Unwinding the Road to Whidbey

Microsoft has pulled out all the stops in announcing where its development tools are heading, but it's important to keep a sense of perspective.

I still believe in the excellent joy of the Pong
Now if they take it H.G. Wells
Well I'll be on the first flight
To a time before the Kong
Whatever happened to Pong?

—"Whatever Happened to Pong?" by Frank Black

The breadth of Microsoft's vision on the future of computing is impressive. In the past few weeks, Microsoft has taken the wraps off its plans for the next version of Visual Studio .NET, its core developer tool suite, as well as its intentions for the next major version of Windows, code-named Longhorn.

Many of these technologies sound far out in the future, but we'll be living with the successes of these initiatives and working around their failures and shortcomings for many years to come. It's important to pay attention to the announcements Microsoft is making and offer feedback and guidance. Now is the time to speak about the things you like and the things you hate, because you'll be discussing only the scope of the failures, not how to fix them, if you wait until the product's about to ship to speak up.

At the same time, it's important to keep in mind that even the best of technological improvements has the transience of a Shaq-Kobe feud-friendship-feud. Remember pong? Remember the thrill of a 1 MB hard drive and wondering how you would ever fill up such a device? Remember when 11 mbps for wireless seemed fast? The best part about technologies you don't like is you probably won't have to live with them for long. On the other hand, learn a little about them in advance, and you might avoid a costly detour with a DOA technology.

There is a "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" quality to almost any good tech show focused on future technology. Half the fun of such a show is the contrast between the real world you see around you and the world you see promised in glitzy presentations and slickly produced demos. Microsoft's recent Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles was no exception. On stage, Microsoft showed off the fancy new UI enhancements of Avalon, code name for presentation features in Longhorn—the transparency examples are particularly cool—while just outside a haze of thick smoke from nearby fires coated everything. On stage, Microsoft touted the seamless and reliable communications and Web services security enabled by Indigo, code name for Microsoft's Web service and messaging features that will be shipped in the Longhorn timeframe. Meanwhile, reliable Internet connections were hard to come by at the show, with attendees playing musical chairs in search of the "hot" Ethernet connection or strong wireless signal. The good signals you did find put the "fast" in "fast connection"—you had to take care of your business fast, because you had no idea how long you would be able to maintain connectivity.

The same dichotomy is true in magazine articles, as well. In this issue, we'll take a rare look down the road at where things are going for developers in the next two to three years.

I have no doubt that some of the things we're describing in this issue and that attendees heard about at PDC will never come to pass. Remember Blackbird? Remember the In-Memory Database (IMDB) feature that was going to ship with SQL Server 2000, only to drop out at the last minute? Other technologies will fall far short of expectations. Remember Microsoft Bob? I'd like to forget, but I don't believe I've been to a major Microsoft event where the late, much lamented Bob didn't rate at least one snide comment—nearly always by someone who worked for Microsoft.

Then again, I've written this article on a Tablet PC using the device's handwriting recognition in tablet mode, first on a bus while traveling to a PDC event, and later while riding as a passenger in a car. Both the bus and the car were crowded, and it would have been a tight fit to write this in normal laptop mode. The technology you see presented at shows such as PDC often does see the light of day, and it's exciting to see a technology unveiled for the first time, then follow it to fruition or oblivion. More often than not, a technology loses a feature or 10 along the way, and many companies are guilty of announcing features they never intend to ship in order to hold competitors at bay. But it's usually an interesting ride, and the road to Whidbey and Longhorn figures to be that, if nothing else.

By the way: What did ever happen to pong?

Talk Back:
What are your thoughts regarding the direction of Microsoft's developer tools? Tell me at [email protected].

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