Jesse Berst: How Microsoft Jilted Developers

It's the big dance. He walks in with his steady. And then he sees her. And his date for the evening is left behind at the punch bowl. But a few months later, he decides he wants her back.

Just like an unfaithful lover, Microsoft has jilted developers and wants to woo them back again. And it's whispering the same sweet nothings it's always used to seduce developers. I'm wondering if they'll go along with it this time.

Hat in hand, Microsoft is promising spurned developers it will turn the Web into a "platform" just as it did with MS-DOS and then with Windows. It's promising a platform with all the basic services already built. And all the tools to quickly mix and match those services to create powerful applications.

The formula has always worked for Microsoft. The company offers developers a:

Better platform. So they can mix-and-match core services to create products; no need to start from scratch

Better tools. For assembling those services into apps

Better support. Think references, training, conferences

Better co-marketing. Well, sometimes anyway

The more developers wooed, the more apps created. Which brings more customers. And that large customer base attracts more developers still, and more apps, and more customers... and round and round it goes in an upward spiral.

In the past, this formula staved off Apple. Beat up Borland. Knocked down Novell. And won against every challenger. Then the Web came along. And Microsoft forgot the formula and switched partners. They started dancing with other people. Built browsers for end users. Created content for consumers. Designed servers for Web publishers.

And left developers to flounder on their own.

Now finally, with this week's announcements, Microsoft is trying to remedy its mistake. With flowers in one hand, chocolates in another it's making all sorts of promises to developers about what it will do to make up for its transgressions. And you know what? They've got all the buzz words right. They've got all the PowerPoint slides. They just don't have the products to back it up. And they don't have the right spirit.

Despite the fact Bill Gates has been preaching the mantra of simplicity for two years, the approach outlined this week is clunky and scattered and complex and very, very... 1980s. The Web demands a new approach. An approach based not on the mindset of engineers, but on simplicity. Perhaps the best model right now is the Palm OS, which does a few jobs but does them well. But I'm not convinced Microsoft will ever get simplicity.

Way back when Microsoft created MS-DOS as a collection of "services" for developers -- things as basic as reading and writing to disk, storing files, printing. That way, developers didn't have to reinvent the wheel over and over again. Microsoft also created tools that allowed developers to stitch those services together.

It repeated that scenario with Windows. And now -- finally -- it wants to do the same with the Web. And it's dubbing this effort, which it anticipates rolling out over the next two years, Windows Distributed interNet Architecture 2000 -- or DNA 2000. The idea is to offer a collection of existing and future technologies to make it easier for developers to build Web-based apps.

Here's a brief outline of the various components:

BROWSER-BASED SERVICES With this, Microsoft will build core services into its Internet Explorer Web browser. Examples include scripting, ActiveX, SML, DSS and other essential capabilities.

WEB-BASED SERVICES This platform of Web-based "mega-services" will include:

  • An e-wallet (MS Passport) for online identification and payments

  • A banner exchange (LinkExchange) for serving up and swapping ads with other sites

  • Free email (Hotmail)

  • Instant messaging (MSN Messenger)

  • Electronic software upgrades and patches (Windows Update)

ON THE SERVER SIDE The list here includes databases and Web servers optimised for the "platform" approach:

  • XML-enabled version of SQL Server

  • Web server

  • BizTalk server

  • Commerce Server

  • Software application server

With these new building blocks, developers pick and choose what they need to create Web apps. Assuming it ever gets beyond slideware and brochureware.

What do you think? Will developers take Microsoft back? Should they? Tell the Mailroom.