An annual gathering next week for developers who build applications for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating systems will provide the chance for a closer look at a set of recently launched development tools designed to further the company's wide reaching .NET initiative.
Microsoft released its Visual Studio .NET developer software in February, branding the tools as the driver for a new breed of applications that can be delivered over the Internet as a service using standard technologies such as XML (Extensible Markup Language). Beginning Wednesday at the Microsoft Tech Ed 2002 developer conference in New Orleans, developers who have been using or testing the tools for enterprise development projects will have a chance to dig deeper into how to use them more effectively.
After nearly five years designing and testing Visual Studio .NET, Microsoft has done a good job with the initial release of the tools, according to some analysts. One user who works for a company that has already developed Web services with Visual Studio .NET agreed.
"Coming from a Visual Basic developer point of view, there was an initial learning curve," said Aamir Mohiuddin, vice president of applications development for Dallas-based research and reporting company Ameristar Information Network Inc. "There's so many new things you have to learn about with XML. But after that it was pretty easy to use."
Compared to similar tools for Java developers, Visual Studio .NET is about nine months ahead with its support for standard technologies for Web-based applications and services, according to Mark Driver, research director with Gartner Inc.
"I still think that Visual Studio .NET is superior to any of the Java tools for Web Services, even if it's only by a little," Driver said, comparing it to Java tools such as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Forte For Java and IBM Corp.'s WebSphere Studio Application Developer. "Microsoft has a clear advantage for rapid application development."
Third-party vendors of Windows tools, such as Borland Software Corp. and Sybase Inc., have also yet to match the capabilities that Microsoft has packed into Visual Studio .NET, Driver said. While Borland and others have pledged support for .NET, Microsoft's lead in the tools space could fuel what Driver predicted may be the "final consolidation of the Windows tools market."
"The problem is (that) in order for these third-party vendors to put out competing products, they would have to throw out a whole bunch of their old code," Driver said.
Instead, some tools makers are turning key features of their products, such as debuggers and modeling tools, into components that can plug into Visual Studio .NET, which acts as a shell for plug-in applications. Many vendors will use Tech Ed as a venue for unveiling new plug-ins.
"Microsoft is really going to focus on their partnerships throughout the entire conference," Driver said. "They've really courted a bunch of third-party vendors to integrate their tools into Visual Studio .NET. The list of third-party tools announced (at Tech Ed) is going to be long."
Among that list, Japan's Fujitsu Ltd. will release a plug-in for Visual Studio .NET that should allow developers to write .NET applications using COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), a programming language often used for applications in the business and finance industries. The tool is one of more than 20 that enables developers to write an application in the language of their choice and have it compiled into code that can run in the .NET Framework. Additional compilers for other programming languages will be released next week, according to Microsoft.
Austin Sierra Technologies Inc., in Redmond, Washington, will release Query Studio Developer, a tool that integrates with Visual Studio .NET and enables developers to search multiple data sources during the development process, Microsoft said. The tool could be used to draw data from various sources such as an Excel spread sheet or a database from such vendors as Oracle Corp., Sybase and IBM Corp.
O'Reilly and Associates Inc., which publishes IT-related materials, will announce the release of a digital version of its manual for Visual Basic .NET developers, Microsoft said. The Sebastopol, California-based company will announce a plug-in version of "VB.NET Language in a Nutshell" that will let developers access the manual from the Visual Studio .NET help window, in addition to the documentation provided by Microsoft.
Systems Integrator Avande Inc. -- a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture Ltd. -- will detail it's new product designed to speed the development of XML-based Web services using Visual Studio .NET, called the Avande Connected Architecture for Microsoft .NET, Microsoft said.
While a host of plug-ins are becoming available for Visual Studio .NET, Ameristar's Mohiuddin said he has yet to find any use for them. "I don't know anybody who's using these fancy plug-ins," he said. "The technology is too new and I think people are afraid to invest in third-party plug-ins. I think they would be willing to do it, but right now people aren't 100 percent sure."
In addition to tools, plenty of .NET customers and partners will be on tap at Tech Ed. One of Microsoft's customers in the insurance industry, Pacific Life Insurance Co., will be among a team of companies offering testimonials of their experiences with Visual Studio .NET. Many companies that will be on parade have used the tools to upgrade existing applications to run the .NET Framework, rather than build new .NET applications from the ground up, according to Microsoft.
Pacific Life, in Newport Beach, California, used a tool built into Visual Studio .NET to make its exiting applications written in COM (Component Object Model) compatible with .NET, Microsoft said. Like two other tools Microsoft offers developers to automatically migrate old code into something that can work in the .NET world, applications rebuilt with the COM interoperability tool lack the security and stability that Microsoft has promoted as a part of .NET., a company official said.
"Some of the performance benefits and security benefits in .NET aren't as great" for applications that are rewritten for the new platform as opposed to built for it from the ground up, said John Montgomery, product manager for Microsoft's platforms group.
In addition to the frenzy around its Visual Studio .NET tools, Microsoft said it would announce new software in its line of .NET enterprise servers. Microsoft wouldn't comment in advance on which software will be released, but developers can probably rule out any appearance of Windows .NET Server, the follow-on to Windows 2000, which has been delayed until the end of the year.
The topic of security will also be on the minds of both developers and Microsoft officials, due partly to the rash of security vulnerabilities that continue to be discovered in its various desktop and server software products. Also, Microsoft will update developers on its so-called "Trustworthy Computing Initiative."
A Microsoft-centric developer show will be a good place to spread its security goals, said Dan McCall, executive vice president of security company Guardent Inc., based in Waltham, Massachusetts. His company is a Microsoft security partner and works with customers to protect Windows systems from hacker attacks.
"It starts with the development community," McCall said of the security push. "Rome wasn't built in a day, and they've got to start somewhere."