Windows 8 has been released to manufacturing, along with Windows Server 2012 and Visual Studio 2012. There is also a major new version of Office, Microsoft's other mainstay, due for completion around November this year.
These releases are more than just the usual round of updates. On its tablet-friendly Metro side, Windows 8 has a new runtime and user interface which is almost a platform within a platform. Microsoft consciously reformed the Windows API, with much of it unavailable from the Metro side, applications sandboxed, and asynchronous programming enforced.
If you do development in Microsoft Office, you will find a new application model there as well. Called Apps for Office, this is a way of embedding web applications either in a document (only supported in Excel at the moment) or in a task pane alongside a document (supported in Excel, Word and Project). Outlook 2013 does not have a task pane, but uses a similar approach for new-style Mail apps, a separate pane that displays alongside an email.
The significance of Apps for Office is that being web-based, they also work in Office Web Apps. This means that an application developed for the new model will run on platforms where the Office 2013 client is not available, including tablets and Macs.
There is a lot of sense in Microsoft's approach, whether or not you like the blocky Windows 8 Start screen, or the washed-out user interface in Office 2013. That said, it is a big ask for developers. The problem is not only the amount that developers will have to learn, but also what they need to throw away.
When Visual Studio 2010 was released, frameworks including Silverlight, Windows Presentation Foundation and XNA (for games) were positioned as strategic APIs in which developers could invest their time and effort with confidence. A few years later, and all those frameworks look like legacy.
If Windows RT (that is the ARM version) takes off, developers have to come to terms with a wave of Windows devices that do not run their desktop applications at all.
On the mobile side, loyal Microsoft-platform developers have endured a rollercoaster ride trying to keep up with how the company says you should develop today. Windows Mobile 6: C/C++ is in. Windows Phone 7: C/C++ is out. Windows Phone 8: C/C++ is in again.
The question developers will be asking as Windows 8 and Office 2013 roll out is this: how can we be sure that innovations like the Windows Runtime or Apps for Office will still be worth developing for by the time Visual Studio 2014 comes around?
I am inclined to agree that the Windows platform needed reform, and despite a few jarring changes there is a lot to like in the 2012 wave. But what the company now needs is a period of consistency and consolidation, otherwise its developer community will simply lose faith.
Cloud computing, Infrastructure as a service (IaaS): nothing new about that. Yet the month of June saw two momentous announcements.
The first was from Microsoft, which announced the addition of IaaS to its Azure platform, along with a new management portal that may prove equally significant, for reasons I will give in a moment.
The second was from Google, at its IO 2012 conference, when it announced Google Compute Engine (GCE), which lets you launch Linux virtual machines (VMs) on Google's platform.
Google may be a new player in the IaaS market but you would also think that managing this stuff will come naturally to a company which has built its own search and cloud services on a massively scaleable cloud. Google also has a good track record in terms of reliability, when you look at its existing Google Apps services. It is not perfect; but then neither are others such as Amazon or Salesforce.com, both of which have occasional service interruptions.
In fact, one of the advantages of major new entrants into the market is the possibility of building fail-safe solutions across several cloud vendors, making it less likely that cloud downtime will cause severe loss of business.
What about Windows Azure? This one has made a big impression on me, partly because (unlike GCE) I have been able to try it out, as well as speaking to Microsoft Corporate VP Scott Guthrie about the new features.
He told me how, soon after he moved to work on Azure in 2011, his team sat down and tried using the service, encountering numerous problems ranging from sign-up difficulties to problems finding documentation.
Since then Microsoft has released not only a wide range of new features, including durable VMs alongside the existing stateless VMs, but also a new administration portal that is a pleasure to use.
Does that matter, when what really counts is the cloud technology, its performance and reliability?
I think it does. A good user experience changes behaviour. It is now so easy to log in and create a VM on Azure, that I will be using this myself when I need to spin up a server to test some software. Click Virtual Machine - From Gallery - pick an operating system - type a name and password, select a machine size, and it is done. A few minutes later you can log in with remote desktop and get working.
