And then there was .NET...

The following is an article I wrote for the EarthWeb Web Developer channel that I thought those of you here on CodeGuru.com would like to read even though it is not the standard hands-on type article.

All eyes were on San Francisco, but the big launch event for Microsoft's new .NET initiative was in Chicago.

By the time all eyes were turned to Bill Gates and the long awaited launch of Visual Studio .NET and the Microsoft .NET Framework, Steve Ballmer had already succeeded in announcing the product in Chicago. Ballmer, drawing a crowd speculated to be twice the size of that seeing Gates in San Francisco, presented the new products to a packed house at the Chicago Navy Pier.

In standard Microsoft fashion, lots of information was presented to an audience that was speculated to be mostly developers. Ballmer stated early on that, "We have something that is significant for your developers...something that will blow away people you are developing software for." With that the presentations began in earnest.

.NET is a new development platform that will be freely distributed. .NET is the core to the direction Microsoft is going. As Microsoft continues to release new products, .NET functionality will be integrated into them. Released with the .NET Framework was Visula Studio .NET. This is Microsoft's development environment which is aimed at programmers. Also released were the Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Web Services Toolkit and the Microsoft BizTalk Server 2000 Toolkit for Microsoft .NET. The next release of Microsoft Windows later this year, tentatively called Microsoft Windows .NET, will include the .NET framework needed to run .NET applications. As Microsoft releases new versions of Office and new versions of the server products, they too will include native support for .NET.

How critical is .NET to Microsoft? Ballmer emphasized that more development hours had been placed into the .NET Platform and Visual Studio .NET than had been put into any other product from Microsoft with the exception of Windows 2000. He also stated that of the estimated six million developers world wide, Microsoft believes that approximately half have already downloaded a copy of the .NET beta. While I believe this estimate is high, the stated 3.5 million downloads is still impressive even with people doing multiple downloads. The more interesting statistic on how vital Microsoft considers Visual Studio .NET is the amount of money invested. Ballmer stated that to date, three quarters of a billion dollars had been spent developing Visual Studio .NET.

Ballmer stated that the Visual Studio .NET product is not perfect. Due to the continued delays in finalizing the product, a number of features were left out of the initial release. Such features are to be provided in regular updates to the product. In addition to leaving out features, Ballmer stated that Visual Basic .NET was a little more different than they wanted it to be. He stated that they had to make bigger changes from Visual Basic 6 in order to create the product Visual Basic needed to become - an object-oriented programming tool that could be used at the same level as other programming languages.

With a public beta cycle that was over 18 months long and a development cycle measured in years, many people wonder what the impact of such a product will have. .NET is often associated with Microsoft's implementation of Web Services. According to Ballmer, Web Services are the key to the next evolution in computer programming - an evolution step equaled only by the creation of the PC and the advent of the GUI interface.

Web Services are business routines, functionality, or applications that can receive and return information across the Web. These provide a service to a calling program. For example, a Web Service can be created to authenticate a person's identity. A program can provide the service with information about the person. The service can then send back information on whether the person is valid. Another example could be that of a spell checker. Instead of having a dictionary in your word processor (and all your other programs), you can use a spell checking Web Service. You pass the service your document, and it returns a list of invalid words and suggestions for corrections.

The spell checking Web Service can offer a number of benefits. One benefit is that you can access your spell checker from any internet-enabled machine. That isn't a big issue with a spell checker, but if you were using a Web Service that sends you messages, then having it send you messages regardless of the machine you are at, would be beneficial. Another benefit of a spell checker Web Service is that you would always have the latest and greatest spell checker. When new words and acronyms are created, you wouldn't have to worry about updating your spell checker.

.NET and Visual Studio .NET make the creation of Web based applications and services much easier than previous development tools. Web Services are based on standardized communication with XML. According to Ballmer, Visual Studio .NET was built with the XML standard in mind, so it fully supports the creation of Web Services as well as other XML solutions.

Visual Studio .NET will also let you develop with a variety of languages. Microsoft has publicly stated that there are 26 languages that are supported within the Visual Studio .NET development environment. These languages include:

  • Basic
  • C
  • C++
  • C#
  • Component Pascal
  • Python
  • Scheme
  • Eiffel
  • Mercury
  • APL
  • Object Caml
  • Fortran
  • Smalltalk
  • Oberon
  • Haskell
  • Delphi
  • Perl
  • Jscript
  • J#
  • And more

Using any of these languages, you can tap into the .NET Framework. The .NET Framework includes a number of standardized classes, collectively called the Base Class Library (BCL). These routines provide almost all of the functionality you would need to create most applications on or off the Web. Because these routines are a part of the framework, any of the languages supported by .NET can use them. A Cobol programmer can use the same routines that a Visual Basic, C++, Java, or Delphi developer is using. The only difference is based on the programming languages syntax - not on the routine being used! For developers, this means that converting from one programming language is simply learning the syntax and not the library of routines supported by the new language. Now printing a line of text to the console can be done with WriteConsole in Basic, J#, C#, or any other language using the base class library!

With over 250 books already published, 190 add-on tools launching, and 764 user group it is a safe bet to believe that .NET is going to have an impact on the future of a number of developers. The launch in Chicago was an event. While Gates speech was worth hearing, it was Balmer's who says it best, "Developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers......"



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