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Who will win the developers?

October 15th 2006 | Jens C Brynildsen



Who will win the developers?

Robert Scoble has an interesting post on what he calls the "Microsoft and Adobe developer/designer death match". This is definetly an exaggeration but he is right to some degree. There will be a battle of some sorts and Microsoft just started it. Is Adobe well prepared?

by Jens C. Brynildsen Last week, Microsoft posted an article featuring videos that did a competitive comparison between their Visual Studio (VS) and Adobes Dreamweaver (DW). The videos are definetly not comparing features as title says, but they are somewhat amusing to watch for dreamweaver users. Most of the features touted as new in Visual Studio have been in Dreamweaver for a long time and the videos often present different aspects rather than comparing as the title of the article says. Most developers will choose the tool best suited to the task at hand. VS is really great when you work with ASP .NET whereas DW is usually better if you use PHP and other Open Source technologies. What is interesting however is that this is a rather aggressive move from a company that spends a lot of time fighting in courts to say that they're not a monopoly abusing their position. What caused this move?

Scoble sees this as a deathmatch over both designers and developers. That's maybe a little exaggerated and Adobe and Microsoft will definetly be cooperating for years to come. I do not agree with Scoble that the fight will be over designers. Microsoft have to change their strategy a lot if they are to win the designers over. I don't think Microsoft is very likely to create creative software that pushes limits or improves the life of designers anytime soon, but the coming years will certainly bring a battle over developers. Developers matter. Now that all kinds of software are either web enabled or web based, Web Developers matter even more than before. The more developers supporting your technology, the more software you will sell. If you can't win the developers over, you'll lose market share to other products that solve their problems.

Microsoft has the developers
MS stronghold has always been their developers and the tie-in to Microsoft-only technology. These developers are used to a world where you buy your solutions from just one company. If you choose MS Outlook for your company, you will need MS Exchange Server. If you choose MS Project, you will need MS Office Enterprise Project Management or Microsoft Office Project Server 2003. If you go for one of these or other MS platforms, you will probably be using development tools from MS as well. Many companies do so and feels comfort in having a large software vendor that can back them and solve their problems. Once you choose MS, the easiest path is to get more MS software.

Adobe, being in the standards based world has the problem that they do not have the same grip on their developers. If a good alternative to Dreamweaver comes along, Adobe will certainly lose a good share of their web developers. The time for a push against these has never been better.

Why Dreamweaver?
DW has ruled web development for such a long time that it is only natural that this is the first point of attack for Microsoft. I don't know VS very well, but I know that many have switched to Microsoft's tools lately. This is primarily those that already do a lot of development on the Microsoft platform. But why is the time right for attacking Dreamweaver?

Several months ago, I attended a press briefing for the launch of Dreamweaver 8. I sat there listening for 40 minutes, trying to understand what the new features of DW really were. Almost all the things touted as "new features" were really nothing but bug fixes. One of the big new features was that the ftp could now run in the background. Is that really a feature? Everyone I know that uses Dreamweaver on a daily basis has given up on the internal ftp a long time ago. They certainly had not solved any of the REAL problems with ftp. DW will still use up to a minute just to cancel an ongoing operation. You click Cancel and then you have to wait while the software takes its time to really give up whatever it is doing. Every free or shareware ftp application can do that instantly, so why can't Dreamweaver?

I'm pretty sure that the Product Manager that did the presentation was baffled by my questions after the presentation. The one single thing I was certain that DW 8 would solve were CSS layouts. This is after all the holy grail of web development these days and the new version contained nothing that would help me create solid layouts. Sure - there's that fancy feature that colors your DIVs but I was certainly expecting more. Making CSS layout is a matter of knowing all the tricks and pitfalls. MM has always been good at building knowledge into DW, but not this time.

The CSS previewing in DW 8 is just barely an improvement over what was in the previous version and other "news" were nothing but icing on the cake. To be honest, I much prefer using the "Edit CSS" function in the FireFox Developer Toolbar. It will instantly show me how a change in the CSS affects my page. If I use Dreamweaver, I can only hope the CSS layout engine does not crash. It does that often and there's no way to know it has happened - leaving you searching for bugs for a long time until realizing that you need to restart your program to really see what's going on. I simply have no reason to upgrade as there was really nothing new in this version. I originally intended to do a Flashmagazine review of DW since many Flash developers use it daily, but felt that I simply had nothing to write about - even after using it daily for a whole month. I just uninstalled the trial and went back to using the old version.