With a bit of effort, you can even connect Azure to your internal network.
If it is easy to get started, users are more likely to try it out and, all going well, start using the service in anger. My expectation is that Azure will see a lot more activity as a result.
It has taken too long, but Microsoft is now a real contender in cloud infrastructure.
With Google also coming into play, you may wonder if Amazon will finally feel some heat. I actually doubt that. It is a growing market, and Amazon is the leader by far.
It seems to me that it is more the other, smaller cloud hosters who should worry, as well as those in the on-premise server market. Increasingly, you will not only be testing your new solutions in the cloud, but deploying them there as well.
Image via Wikipedia
At the Future of Web Applications conference earlier this month I spoke to Microsoft's corporate VP of the .NET Developer Platform, Scott Guthrie about ASP.NET MVC. Guthrie is a co-inventor of ASP.NET along with Mark Anders, now at Adobe. A few months back I wrote a piece entitled ASP.NET MVC rescues Microsoft's web platform, but I wanted to hear from Guthrie how he sees the framework evolving, and to explore whether it is time to abandon the older Web Forms approach. How does he see the future of the platform?
"The amount of buzz and religious fanaticism about [ASP.NET MVC] is amongst the highest I've been involved in, certainly since .NET 1.0 and Silverlight. Some people prefer the Web Forms model and I emphasise that Web Forms is not going away, there's all the new stuff that's coming for Web Forms 4.0.
"MVC is an alternative way to do UI and still leverage ASP.NET. For crowds like the one here at FOWA that wants total control over the markup, and who like test-driven development, it's a dream framework. Those folk tend to be more online, so they communicate better which is part of the reason you hear the buzz. I think we'll have more than a million developers using ASP.NET MVC within the first twelve months."
In your talk you mentioned the stackoverflow site which performs very well but runs on not very much in terms of hardware? Is ASP.NET MVC more efficient than Web Forms?
"ASP.NET itself has always been really fast, we've had a lot of success with large sites. One of the things people like about ASP.NET MVC is that the model fits to what they are expecting, for the large LAMP contingent which is heavily represented at this conference. And when they do the performance testing they say 'Holy cow, this thing is fast.' Stackoverflow is a great example, written I think within three weeks and scaling to that level with two machines. Performance is a feature, and one of the reasons StackOverflow works as well as it does is that it's instantaneous response time.
"Conchango just did a site, implemented in 20 weeks, a giant ecommerce project, it's 100% ASP.NET MVC. The SEO is phenomenal, the YSlow rating is phenomenal, they're just blown away. It was fun talking to them last night - the guy was jokingly saying, 'I can't believe it works so well'. It's like the best marketing literature in the world times ten. More and more when I give talks I'd say half the people are new to ASP.NET MVC, and the other half come upand say, 'by the way we've done five sites on it.' That's great to hear."
On equivalent hardware and leaving aside different coding styles, is ASP.NET MVC going to scale that bit better than Web Forms?
"No. The reality is you can build hugely scalable sites with each. Where it does help a little bit is that there is smaller page size and there's a bit more control. There's less abstractions."
And the page lifecycle is shorter?
"It is shorter. I don't think that's making any measurable perf difference. It's more that it naturally flows to what they're doing. I do think it's fast, in the same way that web forms can be fast too. But it promotes a certain way of working that, if you know what you're doing, you tend to build really fast apps."
What about the open source aspect? Are people contributing code?
"People are not contributing code directly to ASP.NET MVC, but we're shippling JQuery and we're shipping JQuery validation which are open source projects, and we are integrating them into our code. With JQuery in ASP.NET MVC version 1.0 we just shippped it, whereas in version 2.0 we have helper libraries that are making big usage of it.
"I'd say that's a first for Microsoft, we're actually taking open source software that has multiple contributors, and using it in a deep way within our own product.
