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Ballmer Outlines Visual Studio Plans

As Microsoft outlines a future in which PC products become online services, president and CEO Steve Ballmer hopes the message clicks with Windows developers.

Microsoft likes to boast that the 3.2 million developers who write for the Windows platform provide the company with market momentum. Microsoft's challenge is to pull those programmers--who favor familiar, reusable routines--into its Web-centric future. In an address to the Visual Basic Insiders Technical Summit in San Francisco Tuesday, Ballmer promised some techno-goodies to help its developer base adapt.

"We remain hard-core, 100% committed to developers," Ballmer said. "I don't want anyone, for even half a nanosecond, to think that there's not an exciting future in front of the PC."

Yet the next version of the Visual Studio development suite, scheduled for release next year, focuses on helping companies write applications that call functions not just from local machines and client-server systems, but from servers across the Internet--often residing in business partners' data centers. "In the next five years, there will be no difference between a Web site, a [local] program, and an application," said Ballmer. That kind of distributed environment requires more reliance on the Extensible Markup Language, which he called "a core technology that's at the backbone of everything that's going on" at Microsoft.

In March, Microsoft plans to release a Web Services Tool Kit for its current Visual Studio 6 product, to start bridging the gap. The software, most likely available as a free download from the Microsoft Developer Network Web site, will let programmers get a head start on deploying some of the capabilities scheduled for arrival in Visual Studio 7 without learning new skills, say Microsoft officials.

A feature called Web Forms, for example, lets developers write the same code that creates local forms, then publish to the Web for use with E-commerce applications. Technology called Active Server Pages Plus separates the business logic code from the HTML that presents it, making projects easier to maintain, Microsoft says. Code is also compiled beforehand instead of interpreted at runtime, for faster performance.

A second feature, for creation of Web services, lets developers write a single line of code to create an XML file that lives on a Web server. The file would describe how other systems, such as Linux or Solaris servers, could call functions from a Windows server. In addition, Microsoft will introduce improvements in the Visual Basic language, such as "free threading" so multiple tasks can progress concurrently.

Microsoft developer tools are just one piece of the Internet strategy the company is assembling. During the week Microsoft is launching its Windows 2000 operating system, Ballmer called the upgrade "an important transition" toward an era in which the PC is just one platform choice for companies. Two hours after speaking at the developer summit, Ballmer expanded on that theme in a speech before a meeting of the California Commonwealth Club, a non-profit public affairs forum.

"The only mistake that we or anybody else can make in this business, is to think that things are starting to get static," he said. Yet Ballmer added that the government's pending antitrust case against the company has made it more difficult to focus on competitors and market opportunities. "Occasionally it does affect morale," he said. "It certainly doesn't make life any simpler."

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