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Over the years, an entire industry of companies, analysts and pundits has sprung up whose main business is divining Microsoft's real intentions. But there is a much simpler way of getting a good idea of what is truly important to Microsoft. This is by looking closely at its developer tools.
Perhaps the best-kept secret about Microsoft is that its primary constituency is developers, rather than businesses or end-users.
This explains in part why otherwise scrappy operating system products have flourished in the marketplace: even if the platform was weak, the developer tools that supported it were strong. Good tools mean happy and motivated developers with a strong inclination to write software for Microsoft's platforms, regardless of any problems that they may represent for the user.
Developer tools have been particularly illuminating in the online sphere too. For example, six years ago Microsoft ditched "Blackbird", its development software for the first proprietary incarnation of the Microsoft Network, and came out with the self-explanatory Internet Studio after Bill Gates suddenly got the Net religion in 1995.
The product line then metamorphosed into Visual Interdev, initially a Web site management tool with strong back-end database capabilities, which was part of a larger tools bundle called Visual Tools 97. Much of the subsequent success of Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) technology, which draws heavily on back-end databases, is thanks to this product.
Similarly, the latest iteration of Microsoft's development tools, Visual Studio .net, bears the heavy responsibility of turning the .net strategy into reality. For this reason it offers invaluable insights into just what the rather nebulous .net approach really means.
As usual, Microsoft has put together some excellent materials about its new development family. These include an overview of the three versions available, as well as more specific information about each one, for example the top-end Visual Studio .net Enterprise Architect. Also available are evaluation guides.
There is a Web page specifically about how Web services can be created with Visual Studio .net, but by far the best place to find out about both is the guided tour. In particular, the streaming video should be viewed by anyone who wants to understand why Microsoft's Visual Studio .net is such a key project for the company, and why it is likely to transform the Web services area.
As the video confirms, the Web services idea is essentially trivial: you just pull together various programming modules that are available over the Internet. The whole point about Web services is to make the presence of the Internet invisible and almost irrelevant to the end-user.
The achievement of Visual Studio .net - and the reason why it is likely to be taken up enthusiastically by Windows developers - is that it does the same for coders. This huge software edifice - the Enterprise Architect edition comes with no less than seven CDs for the basic tools, plus nine more with auxiliary Microsoft programs - tries to do one thing above all: make it irresistibly easy for even below-average developers to create powerful Web services.
As well as helping to drive the adoption of .net just as Visual Interdev drove that of ASP, this emphasis is extremely shrewd since it builds on Microsoft's greatest strength with respect to open source, which ironically has always been weakest in the area of easy-to-use developer tools.
In fact, it is probably not too great an exaggeration to describe Visual Studio .net as the single most important product Microsoft has ever produced - and maybe the one that will determine the future of the business Internet for the foreseeable future.
Next week: The return of VRML