"We ship the ASP.NET MVC source code under an OSI Licence. You can take the code, you can modify it, you can do builds. I know a few people that have done customer tweaks, but for the most part it's that people like being able to learn the product through the code. There's also the reassurance of knowing that if they ran into something, they could fix it."
Would you consider accepting community contributions to the code?
"We've thought about it. I think a lot of people interpret open source as 'hey, anyone can just submit stuff'. The reality is that pretty much every open source project has a closed set of contributors. They come from multiple organisations or backgrounds, but you don't check anything into the Linux kernel without Linus or Andrew signing off on the fix. That would be true of ASP.NET MVC, in that there would be a core set of contributors. At some point I think we will probably open it up to let people to contribute code, or at least patches."
What's new in the latest ASP.NET MVC 2.0 preview?
"The ability to easily do forms validation for input, server-side and especially client-side in a very declarative, easy way, is a huge productivity win.
"'Areas' provide a way to take a large project and easily structure it into multiple small projects.
"New form helpers and what we call editor and display templates for customising them is an innovative way to get strong typing, intellisense and debugging support, and a lot of flexibility in terms of UI generation.
"Asynchronous controllers allow you to call call services on the web, the Twitter, the Facebooks of the world, and much more efficiently scale your web server. The classic problem if you're calling Twitter is what's the response time of Twitter? What's the response time of Facebook? Most web servers are multi-threaded so they're processing multiple requests, but say they have 10 threads running and 15 requests come in, and each of those requests need to go and access Twitter, you're going to block 5 people while nothing is going on on the server. With the Async support we provide a way that you within your app can say, I'm going to wait for a while, yield back the thread, and when the data comes back reschedule me. It can dramatically improve the scalability of the site.
"We're doing a bunch of work around helpers for caching, paging, and a other things. In general it's a compatible release, we're trying to listen to the community, keep it a very transparent, Agile-based development process and knock off the top asks.
"We ship the source to every preview, take lots of feedback. That's the other thing people have really liked about the project, this open feedback. They don't feel like we're telling them, here's the way it is, take it or leave it. They like the fact that we've been iterating with them."
Guthrie is diplomatic about the question of Web Forms versus ASP.NET MVC, and even though I pressed him, would not quite agree that it performs much better. Clearly Web Forms is not going away. Take a look though at some of the comments from practitioners like Howard van Rooijen of EMC (formerly Conchango):
One of the great aspects of ASP.NET MVC is how lean and clean the architecture is - there is so little background noise compared to WebForms; possibly the best illustration of this is the difference between the MVC Request Pipeline vs. WebForm Page Lifecycle. The number of hoops you are forced to jump through in WebForms, compared to MVC is quite staggering.
Overall I heard nothing to change my general opinion, that if you can use ASP.NET MVC rather than Web Forms, you probably should.
Last week Sun launched JavaFX, its Java-based platform for Rich Internet Applications. Sun picked up the high level of interest in Adobe's Flash as an application runtime, and perhaps Microsoft's Silverlight as well, and hurriedly developed its own equivalent. JavaFX is a new scripting language that runs on the JVM (Java Virtual Machine) and is optimized for graphical effects and multimedia. It brings to Java animation features like timelines and motion paths, support for a variety of audio and video codecs, and a way of coding a graphical user interface without the supposed complexities of Swing with its Model/View/Controller (MVC) design. JavaFX applets can run within or outside the browser. One innovation is that you can drag an applet out of a web page and onto your desktop. If you close the browser, the applet keeps running, thanks to support for out-of-process plugins in Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox.
So far JavaFX has received a mixed reception, and it is easy to see why. The launch was rushed, and some early visitors to the site had a bad experience, with videos that would not play or samples that did not run. Videos running in JavaFX flash unpleasantly if you resize the browser. The install experience is not as smooth as for Flash or Silverlight in my experience, because you need to install the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) as well as the JavaFX plugin. The download size is larger, although this is disguised by Sun's slimmed-down initial install. The idea is that you get up and running quickly, while the rest of the JRE installs in the background. The SDK does not yet run on Linux or Solaris, although the applets themselves should run because they only require the standard JRE plus a runtime jar (add-on library) and can be executed using Java Web Start. The latest NetBeans has JavaFX support, but another downer is the lack of any dedicated visual design tools. Sun only offers an export add-on for Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator, or a converter for SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics). There is no 3D API yet, though it is promised.
