The MSDN advantage

Programmers need more than Mountain Dew and a fast network connection. And Larry Seltzer thinks that Microsoft truly knows how to treat programmers right.

Maybe you think that all programmers care about is Mountain Dew and a fast network connection. But we want to be treated right. And nobody knows how to treat a programmer right like Microsoft.

Being in the operating systems business has given Microsoft a head start with any development tools for those operating systems. The universality of the World Wide Web has made it easier for others to provide developer information about Windows, but it has also made it easier for people to get information from Microsoft. If you want to see why most programmers are so happy with Microsoft, look no further than the MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) Web site. Why should you go any further when Microsoft is the obvious, definitive source for such information?

From their very early days Microsoft has been good to programmers. Many people forget that Microsoft was founded as a development tool company, and that the whole DOS thing came later. (Chris Peters, one of the three authors of DOS 2.0, once told me that they only agreed to write DOS in order to seal the BASIC deal for the IBM PC. Talk about unintended consequences!)

Microsoft doesn't just have the most complete information on Windows; it offers subscriptions for developers that guarantee to keep them up to date with the latest in all Microsoft products. MSDN Subscriptions gets you regular copies (on CD or DVD) of everything from MSDN developer information libraries to copies of Microsoft's developer tools for all of its operating systems, Office products and server products. I have had an MSDN Universal Subscription for many years, and I know that I always have the latest of everything. My latest update includes the quarterly update to the library; copies of Commerce Server 2000 Developer Edition and Host Integration Server 2000; Service Pack 5 for Visual Studio 6.0; a new Platform SDK; the Speech SDK 5.0; Windows Customer Support Diagnostics; and copies of gold Windows XP Home and Professional, with 10 activations. There's actually a lot more in the box, but I won't take up the space here. My current MSDN collection includes well over 100 CDs.

The MSDN Universal Subscription--the one that includes everything--lists for $2,799, and apparently discounts are available (including an academic discount to $979). That price is for the first year, with renewals at a list price of $2,299. There's also a $300 discount for choosing DVD over CD as the delivery medium. At first I thought that this was a lot of money, but if you're a professional Windows developer, this is peanuts considering what you get (not least of which is the security of knowing you are up to date).

The MSDN Web site is free to all. The sheer volume of material available there can make site navigation difficult, but the more you use it the more you know where to look. The search facility typically generates too many hits, but you can search within the results to narrow them.

IBM and Sun have similar programs. Certainly Sun's Java site is the definitive source for information on Java (although there are others, such as IBM's; see below). Sun also has developer software subscriptions, similar to Microsoft's; they start out more expensive, but the renewals are cheaper. Of course, the money's not the issue; if you're a Java and/or Solaris developer, this is the product you need. Like the MSDN subscriptions, these are a bargain considering everything you're getting.

IBM's developerWorks site is IBM's developer portal, tag-lined "tools, code and tutorials for open standards-based development." There are major sections for Java (Java and open standards? debatable association), Linux, a variety of smaller open source projects, Web Services, Wireless and XML.

Windows programmers need not bother with developerWorks or Sun's sites (unless you're writing for some Java or some IBM-specific products like WebSphere that are available for Windows systems). I couldn't find a thing about Windows on developerWorks. And since IBM sells a lot of Windows systems and isn't especially ashamed of the fact, I can only assume they are ceding all Windows developer mindshare to Microsoft.

There's also IBM's alphaWorks site, which focuses on free tools and sample code, plus discussion forums. There's a heavy emphasis on emerging technologies and little in the way of mundane, everyday stuff. For example, one of the lead stories as I look at it right now is about the new Prototype Protein Viewer (PPV), which "is an application that allows interactive viewing of linked two-dimensional and three-dimensional representations of biomolecular structures." Yes, I do this all the time, just like most programmers. But IBM is big and diverse company, and alphaWorks succeeds in showing off the richness of talents within the company. And there are many tools there that are useful to Windows programmers as well. I recently had opportunity to use IBM's P3P Policy Editor, which creates and edits policy files for the W3C's Platform for Privacy Preferences, which is the only important new feature in Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6.

If you're asking yourself whether to stick with Microsoft, developer support has to be part of the equation. But it's not one that would weigh in favor of switching. You'll find lots of good tools and developer information for Java, Linux, and other alternatives, but they're not any better than what's available for Windows. And, of course, if you need to write Windows programs, you still need Microsoft. And they know they need you.

What's your experience with MSDN? E-mail Larry or post your thoughts in our Talkback forum below.