I’ve been planning to blog about this for some time but just haven’t gotten to it. Well here goes…
- Is Microsoft’s Approach Failing?
- After Ten Years; Too Little, Too Late?
- Providing Solutions Frequently Just Not a Priority
- Core “Real World” Problems Not Addressed
- Values “Sugar”-Free Over Productivity
- Focuses on Details, NOT the Big Picture
- Revolutionary Paths Are Often Dead-Ends
- ASP.NET: Wrong Medium, Wrong Model
- ASP.NET: Exceptional Engineering, Answers Wrong Questions
- Open-Source: Answering the Right Questions, Rapidly
- Is there any hope for Microsoft’s Developer Division?
Note: The day after I posted this I decided to add headings to make the argument easier to follow.
Is Microsoft’s Approach Failing?
I believe Microsoft legacy processes simply cannot react fast enough to the innovation happening in the open source arena on the language and web framework front. Microsoft’s developer division typically offers three-year version cycles where they first architect Visual Studio and related technologies in a vacuum. In recent years they’ve even thrown out alphas and betas to the Microsoft faithful to get feedback which, and thankfully they’ve used a lot of that feedback. But that approach just isn’t working in the market anymore. When the release cycles of
scripting languages frameworks like Ruby On Rails and Django and CMS platforms such as Drupal are sometimes as little as a few months, it’s really hard to wait around for the next version of Visual Studio.
After Ten Years; Too Little, Too Late?
It would be different if Microsoft’s developer technologies provided at least 95 percentile of what’s needed by work-a-day developers on a daily basis, but they don’t. Case in point is we still don’t have the ability to do complete URL Rewriting for ASP.NET on IIS even though Apache has had mod_rewrite for years. Looking back, how many years of massively duplicated developer effort in the field did it take befor Microsoft finally provided a login module and a method of managing site-wide templates?!? (i.e. “MasterPages”) Oh, about a decade from when they first released Active Server Pages.
Providing Solutions Frequently Just Not a Priority
It’s not just that Microsoft’s developer division takes too long to offer new solutions to recurring needs; it is that they place such low priority on providing those solutions. Three year development cycles testify to that fact, especially when you consider it takes Microsoft many releases to address fundamental needs. The guys on the product management teams at Microsoft are really smart people, but they often can’t see how much trouble they cause people in the field by their decisions. They see the world of creating Visual Studio, but they don’t see the world of using Visual Studio to develop software.
Core “Real World” Problems Not Addressed
What’s more, Microsoft architects its developer products in a vacuum; they don’t use them to solve “real world” problems. Sure, they may use them internally for developing productsbut when does the average developer’s project look like product development at Microsoft? They often create excellent software but software that either doesn’t solve real world problems or does so in a totally over-engineered manner. While running Xtras I watched many a developer launch a 3rd party component business because they had identified a need while working on a real world project. However, once they saw small success as a vendor they started developing, designing, and even envisioning new products in a vacuum. And often those products either didn’t address real world needs or did so in a really unnatural manner.
Microsoft is a much worse example of this. Their saving grace thus far has been market share and financial resources to brute force their products into the market, and many of the faithful won’t even look at other s offerings to understand why some of Microsoft’s offerings so miss the mark. I know, until recently I was one of them.
Values “Sugar”-Free Over Productivity
And Microsoft’s product managers often dismiss feature requests that would make development a LOT easier as simply being “syntactic sugar. For example, one such dismissed feature request I made years ago was for simplified property references in VB.NET. I wanted a syntax that would allow a developer to implement a single-line syntax for specifying properties you didn’t need anything special, something like:
1. Property Foo Into _Foo
Instead of nine lines of:
1. Private _Foo 2. Property Foo 3. Get 4. Return _Foo 5. End Get 6. Set(ByVal value) 7. _Foo= value 8. End Set 9. End Property
That would have reduced the number of lines of VB.NET code by probably half an order of magnitude. But they just weren’t interested in it because it “bloated the language and otherwise had no value” (I am paraphrasing from memory.)
Focuses on Details, NOT the Big Picture
Even more, I advocated an advanced scripting language that would be a lot like today’s “in-vogue” scripting languages. I called my proposal VBScript.NET. But then my suggestions were dismissed for esoteric reasons and I was told that Top Minds Are Working On It! (Well, evidently not, or so many developers wouldn’t be moving to PHP, Ruby, and Python.) Microsoft’s culture is to argue semantics when reality doesn’t match their world view, and they are blissfully willing to ignore the pain that continues to exist.
Revolutionary Paths Are Often Dead-Ends
What’s more, probably because of its financial resources and a hubris that comes from being the industry leader, Microsoft has a bad habit of creating huge revolutionary jumps instead of small evolutionary steps. Rather than always creating lots of little independent layers of loosely coupled components, each with it’s own independent functionality, documentation, and rationale for existence, Microsoft often builds monolithically complex solutions where the individual components are highly coupled, not documented, hidden beneath the covers, and frankly with functionality that has not been fleshed out well had it had to be developed to stand on its own. This creates bloated and fragile systems that are often extremely hard to debug and for which there is no passionate community of supporters surrounding it.
ASP.NET: Wrong Medium, Wrong Model
ASP.NET is a perfect example of many of these problems. Rather than study the web and realize it was a violently different platform than desktop apps, Microsoft chose to shoehorn an event model onto the web and use a page-oriented implementation. Not only did they get the medium wrong, they also got the model wrong. And this decision resulted in an outrageously complex pipeline processing model with tons of code that is hard to debug or even understand, and that requires lots of high end developers to figure it out and repeatedly explain to newbies what they need to do just be able to do some of the simplest things, things that are brain-dead easy in PHP for example.
But hundreds of thousands of Microsoft-centric developers just trudged along and accepted it as the next best thing because Microsoft said so. And for a short time, I was one of those true believers.
ASP.NET: Exceptional Engineering, Answers Wrong Questions
Now, however, even many Microsoft developers are starting to see ASP.NET for what it really is: An exceptionally engineering product that answers the Wrong Questions. Former ASP.NET developers are moving to the platforms I mentioned earlier (Ruby on Rails, Django, and Drupal) simply because those platforms offered developers the syntactic sugar they crave, and because the developers of those platforms focused on solving pain because the pain they were solving was their own.
Open-Source: Answering the Right Questions, Rapidly
Open-Source development by nature results in lots of little independent layers, and there are communities that sprouted or are sprouting to support each of those independent layers. Each of those layers has had an opportunity to be fleshed out, and by comparison it shows. How can something like Open-Source PHP on Apache take on mighty Microsoft’s ASP.NET and IIS, and win? Because they answer the right questions, and they did so in far less than a decade.
Is there any hope for Microsoft’s Developer Division?
Which brings me back to the original question:
Can Microsoft’s Developer Division Compete Moving Forward?
Frankly, though I really like the .NET Framework and hope I’m wrong, I’m completely skeptical.