"Developers, developers, developers ..." People laughed at his gyrations but Microsoft's Steve Ballmer was right on the button with his famous proclamation in 2001. Microsoft needs developers in order to be successful.
It is not just its own armies of coders in Redmond and around the world, it is also the many millions who write Windows applications, from commercial tools to open source applications. Without software, Windows would be nothing. Software needs developers, and developers need tools to write code.
This week, Microsoft finally launched its latest generation of development tools. Visual Studio 2005 encompasses everything from mobile application development to building distributed enterprise applications. It has been a massive undertaking, more than three years in the making. But while large companies need tools that mix architecture, test and development, they are not for everyone. You do not need a heavyweight team development tool to make your own RSS screensaver or Google Maps mashup.
Many of today's professional programmers started coding using a version of the once ubiquitous Microsoft Basic, before graduating to more complex languages. But Basic has been left behind as Microsoft concentrated on its enterprise customers; bringing us Visual Basic and the Visual Studio family of development tools. This approach has given us a world of complex Windows applications, but it has also meant that Microsoft's complex and expensive tools have lost out in the battle for the hearts and minds of the developer community.
Java quickly became the education language of choice, and hobbyists switched to open-source development environments or web-oriented tools such as Flash. If Microsoft is going to stay on top of the heap, it needs to change things - to encourage a new generation of programmers who believe that Windows is as developer-friendly as Linux.
Instead of one catch-all development tool costing thousands of dollars, Microsoft is giving away six separate development tools in the Visual Studio Express family. There is one version for each of the main Visual Studio languages, another for the web application developer, plus a version of the SQL Server database to woo coders away from databases such as MySQL.
The Express tools may not always be free, although SQL Server Express will be, and it is no coincidence that Oracle has just announced a free version of the 10g database for individual developers. Microsoft is promising the other tools will be free to download from its MSDN developer website until November 6 next year.
Microsoft is a latecomer to this game. Java developers have had free development tools for a long time, and the GNU C++ compiler is key to Linux's success. Sun bought the NetBeans tools and made them the basis for its own tools, but kept developing the original free NetBeans. You can learn Java with NetBeans and then graduate to Sun's more complex tools. IBM did the reverse when it freed the code behind its WebSphere Studio, and created Eclipse. It is now the foundation for tools from Macromedia and BEA that blend the open source framework with their proprietary features.
Microsoft hopes to provide a similar logical progression. There is a big difference between the Express tools and Visual Studio, but they are based on the same technology. In many cases, the interface and options are the same. Coders who need a little more power will also be able to switch to the Expressions tools for Windows and web development that come out next year and again get a familiar interface.
The other problem is getting people interested in the first place, and making them feel they can build programs that solve their problems rather than making do with existing software and web services. Microsoft hopes to get people started with a website called Coding4Fun and a set of starter kits with code to help you start building applications and websites. If you think your applications look good enough to sell, there is even a Starter Kit to turn your code into shareware with product activation and registration, along with built-in PayPal e-commerce.
Coding4Fun takes a deeper look at building Windows applications, and covers everything from developing your own games, to working with hardware to build and control webcams using USB-connected kits from Phidgets. Web service support in the Express tools will also make them ideal tools for working with Microsoft's new Windows Live services.
It has been a long time since the BBC Micro and other home computers galvanised a new generation of programmers and developers. Microsoft is hoping its family of free Visual Studio Express tools will provide a similar kickstart for Windows and Windows Live.
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