It is easy to be negative; but some of these problems will disappear as JavaFX matures. A visual design tool is in the works, as is a mobile version that will be shown at the Mobile World conference in February next year. JavaFX will have a place for Java developers who are envious of what Flash and Silverlight can do. While it may not match Flash in terms of broad runtime deployment, I'm guessing that Sun will outpace Microsoft in this respect. JavaFX also has a couple of advantages over Flash, including more sophisticated client-side security and better code performance in some scenarios. The Java VM is mature and well optimized. Adobe's ActionScript virtual machine does have a just-in-time compiler, but seems slower than either Silverlight or Java for code execution. Speed of graphical effects is another matter, and while I have not seen any comparisons yet, I suspect Adobe's long multimedia experience may come into play here.
JavaFX will be welcomed then by Java developers who need more expressive graphics in their applications, and will be an interesting option for those developing games for mobile devices. Try as I might though, I'm finding it hard to believe that this is a huge section of the market, or that Sun will have much success persuading designers to target JavaFX rather than Flash, or that JavaFX will win much market share from Adobe for web-hosted video. Swing works well these days, its MVC architecture has merit, and it is well-suited to the kinds of Enterprise applications which commonly have Java clients. JavaFX is a useful addition to Java, but I doubt that Adobe is losing sleep over its likely impact. That said, I'm keen to hear from developers with plans for JavaFX applications, so don't hesitate to let me know.
Adobe's MAX conference in San Francisco this week was focused on what it calls the "Flash Platform", a technology stack oriented round the Flash multimedia runtime. The "platform" word highlights the fact that you can code for Flash and have your application run everywhere that Flash runs, including Windows, Mac, Linux, and some mobile devices as long as they are not from Apple. It is not a complete platform, being essentially an Internet client, though there are some server-side pieces such as LiveCycle Data Services, to simplify and optimize communication between Flash clients and Java middleware. You can also blur the distinction between browser and desktop with AIR, which runs Flash outside the browser and adds a local database engine.
So what's new? There was the usual set of announcements. The key ones are as follows:
A new version of Flex and the Eclipse-based Flex Builder IDE, code-named Gumbo. This has a new skinning and component architecture, more advanced text rendering, easier two-way data binding and a new Client Data Management (CDM) feature which from early descriptions looks reminiscent of a .NET dataset. You work with data on the client, storing updates locally, then zap the updates back across the wire in a single update operation. One thing that is not yet clear to me is the extent to which CDM requires LiveCycle on the server; I'll be sure to clarify this in a couple of weeks at MAX Europe (I was not present at the US event). The database aspect is significant, because so many enterprise applications boil down to CRUD (Create, Retrieve, Update, Delete) in one form or another.
Catalyst, formerly code-named Thermo, was previewed. This is a fascinating product which converts Photoshop artwork into Flex code; it also allows designers to create and preview a degree of interaction in their designs. Catalyst shares the same project format as Flex Builder. Again, I will be taking a closer look at MAX Europe. Here's a preview screen grab:
Cocomo (yet another codename) is a cloud effort from Adobe, focused on conferencing. Adobe hosts the services and provides Flex components to enable file sharing, text and VOIP (Voice over IP) chat, whiteboards, and data messaging; there is also user management built in.
Alchemy is a tool that converts C/C++ code to ActionScript, for execution within the Flash player. It's intended for re-use of existing libraries, not for general development.
Third-party announcements that caught my eye included Ensemble's Flex add-in for Visual Studio (though I was underwhelmed by the preview), and Zend's addition of AMF (Action Message Format) into its PHP Framework. AMF is a binary format that optimizes data transfer between servers and Flash clients.