Sunday, March 11, 2012

How to put a great developer ecosystem at stake: Microsoft .NET

I’m deeply involved with the Microsoft developer ecosystem for many years. I followed many twists that Microsoft performed with its technology stack during that time and defended most of them in discussions within my team and with customers.

But I think Microsoft is about to put large parts of what it built up at stake and might lose the confidence of many developers (and decision makers) – that’s why I felt it necessary to describe my point of view of the current situation (March 2012)...

My main concerns are:

1) It is a big mistake to keep the community uncertain about the future of Silverlight and WPF – these are technologies that are used in many mission critical enterprise apps, they’ve got great support by 3rd party libraries. Many CIOs and CTOs of smaller and bigger companies have bet on these technologies, ISVs have incorporated them into their products. These investments should be respected by Microsoft – and by that I don’t mean to declare 10 years support for Silverlight 5. These technologies have deserved some more attention than “support”. The developer community is very sensitive about when technologies are declared as “legacy” by its creator...

2) It is another big mistake to underestimate the importance of embedded software. One of the big strengths and USPs of .NET and C# has been the fact, that you can use it from sensor to the cloud, on phones, desktops, servers and for web applications… you name it. But Microsoft doesn’t seem to understand the importance of embedded software. The future of Windows CE and .NET Compact Framework have been uncertain for several years now. Embedded developers don’t get the deserved support in the current Visual Studio version, they always lag behind at least one version. Microsoft tries to scale down the Windows 8 kernel for its phone OS, but doesn’t seem to put much effort into the development of Windows CE, .NET Compact Framework or .NET Micro Framework. The number of embedded target devices will be at least one magnitude higher than the numbers of tablets and smart phones combined in near future. These devices will play a fundamental role in the connected solutions we all will build throughout the next years. These are the Azure clients of the future. Nobody at Microsoft seems to understand…

3) Windows 8 makes .NET developers “2nd class citizens” regarding metro-style apps. At least it feels like this until now (March 2012). The focus lies extremely on HTML and Javascript (which is a great move to bring web developers to the platform – don’t get me wrong). The XAML/C# story looks different. I sent some of my colleagues to Build Conference and watched most of the videos, I talked to a lot of people from Microsoft and partners and I finally did a research with my team on what will be possible for .NET developers after the Win8 consumer preview was released. It’s very disappointing. A lot of information on “Hello world scenarios”, but no convincing architecture descriptions or profound documentation. Sample apps done by students. WinRT – a platform for students and hobbyists? Great! Microsoft: Think about your enterprise customers who finally want to use tablet computers with Windows!
Fact: We all will have to invest heavily, if we want to port existing, relevant(!) .NET applications to WinRT. I don’t speak about the effort to create a new UI for metro (that’s crystal clear to everyone), I talk about your client-side business layer, validation logic and service agents: No matter if you want to port a Silverlight, WPF or Windows Phone application with a little more logic than “the weather app” to WinRT, you will have a lot to do. Most of the 3rd party .NET libraries we all love have to be rewritten in big parts, because they now have to become “portable .NET class libraries”, otherwise you won’t be able to use them in Metro-style apps. The MSDN page how to do this has just been published. Let’s keep fingers crossed that many 3rd parties are motivated to use this concept (important ones like the creators of RestSharp are not).
The availability of many great apps is critical to make Windows 8 successful. Microsoft is very late in preparing the development tools and their documentation to support the developer ecosystem. More complex Windows Phone apps (like this one) take at least 6 months of development time – I don’t expect this number to shrink for Windows 8. It will get hard for Microsoft to launch Windows 8 with many great apps. At the moment .NET programmers might have less trouble to port an existing .NET application to the iPad by using MonoTouch than to target Windows 8 & WinRT.


I think, all of these topics deserve some kind of management attention at Microsoft. They don’t have that much to do with technology, but more with PR towards the community to create more buy-in and understanding.

Microsoft has learned to deal with the community in the Web space, thanks to great people like Scott Guthrie, Scott Hanselman and Glenn Block. They do a great work and create convincing transparency about where they will drive their technologies. Similarly Jeff Wilcox showed how to drive and support the Windows Phone developer community. Now is the time to improve the communication in those other areas which are equally important to many people out there.