Microsoft’s Whidbey to Get a Mobile Kicker

When Microsoft seeds the developer community next month with an updated pre-release version of its “Whidbey” Visual Studio .NET, it won’t neglect the emerging mobile market.

Whidbey will come equipped with a vastly improved implementation of the .NET Compact Framework — Microsoft’s tool for building apps that run on smart devices such as Pocket PCs and Smartphones.

“There’ll be a new version of the .NET Compact Framework in Whidbey,” Jonathan Wells, Microsoft’s .NET Compact Framework product manager, told internetnews.com.

Version 2.0 will add significant features, such as support for Web services and for the mobile SQL Server CE database. The software will be distributed next month at Microsoft’s Mobile Developers Conference in San Francisco.

The .NET Compact Framework is an important, though perhaps not well known, part of Whidbey. The latter has two high-profile components: the Visual Studio development environment, and a full-blown .NET Framework, which provides the underlying platform for enterprise applications. The Compact Framework, which constitutes a third leg to Whidbey, is more than just a subset of the .NET Framework, however.

It enables developers to build highly optimized applications capable of running on handhelds, which don’t have a lot of computing power or memory. Such software is growing in importance as enterprises seek to connect back-end server-based apps to workers in the field.

“Bundling the Compact Framework into Whidbey will help pull mobile development from a niche roll into the mainstream,” said Mark Driver, research analyst at Gartner. “It will get people to consider using it.”

For Microsoft, the mobile space offers a promising new vista as the desktop world remains mired in mature upgrade cycles. Though Microsoft’s Mobile and Embedded Devices group currently accounts for only a fraction of the company’s revenues, it is growing rapidly. For the first six months of Microsoft’s current fiscal year, the group grossed $116 million, compared to $66 million during the year-earlier period.

“We see a lot of people coming into the mobile space now because it’s not rocket science anymore,” said Microsoft’s Wells.

Independent software developer Jim Wilson, who runs his own software company, J.W. Hedgehog, agreed. “I’m seeing in my consulting practice a steady stream of developers moving onto the Compact Framework,” he said. “I think Whidbey’s going to push that up quite a bit. When we first started, it was the heavy embedded folks, the early adopters. We’re now seeing the desktop people coming on board.”

Indeed, mobile development today is seen as vastly easier than it was only a couple of years ago. Then, apps had to be cobbled together via an array of separate compilers, software development kits and run-time engines. Now, highly integrated tool kits and run-time engines such as Microsoft’s are making it easy for desktop developers to get their feet wet.

“Enterprises are looking to leverage the skills they already have, such as Visual Basic expertise,” said Jack Gold, a vice president at Meta Group. “They don’t want to have to go and hire a lot of embedded programmers.”

But Microsoft doesn’t have the mobile-tools field to itself. It’s fighting a pitched battle with Java. (The Java 2 Micro Edition, or J2ME, is the mobile platform used in developing for Palm- and Symbian-based handhelds and cellphones.)

“There’s one very important difference in that .NET Compact Framework is Microsoft-specific and J2ME is more open,” explained Gold. “The Compact Framework doesn’t work for Palm or Symbian. That’s a shortcoming for the product, though Microsoft doesn’t think so because they’re trying to lock you in. Having said that, Microsoft is a better lock-in if you’re going to be a .NET shop anyway and you want to deploy apps to a Microsoft handheld such as a Pocket PC or Microsoft-based phone. In that case, the Compact Framework works pretty well.”

For its part, Microsoft sees tight integration between the enterprise .NET world and the mobile space as a plus which will help new developers tie things together. “One of the key issues is connecting to Web services, and the ease with which you can now do it,” explained Microsoft’s Wells. “SQL CE will also be supported in Compact Framework 2.0, and that’s a big deal.”

According to independent developer Wilson, “SQL CE is very important, because mobile developers have to assume that [smart-device users] will spend at least some portion of their time with no network, for example when their cell phone doesn’t connect. So SQL CE gives them a local database that provides safe, consistent, reachable datastores.”

“At the end of the day, you do have to be conscious that these devices have only 32 MB or 64 MB memories,” explained Microsoft’s Wells. “On the desktop, people love pulling down large data sets. Here, they need to be aware they’re not running on a desktop computer with hundreds of megabytes of RAM.”

Moving forward, however, the differences desktops and handhelds may diminish as additional features are thrust onto the downsized devices.

“You’re going to see us wrap up telephony application programming interfaces, messaging APIs, location APIs, and gaming APIs, that go beyond the core Windows forms-based development paradigm,” said Irwin Rodrigues, lead product manager for Microsoft’s Mobile Devices Division.

The looming availability of such features is already driving demand for mobile hardware that’s seen as better able to work with the enterprise. Rodrigues said Microsoft will provide some specific news about new Pocket PCs at its March mobile conference. For now, he spoke in general terms. “You will see new screen orientations like landscape [mode], and potentially a square screen with an integrated keyboard,” he said. “This will give OEMs the ability to differentiate their Pocket PCs and will give end users more choice.”

On the tools side, in a move that may be aimed at blunting its Java competition, Microsoft officials said the basic configuartion of the new Compact Framework will come in at an unusually low price point. “We think these tools are good and are worth paying for,” said Microsoft’s Wells. “But there’s a price point that I think is acceptable for everybody to be able to get into [smart-] device development–the sub-$100 mark.”

Such pricing may be a wise move, in light of the fact that mobile tools may not be standalone products for long into the future. “Over time, more platforms — such as Siebold, SAP, and IBM — are going to have mobile stuff built in, so there’s going to be less need for specialty code,” predicted Meta Group’s Gold.

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