Microsoft's relationship with developers seen as key to success

Are they pawns, as one exec said in '96, or partners?

Despite comments from a Microsoft executive in testimony released last week in which he called software developers "pawns," the company's success at wooing third-party software developers has long been credited as key to the success of Windows and other Microsoft platforms.

"I think the one thing that's inarguable is that supporting developers is in Microsoft's DNA from its earliest days," said Anil Dash, a vice president and technical evangelist for San Francisco blogware vendor Six Apart Ltd. Microsoft will "move mountains and bend over backwards to accommodate developers. My feeling is that, at every major transition, Microsoft's developer network resources would almost overwhelm you with information and tools to get you to use the new shiny stuff."

At the same time, Microsoft has also long faced accusations by embittered former software partners alleging that the company gave them illegally inferior treatment when it decides to release its own offering.

Most recently, the company last month released draft APIs to let security software makers get around a contentious kernel protection technology in the 64-bit version of Vista called PatchGuard.

Before capitulating, Microsoft had argued that giving away information about PatchGuard would compromise Vista's security. Vendors such as Symantec Corp. and McAfee Inc. claimed that if denied access to PatchGuard, their products would be unable to offer key features and would thus lag behind Microsoft's own recently-introduced security software.

The 2001 settlement of the antitrust case by the Department of Justice against Microsoft required the company to share its APIs (application programming interfaces) with third-party companies. Microsoft was also required to appoint a three-person panel with full access to its systems, records and source code for five years to ensure compliance with the ruling.

Since that time, Microsoft has consistently received high marks from developers, according to John Andrews, president of Evans Data Corp., a Santa Cruz, Calif. high-tech research firm focusing on software development.

"In the last five years, the benchmarking has ranked Microsoft either 1, 2 or 3 -- never lower," Andrews said, adding that Evans' twice-yearly surveys are "developer-driven and vendor-neutral."

Dash, a former developer working mostly on Microsoft platforms, said Microsoft's openness contrasts with traditionally secretive companies such as Apple Computer Inc. or Google Inc. The latter "is simply not even in the game when it comes to product road maps or technology roadmaps," Dash said. "Where Microsoft outlines years in advance how they'll be evolving APIs, Google starts and shuts down services with absolutely zero notice to developers, sometimes even ending APIs like the SOAP Search API, which is something Microsoft has almost never done."

Dash said the biggest recent blemish on Microsoft's record was its last-minute removal of features in Windows Vista aimed at developers.

"The removal or delay of technologies such as WinFS and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), after having aggressively promoted those platforms at developer events for over a year, was astonishing, even though it's turned out to be the appropriate thing to do for the platform overall," he said.

But ultimately, "the truth is, Microsoft competes in a lot of new areas, and in those areas, they're generally more open than the competition, probably because they're far behind and want to win developers' attention and trust. In the traditional desktop software market, which the [Comes v. Microsoft Inc.] case seems to largely address, they may still be closed and proprietary, but it's hard to argue that this market hasn't been largely supplanted by Web 2.0 anyway."

Another expert on developer evangelism said that if Microsoft really does treat its third-party developers as "pawns" and "one-night stands," as it is being accused in the ongoing Iowa antitrust case, it would be outside the industry norm. He was referring to comments by onetime Microsoft evangelist James Plamondon.

"If you've ever tried to play chess with only the pieces in the back row, you've experienced losing, OK, because you've got to have those pawns," Plamondon said in a Jan. 16, 1996, speech to members of Microsoft's developer relations group. His comments were part of a transcript presented as evidence in the Comes vs. Microsoft Inc. class-action lawsuit in Iowa.

"Technical evangelism is not about manipulation," said Frederic Lucas-Conwell, a consultant with SiliconValley-based Growth Resources Inc., who presented a survey on technology evangelism at the first Global Network of Technical Evangelists (GNoTE) conference in December (download PDF).

"It is not also about managing others. If this is what a company is doing, this has to be compared with a Machiavellian style of manipulation and management."

Discuss this issue:

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon