Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why WinRT in Windows 8 is based on COM instead of .NET – Part 4

And then came the iPad…

In parallel to all the improvements in .NET, someone else gained a lot of strength by disrupting the mobile and tablet market: Apple reinvented mobile computing and created an application and developer ecosystem that had a very interesting business case for many developers.
And they made this by using an “old” (in my opinion quite unattractive) programming language (Objective C) and “native code”. iOS apps are primarily “fast and fluid” – one of the core attributes Microsoft now pushes heavily for its own Metro-style apps. “Fast and fluid” is one of the great and mostly unmentioned selling points for many Apple products: A nice design is one thing, but you need a very good (UI) performance to make the products “feel right”.
This is especially true regarding loading times of applications and response times for touch interactions. These aspects made and make Apple products feel somewhat different and premium. 
I think, Microsoft understood this development quite early and considered options to react in a proper fashion. User Experience (UX) became even more important than ever before. Something had to happen with the Windows Operating System, its old-fashioned APIs and missing touch capabilities. On the other hand, the developer ecosystem needed to be pushed into the new world, because Microsoft knew: many of those existing applications need to get a new user interface if they should run on a touch-centric device.
Problem 1: time to market.
Problem 2: .NET loading and UI performance
The solution: Going native
All these factors led to to the resurrection of COM as base runtime technology. .NET/COM interop was a well-known - yet tricky - topic. But .NET and C# had wisely been enhanced with “dynamic” language features to somewhat reduce the interop pain.
It was too tempting for Microsoft: COM was selected to get a comeback as base technology and even as native UI technology to make a “fast and fluid” Windows UI a reality. The .NET runtime has lost this important competition. It will be used as application technology in between the WinRT OS API and the WinRT controls. Not more and not less.
What does this mean for .NET developers, who want to create Metro-style apps?
  • Developers will have to learn how to write portable .NET class libraries if they want to use C# to formulate client-side business-logic, view models or validation code. In our experience this will still be 40%-60% of professional applications.
  • Developers will use two different type models (.NET types vs. WinRT types) and need to convert between them – even if the WinRT APIs take away a lot of pain.
  • Developers will have to get accustomed to different lifecycle models for different objects: .NET objects will be garbage collected, WinRT objects will be subject of the “reference counting pattern” – even if it will be hidden somewhere behind SmartPointers and the like – there will come a time when it is important to understand the difference. The combination of both models will get tricky in certain scenarios.
  • And finally: some developers will have to return to C++ in order to extend the WinRT with components. The option to do this with sealed C# classes doesn’t look very promising.

Wrap up

So to wrap up: this is a natural development. The .NET team didn’t manage to become a core Windows technology over the past 10 years. The people responsible for the operating system still trust in “legacy” technology, and regarding the options at hand this seems to be a valid decision.
But: The problems of this decision might show up in near future. The “projection” of the COM type system into .NET and Javascript worlds are some kind of magic and technologically very interesting. Yet again: they blur boundaries and differences of quite different worlds - instead of making them explicit. Windows 8 developers will have to live in this “split world” and will have to learn about at least two different technologies when they hunt down tricky bugs…

Why WinRT in Windows 8 is based on COM instead of .NET – Part 3

Hope for WPF

I talked a lot about the potential of .NET in part 2 of this blog series. The DevDiv at Microsoft finally tried to use that potential. They decided to reengineer Visual Studio – using WPF as UI technology in Visual Studio 2010. Dogfooding .NET UI technology – finally. This decision should have a great impact on WPF and .NET runtime performance.
Microsoft saw first-hand that WPF performance in .NET 3.5 wasn’t sufficient for a real-world product like Visual Studio. I think the .NET runtime never saw a bigger performance improvement than with the release of .NET 3.5 SP1. These improvements were vital to ship a good Visual Studio 2010 and helped a lot of .NET projects out there.
All looked good. At the time I thought WPF might make it into Windows core – as Microsoft had promised at PDC 2003 when WPF was introduced as Avalon and MS showed pictures that .NET would step by step become core technology to replace the WIN32 API. But things went differently…

