Home > Computers and Internet > From BillG to RossH: A Personal Chronicle (Part 2 of 2)

From BillG to RossH: A Personal Chronicle (Part 2 of 2)

01-Jul-08 01:47 am EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

(Continued from Part 1.) I’d been flown out to Ottawa in spring of 2000 for an interview with Canada’s largest software company, Cognos and was back in Winnipeg thinking the experience over.  The phone rang, sure enough – and after completing an aggressive schedule of 5 consecutive interviews in my one day visit there, I was extended an offer.  I decided I couldn’t move forward as quickly with my career in Winnipeg and my concern over that missing Comp. Sci. degree suggested I needed to build solid experience where "the action" was.  So off to Ottawa I went, leaving a lot of friends behind (who’d I’d come to dearly miss in the years following).

Windows DNA and its related technologies were a solid and comprehensive answer to those posed by its competitors.  Sun had to this point been trying to push Java increasingly as a platform, offering a number of related technologies (such as Java Servlets, which attempted to replace older CGI, or Common Gateway Interface technology used with legacy web servers).  The dream of Sun was to replace the "fat client"; the euphemism coined to describe a computer that hosted installed applications which demanded constant maintenance and upgrades with a "thin client" like the Java NC, which would – it was proposed – be remotely managed and execute software applications on demand from a centralized server exposing fewer points of maintenance.  But this computing model had already been tried before – the old mainframe / terminal approach that existed in the 1970s and early 80s and the market was righteously skeptical.  And the number of Microsoft devices in the server room grew, particularly with respect to the number of Microsoft SQL Server databases being counted alongside their Oracle counterparts.

But Windows DNA wasn’t problem-free, nor did it take full advantage of the newer technologies produced by industry standards bodies that other companies were putting to use.  Java continued to be a preferred platform for some applications, particularly those on handheld devices.  And despite some stating that only companies like Apple and Google have a capacity to innovate, Microsoft responded with an innovation of its own in 2002: the .NET Framework.  And with its introduction I had that same feeling I did when I saw that first web page load up in NCSA Mosaic years before: things had just changed forever.  With .NET, Microsoft was able to create the industry’s first real answer to distributed application development, leveraging its original platform Windows.  But my own skills were centered on Windows DNA and although I’d been working at Cognos for two years by this point, I new I’d need to adapt quickly.  A new sense of urgency arrived with the infamous ".COM crash" (2001) and an ensuring period of unemployment following cuts to Cognos’ workforce that resulted.  Again the writing was on the wall: Cognos’ Infromation Services’ commitment to Microsoft was always very lukewarm, having imported over a dozen Java developers to the formerly 5-developer team within the department I worked for originally.  It was shortly thereafter my time at Cognos came to a close.

It’s funny how things always seem to happen for a reason sometimes (though they actually don’t – it sucks being forced to look for work in a city inundated with unemployed devs, as Ottawa was then).  Still, it did eventually present an opportunity for formal training with the newer .NET platform; lack of experience with which was hobbling my ability to find employment locally.  I’d read a lot about the .NET platform beforehand, advancing my own skills – but obviously employers sought that piece of paper that said you had the required background.  Yet during training, the advances seemed to be taking advantage of new, recently-developed technologies in a practical way to compliment the real and perceived deficiencies of the Windows DNA model.  And there were many similarities with the predecessor technology, of course.  But .NET was a lot more flexible, and would likely serve to keep Windows not only relevant, but a desirable platform for many years to come.

As I steadily built up experience with .NET through work with a small web development company, it felt like in some respects I was starting over again.  And it wasn’t easy to find my footing – instead of a disagreement between partners jeopardizing the business, my first .NET assignment involved a young, disagreeable partner who’s working style involved being ready to blame staff for his own mistakes.  (He even had the audacity to give me a bad reference at a later date!)  Later, as I experimented with contract work, I’d eventually get to work on a large project building business object for a training application platform with an extremely talented, and enlightened senior developer with whom I’ve maintained contact since.  It was he who deemed me ready to make the switch from VB.NET to C# exposing another advantage of .NET first-hand: I made the complete transition in well under 2 weeks.  (I’d find myself since, on many occasions, trying to persuade recruiters afterward that .NET skills were transferable between different programming languages for hires other than myself.)

Microsoft has over the years managed to establish itself in the business environment through its Windows and Office products, but few recent commentators on Gates departure seem to understand that these products are platforms and just don’t have equal competitors out there.  Consumers see Google making a word pro and think that means Microsoft Word‘s day has come somehow.  Google Docs offers only a fraction of the functionality that ships with word, lacks the extensive API Word offers, not to mention integration both with the much more numerous other Office applications and, through .NET and VBA linkages with many other kinds of applications, especially those where there’s a pre-existing code investment based either in COM or .NET.  I can’t imagine a serious business today select Google Docs or the suite of Google office applications as its office automation platform.  Because it’s not a serious platform for automation.  At least, not yet.

As the .NET Framework continues to grow, it adds new functionality aligned with the latest industry innovations and now participates on a number of standards bodies enthusiastically.  WPF and Windows Cardspace in particular are two examples where new industry standards (XAML and WS-Auth, respectively) form the basis of key extensions to the Framework’s API.  LINQ simplifies data access and is not exclusively aimed at database platforms other than Microsoft’s own SQL Server.

And yet that’s Gates legacy.  Across all these years I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it said that Microsoft’s day is done and Netscape will take over.  Then it was Oracle’s turn.  Then Sun’s with Java.  Remember Linux – the "free" operating system and Open Source Software (OSS)?  They were gonna take over too, but it turned out Linux wasn’t free any more than OSS was.  (How could they be?  Nothing is.)  And today, the next generation of the .NET platforms (2.0 & 3.0) are released and millions of applications are being written using them – so much so, that it’s become virtually ubiquitous on the desktop PC for everything from business apps to games.  Now that I’ve the opportunity to work for Microsoft too and as BillG leaves, I have to say a big "thank-you" for his role in building the company that gave me such an interesting and rewarding career.  I know I’m not alone in offering this sentiment.

As for Microsoft’s own future, there’s plenty of opportunity to still be had.  Although their success in the public eye is often measured in response to the results of fierce competition in the consumer market, there’s no real sense doom is at hand as pundits speculate about Gates’ departure and what it means.  Even so, they’re right that Microsoft has got to do something to continue competing with Google where it makes sense to do so.  The recent failure of the attempted Yahoo merger has for the moment blocked the software giant’s effort to put itself on a more equal footing with search and some aspects of content, but there are new innovations coming which could well set the market on its ear.  And there are a lot of very, very talented people working for Microsoft willing to try new ideas and build on the company’s massive accomplishments still.  In short, there’s plenty of aces up this sleeve yet.  Far from thinking Microsoft has seen its best days, I’m certainly not filled with any sense that Gates’ departure heralds the end of era.  On the contrary; it could well mark the beginning of another.

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Terry Glavin

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