools.
More importantly, the tools are Microsoft's chief weapon in a battle for software developer mind share between its .Net Web services plan and rival technologies sold by Sun Microsystems and other Java backers.
Software makers have been racing to deliver tools for building Web services, which software companies claim make it easier to design and build Internet-based business software. Standing in Microsoft's path are rivals Sun, IBM, Oracle, BEA Systems and others that offer an alternative way to build Web services based on the Java programming language. Sun claims there are more than 3 million Java developers worldwide.
The winner in the Web services battle could determine the dominant technology for building business software for years to come.
"It's the signal event for the real beginning of .Net," said Mike Gilpin, vice president of analyst firm Giga Information Group. "Up until now, .Net has been more of a marketing positioning exercise than actual tangible products. Visual Studio.Net is the flagship product that launches the fleet."
Analyst firm Gartner predicts that .Net--which includes tools for building programs in C++, Visual Basic and other languages--and Java will compete neck and neck for the next five years.
According to the most recent study from researcher IDC, the C++ and Visual Basic languages are most popular among software developers. More than 3 million developers use C and C++ as their primary language for writing software, followed by 2.3 million using Visual Basic, and 1.2 million using Java, IDC reports. But a study from Evans Data found that C and C++ use is declining, while Java use is on the rise.
Java took hold in the mid- to late-1990s as one of the most popular ways to build Web applications. With Web development exploding, programmers gravitated to other technologies, such as Java, because Microsoft wasn't giving them the Web tools they needed, said James Governor, an analyst with Illuminata.
"Developers started gravitating toward non-Microsoft tool sets that were better suited for building Internet-based applications," Governor said. "Microsoft needed to respond with developer tools for the Web, and now it's doing so."
Microsoft competitors are quick to point out another key advantage of Java: Applications built using it can run on many operating systems and hardware. Microsoft's tools are limited to building Windows applications. "With Java tools, you can deploy code on any system, whereas all Microsoft does is let you write code that only works on their system," said Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun.
Microsoft executives counter the Windows-only argument by pointing out that Visual Studio.Net lets developers use many langauges--including Java--to build systems that mainly reside on Windows, but can access data on non-Windows systems.
Governor said Microsoft faces two key challenges to convince developers to switch to Visual Studio.Net: It must slow down the current Java momentum and convince existing Microsoft developers that .Net is a better strategy than the company's existing technology.
Analysts said many Microsoft customers will be slow to make the switch to Visual Studio.Net, because only a few companies are experimenting with Web services technology.
Gartner analyst Mark Driver predicts that 30 percent of developers using Visual Studio will start using the new .Net tools within the next 18 months; 70 percent will switch in the next three years, and nearly everyone--about 95 percent--will make the switch in the next four to five years.
Good marks so far
Analysts and Microsoft customers have been impressed with test versions of Visual Studio.Net, saying it makes it much easier to build Web-based software than current Microsoft tools.
"I've been impressed with what I've seen, and I've heard from customers that overall, it's good," Driver said. "They said the beta version was one of the most stable betas from Microsoft."
Tim Tryzbiak, lead software engineer of e-commerce Web site YouKnowBest, said Microsoft's fine-tuning of Visual Basic, a visual-oriented tool with roots in the widely used Basic programming language, makes it easier and faster for him to write software. Visual Basic now supports object-oriented programming, a method of building software in reusable chunks, which can speed development time and ease maintenance compared to older methods. Java and C++ are the most widely used object-oriented programming languages.
"I really like it," Tryzbiak said. "The way they put everything together is more programming-friendly. It's more organized, easier to use, and much more powerful for developers."
But while Visual Studio.Net is a good tool for building Web services, one Microsoft customer says the ability to support about 20 languages through a technology called the Common Language Runtime is much more important. That's also a major marketing advantage over Sun and Java backers that advocate a single-language development strategy, analysts said. While that approach worked fine in a Web-only world, it doesn't accurately mirror the multi-language, multi-platform setting that big companies really face.
"It doesn't matter what language you write in. You can have the bulk of your code in Cobol running on a mainframe, and if you want to move it to .Net, it's straightforward," said Richard Blair, a senior consultant at SEI Information Technology in Chicago. "If you're a Cobol or Fortran programmer, you don't need to learn a new language. All the stuff can work together."
Partners are key
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates will debut the new Visual Studio.Net tools with a speech in San Francisco on Wednesday morning. Gates will also announce hundreds of partners planning to deliver products centered around .Net that will be key to Microsoft's success, Governor said. Microsoft partners include software toolmaker Borland and Macromedia, which sells software for building Web sites.
"Partners can make or break .Net," Governor said. "Whoever has the most developers wins. That's the lesson Microsoft taught the entire industry with Visual Studio. Now it's time to take the battle to Java."
The .Net strategy spans Microsoft's entire product family, from the Windows operating system to its online properties such as MSN for consumers and bCentral for small businesses. Microsoft also plans to launch later this year a set of Internet services called .Net My Services, aimed at consumers, that could help the company transition from reliance on revenue based on one-time sales of software to recurring revenue through subscription-based services.
Key to the entire vision is Visual Studio.Net--tools that Microsoft hopes will encourage programmers to build software for the new plan.
"It's a major overhaul. We get a chance about once a decade to take everything we've learned and create a new way of building applications," said John Montgomery, group product manager for Microsoft's .Net Developer Platform.
Visual Studio.Net includes development tools such as Microsoft's popular Visual Basic tool, Visual C++, and its new Java-like language called C#. In the second half of the year, Microsoft plans to update the tool bundle to include Visual J#.Net, which will allow developers to use the Java language to write software code that works only with .Net.
The tools suite also includes the .Net Framework, the software fabric that automates many development tasks and helps software run reliably and securely across multiple servers and computers.
Because the .Net Framework includes prewritten code, it can save developers time, simplify a confusing array of programming interfaces, and eliminate common bugs, analysts said. The .Net Framework includes the Common Language Runtime engine.
A third piece of the .Net development plan, called ASP.Net, also makes its debut on Wednesday. ASP.Net, a new version of Microsoft's Active Server Pages Web development software, makes it easier to build complex Web-based business systems because it handles much of the underlying plumbing.
While Microsoft is still overhauling the rest of its software family to support .Net, Microsoft's Montgomery said developers can start building new Web-based software now with Visual Studio.Net that will work on existing Windows operating systems.
"One of the core tenets of the .Net Framework was that it couldn't affect any existing applications or developers," he said, "and that developers using today's technology and the .Net Framework need to be able to get their applications to talk to each other easily."
The .Net Framework is already available for download for existing versions of Windows, Montgomery said. Later this year, the technology will be built into a new version of the server operating system for businesses, called Windows .Net Server. In the next 12 to 18 months, Microsoft will update its e-business infrastructure software, which includes the SQL Server database, to offer better support for .Net.
Microsoft is charging $2,499 for the Enterprise Architect edition of Visual Studio.Net, $1,799 for the Enterprise Developer version and $1,079 for the Professional edition.