Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates cast his company's .Net initiative wide Wednesday, releasing the final version of the long-anticipated developer toolkit, Visual Studio .Net, as well as the underpinnings of its emerging Web-based development platform, called the .Net Framework.
Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect introduced the new application development tools with few bells and whistles, letting market momentum speak for itself. More than 3 million developers are testing and deploying applications with early release versions of Visual Studio .Net and the .Net Framework, the largest testing group in the company's history, according to Microsoft. Major corporate customers including Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. and cosmetics giant L'Oreal SA have already created Web-based applications for customers using the new tools.
"Today is a major step forward in letting people build applications based on the next-generation Internet," Gates said, addressing a packed hall at its VSLive! developer conference here.
At Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington, Visual Studio .Net is being called the company's most important set of development tools to date, providing the basis for turning software applications into services as part of the .Net initiative. The .Net Framework makes up the technical foundation of that initiative with the tools hitting retail shelves with Wednesday's releases.
"When we started out we said this could be one of the biggest pieces of work we have to do on a tool," Gates said of Microsoft's efforts to remodel its development tools already used by millions of Visual Basic and C++ developers to add new support for building Web-based applications.
Straying from its typical two-year release cycle, the latest incarnation of Microsoft's application development environment has been in the making for more than three years. New features will allow developers to write applications using more than 20 different programming languages that can run on computers ranging from cell phones to servers and interact with applications written for virtually any computing platform, according to Microsoft.
"It's amazing based on what it can do for our development," said John Lalumondier, senior Web application developer for Seaboard Corp., an agricultural shipping and transportation company based in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. Lalumondier was an early beta tester of Visual Studio .Net and said he is already devising ways to make use of Web services technology included in the software.
"Right now some of it is overwhelming but it's just a matter of time before the opportunities of this tool are realized," he said.
Joseph Gordon, lead software development engineer with Siemens AG. said his division, which builds measurement systems for business process automation, tested the tool for the first time Friday and will roll it out for an internal development project beginning next week.
"We're a Visual Basic shop and the way it looks now I think we will quickly become a Visual Basic .Net shop," Gordon said.
But more important than Microsoft's tools for building new .Net applications, is the final release of the .Net Framework, the technology that will allow these new applications to run on computers, servers and various computing devices such as handhelds.
The .Net Framework is comprised of a runtime environment called the Common Language Runtime, class libraries, a graphical user interface and other basic features. Because it includes various chunks of already-developed code considered the basic plumbing of applications, developers programming with the .Net Framework are expected to reduce the labor and time it takes to build applications from scratch or rebuild existing applications.
That is a handy addition to the development tools, according to Xavier Irias, manager of engineering with the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, California.
"Right now we have a lot of applications that share a single code base," Irias said, noting that typically his engineering staff would have to retool each application to run in various environments such as the Web or on a client computer. "Now, you can reuse more of your code."
In addition to the version for PCs and servers released widely Wednesday, Microsoft will release a compact version of the .Net Framework later this year for developing applications and services for small devices such as handheld computers.
"There will actually be other tools as well that will target the runtime," Gate said.
Tools maker Borland Software Corp. is one company that plans to target .Net developers. The company announced late Tuesday that it will release new versions of its developer tools later this year with added support for .Net technology. Macromedia Inc. also announced it will create a version of its Dreamweaver UltraDev Web development tools for .Net.
More than 190 add-in tools and features from third-party vendors are also available for visual Studio .Net.
Microsoft has invested all of its resources into developing products around the .Net Framework, Gates said. It plans to spend about $5 billion each year on research and development to outfit its products with support for industry standards such as XML (Extensible Markup Language), SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration).
"It's a big change for every piece of Microsoft software," Gates said.
First the company is adding a layer on top of its software products that use XML as a data type to transfer data. Many of Microsoft's server and desktop software products continue to be updated with new support, including SQL Server database software. The next step, Gates said, is to release new versions of products that will include XML as the central data type. An XML-centric release of SQL Server code-named "Yukon" is due for release next year.
"The entire Microsoft R&D budget is aimed at adding XML to our products," Gates said.
Visual Studio .Net is available in three editions and costs from US$549 for an upgrade from the professional version, to $2,499 for the full enterprise version. The software is for sale in retail outlets as well as Microsoft's Web site. There is no charge for the .Net Framework, the software maker said.