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Visual Studio Code: How Microsoft's 'any OS, any programming language, any software' plan is paying off

With 14 million users, Microsoft's open source cross-platform code editor Visual Studio Code is one of its key tools for keeping developers engaged with its future in the cloud.

VS Code has a growing variety of users beyond professional developers.

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Microsoft code editor Visual Studio Code (VS Code) is just five years old but the developer tool has gained impressive adoption with the world's developer population. 

VS Code today has 14 million users, reports Microsoft (according to Statista, there are about 24 million developers worldwide), and it gained five million new users over the course of 2020 due to a growing variety of users beyond professional developers and the need for remote development during the COVID-19 pandemic. In June last year Microsoft said VS Code had 11 million users. It's success was built on GitHub, Electron, Chromium, JavaScript, and Microsoft's JavaScript superset, TypeScript. 

Julia Liuson, corporate vice president of Microsoft's developer division, reckons the growth in VS Code adoption has come because people beyond professional developers increasingly finding the need to use the editor. 

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"Traditionally, we only saw professional developers but we're seeing a really broad set of users – people doing DevOps, people doing IT administration, we see lots of students using the tools," Liuson told ZDNet. 

Given it's a text editor, people don't even need to know how to code to make use of the software. Even some journalists are using VS Code to write stories, according to Liuson.  

"The strategy for VS Code is really to support our any, any, any strategy. You can be a developer working with any programming language, working on any operating system and develop any kind of software." 

VS Code runs on macOS, Windows 10, and multiple distributions of Linux, it supports Arm64 on Linux, and runs on Raspberry Pi and Chromebooks. It's also available in preview form for insider builds of VS Code on Apple's arm-based M1 chips. 

Part of VS Code's popularity is the breadth of language extensions for C++, C#, Python and various Python libraries for data scientists, Java, and JavaScript/Typescript.   

"When we started VS Code, we took this approach where we wanted to really lead where there is the most demand. We have really tight integration of VS Code and TypeScript. VS Code is built on TypeScript. But we invested in a huge amount of language extensions," said Liuson.  

"We have almost two million Python developers using VS Code and well over a million C++ developers using VS Code. And even our Java usage is approaching one million." 

GitHub, the code-sharing site Microsoft acquired in 2018, is also central to the company's open development processes for some products like VS Code, Typescript, and some of its rejuvenated retro software like PowerToys

Liuson also talked about Microsoft's inner source approach to software development. The company doubled down on inner source in 2019, and recently highlighted its inner-source approach as a factor that mitigated the threat of the SolarWinds hackers accessing its source code

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Microsoft didn't make up the term inner source and the approach means taking open-source development practices and applying them inside a single organization. GitHub and GitHub's Enterprise Server fits snuggly with this approach to help organizations collaborate but do so in private.  

"Inner source means if you have private IP, but you're inviting other teams within the company to collaborate with you. That's the fundamental difference between open source and inner source. Today, it's very common in large enterprise – there are too many silos – but in the microservice architecture sometimes you have to debug an issue," Liuson said. "That's when you're thinking about using the open-source model within the enterprise context, with the right permissions. To me, it's not that different to how people collaborate on SharePoint, Word documents or G Suite."

Liuson says the VS Code feature called Live Share, which launched in 2017, is getting a "ton of adoption" because of WFH practices while Microsoft is investing heavily in IntelliCode, its AI-powered code-completion feature. IntelliCode is an extension for VS Code and it supports code completion for TypeScript and JavaScript, Python, Java, C++, C# and Java.