VS on the other hand keeps getting better though I must say the MS videos are comparing Apples to Oranges. Since I just switched to a Mac, I'll probably not use it anytime soon, but I know quite a few developers that use it daily and praise its features and ease of use. (Microsoft's videos skips a beat when it comes to standards compliance though, but I assume they got that right this time?)

Adobe's problem
One thing I have always disliked about Microsoft is the way they keep producing new software that requires you to re-learn the toolset every time. Joel Spolsky has a name for this tactic: Fire and Motion. One of the things I used to love about Macromedia was that I was always on top of my game and tools as Flash got more advanced at a steady pace. This has changed the last year. Adobe is now putting out new technologies faster than the current developer base can absorb them.

Since September 2005, one year ago, we've gotten Flash 8 (with a host of powerful new features), a new Flash Player (with a dual core that allows us to use AS3 to take Flash performance to new heights), Flex 2 (a great tool for building applications with a new declarative language called MXML), a preview version of Flash 9 with AS3 output, an updated Flash Media Server (that really can produce magnificent multimedia solutions), Flash Lite 2 (that finally lets you use AS2 syntax so that "Author once, run everywhere" is a reality), Apollo (a new way to create desktop applications), new Voice Over IP possibilities and I'm certain that Adobe has more up their sleeves. I'm sitting here thinking - how on earth am I supposed to stay on top of things? I love having all of these possibilities, but do I really have to specialize? Throw in the need to stay updated on technologies such as AJAX, updated versions of server-side tech and I am certain that other developers feels the pressure building.

Couple that with the fact that there has never been a better time to be a Flash programmer. Flash has totally taken off (again) so more people than ever want to create solutions using Flash. It is the same all over the world, Flash is in demand and so are Flash developers. The result is that if you're a skilled Actionscripter with some experience and exposure, the salaries can be insane. There is simply too few skilled people around and too many opportunities. So I get to choose - I can either make a lot of money - or I can stay up to date. I know there is some path in between but the money just feels so tempting...

Adobe's vision for Flex 2 was to reach one million developers within 2010. They better hurry getting hold of these or opportunities will be lost. Flash developers are not the only ones in demand. AJAX is gaining ground like wildfire because of the Web 2.0 hype and those best suited to take these positions are Dreamweaver web developers that have been doing Dynamic HTML for several years already. If Microsoft sets out to grab developers from this segment, Adobe could lose them and lose out on markets such as Rich Internet Applications (RIA) because of this.

There is another reason for Microsoft to target Adobe as well. Within half a year, Adobe will release the first version of a new technology called Apollo. Apollo is pretty much like the Flash Player but it can do much more. Apollo will allow you to write desktop applications using a combination of Flash, PDF and HTML. Applications built with Apollo will not run in a browser, but as a full desktop application. They will be able to open and save files on the users machine and much more. It will be fully cross browser with Windows and OSX support initially and with Linux support to come.

Microsoft is betting their money on Windows Vista. At the core of Vista lies the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) also called WinFX. This is the UI component of Vista and one of the big "attractions". Effects such as semi-transparent windows will make Vista look and feel new and modern. Apollo will offer users full support for semi-transparent applications before Microsoft is able to ship Vista. Apollo will offer this not just to Vista, but to Windows XP, OSX and even Linux, so by the time Vista arrives, customers may already be used to these kind of effects since they can be easily recreated using standard Flash features.

It is of course not this feature alone that will win customers over to Vista, but it proves a point - Adobe has a head start. Flash Player 9 has broken every former record for software distribution. No other software has been installed at such a rate. What has that got to do with Apollo? Flash has a special feature that allows Adobe to write "plugins" for the Flash Player. This is what drives the screen capture features of Macromedia Breeze (now called Adobe Acrobat Connect) and the Flash Players auto-update feature. This feature was also used to install the precursor to Apollo, called Macromedia Central. Due to this feature, installing Apollo will just be a matter of clicking a button. That's it and you have the Apollo runtime on your machine. This feature alone will drive the adoption of Apollo at a massive speed. All Apollo apps will be fully cross OS - "author once, playback everywhere" just as Flash. This should scare MS - if Adobe can get the Developers required to really become a threat.

Windows Vista will not have such an adoption curve. More than 80% of the worlds PCs run Windows XP. There is really nothing wrong with XP. It works, it is stable, it is fast and there is no need to spend a lot of money to upgrade your company PCs if you don't have to. The cost will certainly not be anywhere near the $5000 per user as written in a blog post last week, but it will most definetly cost something. The battle over Developers hearts has started and Microsoft will not be mocking their customers and developers by calling them dinosaurs this time around.


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