Why WinRT in Windows 8 is based on COM instead of .NET – part 2

The rise of .NET

.NET was created to solve many of the type mapping problems of COM that I described in Part 1. Microsoft really wanted to improve the developer productivity – and thus decided to invent a new programming language – the birth of C#. What a beauty for a seasoned C++ developer. It was consistent, a well designed blend between C++ and Java. We developers had to write considerably less code than in C++. Less code means less errors. The migration from C++ to C# just felt right.
We C# developers got to love a better exception handling, huge libraries with lots of functionality and more consistent coding guidelines than ever before. .NET V1 missed a template mechanism with type-safe, generic collections. But the language designers were so bright, that the introduction of generics in v2 was no big pain. .Net and C# rose in popularity – and that had one major reason: .NET and C# could be used everywhere: You could use it for plain algorithms, UI, Server side code, web pages, web services and even the higher layers of embedded systems. And even more important: Microsoft constantly reshaped its own, freshly acquired Server-side products (like Biztalk or Sharepoint) to build an ecosystem around .NET. That increased the trust of many customers into the growing ecosystem. Especially in Germany it was quite a hard fight to establish C# and .NET as relevant and proven technologies into the Architecture Blueprints of bigger companies and use them as a foundation for mission critical systems. But .NET became more and more attractive for enterprises because of its reach, breadth and continuity.
Many developers joined in, the component market was booming – yet there was one problem: Microsoft itself never used .NET in its major client products: No .NET in Windows, no .Net in the core Office products. The teams of those very important Microsoft cash cows never joined in. That meant Microsoft never “dogfooded” WinForms or WPF for its own big developer teams in Redmond. Something was wrong regarding internal adoption, but not many noticed…
In 2003 I had joined my current employer Zühlke and changed from the software product development to the project development and consulting side. I saw many different project scenarios in a short time and got to learn all the different areas of the .NET framework. I was kind of an evangelist for .NET technologies in many different projects, helping our costumers to adopt these brilliant technologies. It was in 2005 when I faced the first serious problems with .NET loading performance. One of our ISV customers had built a big WinForms solution with our help and had problems with startup performance. The end customer was a well known German car producer and didn’t accept application “boot times” of over 40 seconds. This only happened when the computer was freshly booted – but at the time nobody suspended their machines into standby. Every user freshly booted in the morning, so we had a real problem. We analyzed the problem. Result: It took 38 seconds to hit a breakpoint at the beginning of main()! 2 seconds left for us to optimize. It wasn’t our problem. It was a .NET problem. We had many DLLs and the .NET runtime was simply extremely slow in loading and precompiling - whatever. Nobody in Redmond could help us on these problems. Microsoft hadn’t noticed these fundamental problems, because they mostly built Hello world examples with their frontend technologies. By that time I had an idea, why the Windows and Office teams didn’t want to join the .NET train… Nevertheless, we built great apps based on .NET, but the UI story had limitations for bigger applications with many screens.
More on this in part 3 and 4….

Why WinRT in Windows 8 is based on COM instead of .NET

I was very surprised when I first heard at //build/ conference that the heart of Windows 8 and its Windows Runtime (WinRT) wasn’t based on the .NET Runtime but… on COM – the good old Component Object Model. Microsoft had “parked” this technology for more than 10 years and pushed other technologies. Now this old beloved dinosaur is back. And then again – this is no surprise at all if you think about it. This step has many reasons and root-causes. I’ll try to show you some of them in this little blog post series…

Disclaimer: I don’t work for Microsoft and have no deeper insights, but that might help to get an objective opinion why things came the way they came.

To show that I need to go back to the beginning of my professional career as a software developer, when I learned the advantages and disadvantages of C++ and COM:

Part 1: In the beginning there was COM…

I started to program in the late 80s. My first system was an Amiga and my first programming language was Basic. Later on I tried out several other languages during my studies of computer science. I used Pascal, C and Foxpro for several jobs, before I got a friend of C++ and its OO and templating capabilities. I started to work with Borland OWL in 1993 before I became part of the Microsoft developer ecosystem in 1996 (Visual Studio 6, C++, MFC).

At the time I was part of a great team that was or at least felt “ahead of time”: we attended every TechEd in Europe and became big friends of component oriented software design with COM and ATL (ActiveX Template Library). Add STL (Standard Template Library) for some great containers. These technologies were our basis to create quite a big editing system which our small software company sold successfully to some major German newspapers.

We were big fans of COM-hero Don Box. Don still worked for DevelopMentor and held excellent talks about COM. I remember an inspiring COM talk of him while he was sitting in a bath tub on stage – legendary.

My team knew every single line of source code of the ATL libraries. Our system had well over one million lines of C++ code, divided into more than 50 COM components. The complete system was able to start up in about 3-4 seconds – fully functional, with a decoupled and cohesive design. We used nice features like “Edit & Continue” in our Visual Studio tool chain – we changed source files during a debugging session and the changes were applied while the system was running (try this in VS 2010 with a big C# solution…). Features like that were important for productivity. No, we didn’t use TDD at the time – that wasn’t yet “en vogue” in the late 90ies. Developer’s life was different – more experimental than nowadays.

Yet we had some pains with COM: you constantly had to convert between different string types like CString, BSTR, _bstr_t and char-Arrays. There even was a wild mixture of Unicode and ANSI strings with language dependent code-pages. COM features like VARIANTs and HRESULTs helped to bridge between C++ and VB, but caused a constant clash between the COM and C++ type systems. Yes – some of those dangers might come back at you with Metro-style apps – but I’m positive Microsoft will try to reduce that pain. But: you are still crossing language and runtime boundaries and you know: boundaries should be explicit…which they aren’t if too much “type projection” happens under the hood.

But back to the 90ies: COM uses reference counting instead of garbage collection. That means COM objects die exactly in the moment, when the last reference on it gets released. And: They never die if someone forgets to release its reference. But this was no problem in our projects, because we had defined strict rules, when to use smart or raw pointers. We just knew very well when to AddRef and Release interface pointers to keep resource handling clean. Boundaries were explicit – thanks to COM IDL (Interface Definition Language). But it was a lot of code to write.

Then there came .NET and many things became much, much simpler – and some got worse – but it took us some time to become aware of that point.

One thing in .NET was strange to me as an old COM veteran in the first minute: why do we need a garbage collector instead of strong and weak references and the good-working ref-counting? And why isn’t there a reliable built-in concept to manage resource types like file handles, windows handles and the like? Everything else was fine for me, but I didn’t like this new-up and forget concept. Yes, Microsoft introduced IDisposable, but that was half-hearted – a high-level framework concept for a missing feature in the .NET runtime. We as developers couldn’t enforce correct resource management anymore, if resources were shared. We also couldn’t enforce memory management if we needed it in restricted environments such as embedded systems. That was a lack of control and may be a tick too much abstraction.

I wrote emails to my heroes (Don Box and others) at the time, because I saw the limitations to build systems with low memory footprint or exact resource management, but nobody wanted to see the problems.

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.