MS baits .Net with CE 5

Fishing for mobile apps developers

It isn't really a big secret that there's a horrible discontinuity between the number of developers Microsoft boasts about - millions! - and the number of those who have gone for the global XML-based solution of .Net Framework, and the developer product, Visual Studio .Net. Maybe, the new strategy of opening up embedded Windows may change that?

This week in Amsterdam, Microsoft revealed that its newest version of Windows CE, version 5.0, will have a new licensing scheme. And it also showed the tempting morsels of Express versions of all its development packages. Together, it reckons this will make it possible to start moving the reluctant little fish into the big .Net.

So the first question you might like to ask the mobility people in Microsoft is "Just how open source is this new licence?" - and after that, "Is this really part of the strategy to make .Net more popular?"

The short answer, according to Harvey Poppinga, who is "embedded device group product manager" for Microsoft EMEA and who ought to know, is: "No, this isn't open source. And no, this isn't any part of our strategy in mobile devices, or if it is, nobody has mentioned it to me."

But if it isn't, perhaps it should be.

The problem with the success of .Net is that it has been almost entirely corporate-focused. That's good news, of course, because Microsoft needs corporate developers, especially at the top-end of the applications tree.

But it's also bad news, because most small and medium-size businesses are firmly stuck on Windows 98 or Windows Me - and simply aren't interested in buying a whole lot of new, expensive PCs just to run Windows XP.

And perhaps more to the point, the people who write software for them are perfectly happy to carry on using Visual Studio, without the .Net confusion and new tricks to learn.

This week's demo was of a blogging tool. It wasn't sophisticated or smart. You switched on the mobile phone, downloaded the blogging tool (a few hundred K) and enabled it. To use? Simple! point the camera-phone at someone, press the blogging application, and send. A message saying where you were when you took the picture appears in the blog as a caption to the photograph.

Looked crap, but worked!

So the nice thing about it was the fact that it was written on stage by two of Microsoft's product managers, debugged and compiled on stage, uploaded from the stage to the website, and then downloaded from the website to the phone. Yes, it looked crap! - but it worked.

Would the sort of small developer, which is the sort of person who makes up 99 per cent of Microsoft's developer customers, find this an enticing feature, perhaps? Probably. Would they be prepared to make the learning shift to .Net versions of Visual Studio?

The strategy of catching the small developer is part of the "Express" products which Microsoft is now launching - in a program taking the best part of the next twelve months. These are "serving the needs of the next generation of IT professionals," said Eric Rudder, senior vice president of Servers and Tools at Microsoft. "These low-cost, approachable products will help hobbyists and students learn new skills in a simple and enjoyable way."

The idea is that the Express products offer lightweight, easy-to-use and easy-to-learn products that enable the nonprofessional to quickly build exciting, dynamic websites and Windows applications. But - this is the important bit: underneath these lightweight things, you'll find the full ravening beast that is .Net and if you start doing complex tricks, you'll find yourself getting involved in .Net support.

Too obvious to be stated

So when Harvey Poppinga says: "I'm not aware of any strategic imperative to make VS.Net a popular part of the mobile platform," or words to that effect, what he really means is that it's too obvious to be stated?

First off, the "open source" question: Poppinga is almost certainly 100 per cent right - it's definitely not open source. But The confusion is understandable, because what Windows CE brings is a tongue-twister of a deal.

I liked the way IDG's Joris Evers encapsulated it. Don't try to swallow the whole capsule in one gulp: "The announcement marks the first time that Microsoft will allow others to make changes to the operating system source code, compile the code for use in commercial products, and not have to share their changes with Microsoft or anybody else."

Previously, there was a system, called Premium Source project. If you were big enough, you could sign up as a developer. You had to be Intel, or ARM or MIPS, really. Then you could see two million lines of WinCE code, and use it to write drivers. There was a catch: any changes you made to the code had to be given to Microsoft after six months. And if Microsoft liked it, they could give it to everybody else in the Premium Source project.

Take MS code, change it

This isn't like that. This gives you 2.5 million lines of code, and you can change it, and you can keep the changes to yourself; so you don't find yourself giving away clever tricks to your biggest rivals.

It is also far cheaper. Poppinga says that Microsoft doesn't plan to makes it revenue selling software development tools at $50,000 a pop. Instead, it hopes to make $3.00 royalty per device sold - something he says none of his rivals will do.

But for me, the significant part of the deal is that it pushes .Net framework out there. The whole Compact Framework is now built into all Windows Mobile devices and while there's a lot more to "embedded" than mobile, mobile is still where Microsoft sees growth. And if it can hook a whole bunch of Express buyers for a $30 entrance fee and a whole bunch of mobile developers for a $999 developer package, then the number of .Net frameworks out there will grow.

And then, maybe, those other Microsoft developers who are "quite happy with VS.6.0 thank you" will start to feel the pressure to upgrade?


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