Microsoft on Wednesday shipped Visual Studio.Net, a revamped package of the company's popular software development tools that includes Visual Basic, Visual C++ and its new Java-like language, C#.
"What we're saying is, today is a major step forward for letting people build the next generation of applications designed around XML Web services," Gates said in a speech to attendees of a Microsoft-sponsored developers conference here. "It's the most comprehensive development tool of all time."
The tool bundle also represents the company's chief weapon in a battle for software developers, who will be choosing between Microsoft's .Net Web services plan and rival technologies sold by Sun Microsystems and other Java backers.
Software makers have trumpeted the vision of Web services, which let people access software over the Web on multiple devices, from PCs to cell phones. The Visual Studio.Net tools, part of Microsoft's overarching .Net strategy to move computing to the Web, will allow people to build Web services using Microsoft's operating system.
Java supporters, such as Sun, Oracle, IBM and BEA Systems, are supporting an alternative way to build Web services based on the Java programming language. Microsoft's .Net strategy and Java compete, but Web services can tie both together.
Both Microsoft and Java software makers are courting developers heavily. Analyst firm Gartner believes that Microsoft and Java will compete neck and neck for the next five years and that neither technology will dominate.
During his speech, Gates criticized Java, pointing out that Sun's strategy limits developers to one programming language. Microsoft's new tools allow people to develop in more than 20 programming languages, ranging from older languages such as COBOL to newer ones such as Microsoft's C#.
Visual Studio.Net "gives people the ability to work with any type of language they would like to choose," Gates said. "You can traverse from one programming language to the other without losing part of what we've done here."
Java proponents historically have argued that Microsoft forces customers to use only the Windows operating system, while Java allows developers to target any operating system, such as Unix or even IBM mainframe systems.
Gates reiterated his belief that Web services will forever change the way business software is built and online business is run. Proponents of Web services say the programming method will provide a simple way for companies to connect to one another to conduct e-business. In addition, consumers can use Web services-based systems to automatically fetch information on a cell phone or schedule appointments, for example.
Microsoft plans to release its own set of services later this year, called .Net My Services, that will allow consumers to do banking, shopping and other Internet tasks on any Web-enabled device.
Gates called on developers to help define new Web services. "The applications you build are a key part. There's a lot of collaboration and new work to be done to deliver fully on this promise," he said.
At the heart of Web services is a Web standard called XML (Extensible Markup Language), which allows for data to be exchanged over the Internet. Gates highlighted efforts by Microsoft and IBM to create many XML-based Web services standards that resulted in a new industry consortium last week. The consortium says it aims to educate developers on how to build compatible Web services.
About 50 companies have joined the Web Services Interoperability Organization, including Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, SAP and Intel. Sun, which has not joined, says the consortium has merit and hopes to join soon, a Sun representative said earlier this week.
"The response (to the organization) has been incredible," Gates said. "Even this week, companies joined up, saying, 'This is what we want to get behind'...I think we will look back on that milestone as a very important development. The commitment by these companies for interoperability is central to make sure...that you will be able to pick different software stacks, knowing they will work together."
Microsoft on Wednesday also released two toolkits that work with Visual Studio.Net. The BizTalk Server 2002 Web Services Toolkit and the SQL Server 2000 Web Services Toolkit link Microsoft's integration and database server software into Visual Studio.Net. The SQL Server toolkit turns stored database procedures and other data into Web services, while the BizTalk toolkit links data from business systems from SAP and other software makers into Web services.
Microsoft also announced that IBM, Computer Associates, SAP and Groove Networks have debuted add-on tools for linking their software to Visual Studio.Net.