One only needs to watch the now infamous Steve Ballmer "developers" video to see where Microsoft comes from. The firm is, has, and probably always will be about the people who use its products to write interesting stuff that runs on its products.
In that way, says Neil Ward-Dutton, co-founder of and research director at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, the firm can be lumped into a single category with arch-rival Sun, as a developer-led company, as opposed to the other four suppliers in this article who are focused less on developers than on the upper layers of the middleware stack, where the CIOs live.
"It is partly about enterprise developers but it is at least as much about Independent Software Vendor (ISVs) partners who sell applications," he says.
Since 2000, the firm has based its entire middleware strategy around .net, the platform that effectively replaced its Distributed Internet Applications (DNA) architecture. That in turn replaced the Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) architecture that it launched in the 1990s.
"Its story is that once you understand .net, you as a developer can use it to apply existing skills in traditional client/server, service oriented architecture (SOA), mobile, or cloud-based software as a service (SaaS)," says Ward-Dutton. "It lets people who are not rocket scientists do cool stuff really fast. It is about getting mainstream developers doing what they love, and that has not really changed."
Microsoft's .net has been through several iterations since it launched, but the most significant was version 3.0, which Microsoft unveiled in 2005. This structured the architecture into several key pillars: the Windows Presentation Foundation user interface system, the Windows Communication Foundation service-oriented messaging system, the Windows Workflow Foundation, used for workflow integration, and Windows Cardspace, its identity management system.
"The whole strategy has been to enable third-parties to build business process management (BPM) products," says Ward-Dutton. "Microsoft provides the basics through Windows Server and .net, along with tools and libraries for other companies to build more focused solutions on top." To this end, it launched the Business Process Alliance early last year, designed to marshal like-minded partners into this role.
Now, the firm is planning .net 4.0, which includes some significant enhancements. It will make building REST-based services (resources manipulated via URIs) simpler, and makes it easier to use its own markup language, Extensible Application Markup Language, to manipulate the Workflow Foundation and Communications Foundation services. It is promising a tenfold performance increase in the Workflow Foundation, along with enhancements including persistence control and an enhanced visual interface. But the most important overhaul lies in the Windows Server itself, which will include an application platform called Dublin.
Initially released as an add-in pack for Windows Server, Dublin will eventually be folded directly into the server platform. It is a set of extensions to Internet Information Server that make it easier to host Windows Communication and Workflow Foundation services on the platform. It is essentially designed to make the assembly and running of composite applications easier, thereby bolstering the firm's position in the SOA market.
Dublin will interoperate with Oslo, which is Microsoft's next-generation modelling platform. This will include a new visual design tool called Quadrant, a modelling language code named "M", and an SQL Server database that will be used to store model schemas.
All of this developer-focused middleware activity is complemented by the firm's other middleware strand, BizTalk, which focuses on uniting line-of-business applications. Itself based on .net, the system, first launched in 2000, is used to orchestrate workflow across multiple applications, and between organisations, whereas Workflow Foundation is designed for managing workflow inside an application.
BizTalk has evolved considerably over time. Starting out as little more than a product for exchanging XML messages between applications, it added third-party adaptors for enterprise application integration in 2002, and gained BPM functions with its third version in 2004. Since then, it has been enhanced with SOA functionality, and in its latest version (Biztalk Server 2006 R2) released in 2007, it included RFID support.
Expect to see support for the new Windows Server 2008 platform, along with Hyper-V virtualisation support, in the next version of the BizTalk server (BizTalk 2009). This will also cement support for the Oslo modelling architecture, while containing backwards compatibility with BizTalk's XLANG orchestration language.
Underpinning both Biztalk and .net's workflow orchestration system is Sharepoint, which is a middleware of sorts, but which is used for human collaboration rather than for communication between software.
So, Microsoft's focus continues to be the developer, but it has also been astute in developing the line of business application integration software that will attract CIOs whose job it is to make IT accountable and relevant to the business community.
2000: Releases first edition of Biztalk Server.
Launches Windows 2000.
Outlines .net strategy.
2001: Launches Visual Studio.net.
2002: Launches Biztalk Server 2002.
2003: Replaces .net Enterprise Servers with Windows Server family.
Launches Windows Server 2003.
2004: Buries hatchet with Sun, launches initiative to collaborate on technology.
Launches Biztalk Server 2004.
2005: Unveils WinFX.
2006: Changes WinFX name to .net Framework 3.0.
Launches Biztalk Server 2006.
2007: Launches Biztalk Server 2006 R2.
2008: Launches Windows Server 2008.
Announces .net Framework 4.0, Oslo, Dublin.
Tesco built the order processing system for Tesco Direct based on Biztalk Server 2006. The company was able to process 5000 orders per hour using no more than a quarter of its processor capacity.
Deutsche Telecom subsidiary T-Com worked with Sapient to build a customer provisioning system for services such as web hosting. The firm has reduced provisioning costs by 10-15%.
Neil Ward-Dutton on Microsoft strengths and weaknesses:
Very strong developer and ISV relationships.
Its focus on one technology platform enables Microsoft to integrate technologies through the software lifecycle more effectively.
The company still sometimes struggles to explain technology stack in a consistent, coherent way to enterprise customers.