Microsoft tries to steer a better course on app development

Microsoft tries to steer a better course on app development

Vendor says it's now more responsive to user feedback; proof could be in big product launch

Visual Studio 2008 has been available since November, while Windows Server 2008 was released to manufacturing earlier this month. Meanwhile, RTM on SQL Server 2008 was recently delayed until this year's third quarter, one quarter later than previously planned -- although Microsoft did issue what it described as a "feature-complete" CTP release of the database last Wednesday.

"Aligning the launch date was a PR exercise," said Greg DeMichillie, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. DeMichillie, who worked as a developer within the STB for a decade, also remains unconvinced that Microsoft is now a paragon of agile development.

"Clearly, CTPs and the other changes deliver a benefit," he said. "Users get earlier glimpses of products, and Microsoft gets feedback earlier. But the jury is still out on whether Microsoft is going to ship software more quickly and reliably as a result."

John Andrews, CEO of Evans Data, a market research firm that focuses on development tools, said via e-mail that Web-centric vendors such as Google and are both much more nimble when it comes to software development, and that even IBM tops Microsoft in agility.

"I believe Microsoft attempts to do agile programming where possible, but the reality of its situation is that the complexity and size of the code base prevents it from truly implementing that coding process," Andrews wrote. "Now it's a matter of making itself semiagile wherever possible."

But Microsoft officials argue that being agile has less to do with shaving some time off of a product release schedule than it does with being able to ship higher-quality software in the first release of a product.

Users who hear that kind of talk "may roll their eyes" because of the shipment delay on SQL Server 2008, acknowledged Ted Kummert, a Microsoft corporate vice president who heads development of the database. "But we are driven by the end quality we feel we have to deliver, which lives on far after the RTM party we have on campus," he said. The CTP release of SQL Server 2008 that became available last week was the sixth issued thus far by Kummert's team.

The SQL Server and Visual Studio development teams have switched over completely to CTPs, which are interim software builds that provide a faster opportunity for feedback from users but aren't supported as extensively by Microsoft as full-fledged beta releases are. The Windows Server group used a combination of betas and CTPs during the development of Windows Server 2008, according to Microsoft officials.

Another key element of Microsoft's development process for enterprise products is its Technology Adoption Programs, which let companies get extensive handholding from the software vendor as they test and then go live with beta or CTP releases in production environments. Microsoft's customer service and support team manage the TAPs, and the company gathers feedback from participants both in the form of informal comments and more quantitative survey-type data, said Rich Kaplan, a vice president in the customer service unit.

Some users who have worked with the prerelease versions of the new products during the latest development cycle said that they noticed an increase in responsiveness and flexibility on the part of Microsoft.

"Almost everything that we asked for while testing SQL Server 2008 is now in the final product," said Umit Nazlica, database systems manager at Garanti Bank, a banking and financial services firm in Istanbul, Turkey, that is taking part in the TAP for the new database. For instance, IT staffers at Garanti requested stronger resource management and governance capabilities, as well as data compression and encryption improvements, Nazlica said.

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