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TechEd 2004, Day 02

Posted by n_alex on May 24, 2004 at 9:24 PM PDT

I don't know exactly what I was expecting from Steve Ballmer's keynote address this morning. I've never seen the man speak before, or heard his voice. In fact, I haven't even seen a photograph of him that wasn't a decade old. What I did not expect was for Mr. Ballmer to have somehow transformed into a spitting image of my former Governor, Jesse Ventura. They look alike. They speak alike. It threw me for a loop.

Mr. Ballmer has a very strong presence on stage, but it wasn't his presence that really drew my attention during his keynote. It was the contents of his message and, more importantly, the way in which he delivered it that most impressed me.

What I'm about to do might be a bit unfair, and I apologize in advance if I upset anyone, but the only other major keynote speaker from the IT industry that I've ever seen was Scott McNealy, who gave the final address at JavaOne last summer. The more time I spend here and the more I explore the differences between the Java and .NET communities, the more I wish I were going to San Francisco in June, so that I could make back-to-back comparisons while it's all still fresh in my mind. Last year Sun and Microsoft were still embroiled in a major lawsuit, and so of course Mr. Ballmer's speech this morning was more positive and constructive than Mr. McNealy's was last June.

But even so, Ballmer did not lash out against other technologies, or against Sun. He certainly didn't make the mocking of his company rival a central part of his keynote, as McNealy did last June. He kept an extremely positive focus, and stuck to community and technology-based topics throughout the entirety of his address. It was very relieving.

I'll get into the technical and business related contents of his speech in a moment, but first I want to make some important cultural and rhetorical critiques. Mr. Ballmer is a visionary, and he probably doesn't walk in the quite the same world as you or I do.

This became more obvious to me throughout the day. After spending some time in the trenches discussing ideas and technological considerations with different developers and vendors, I've come to the conclusion that there is still a great deal of bitterness toward Java developers among the .NET rank and file. What surprised me most was how the topic of Java, even among and between perfect strangers, always returned not to the technological flaws of our platform, but to the "jerk" attitudes of our developers.

I'll be the first to admit, my flaws are boundless. I've written and said some things in the past, particularly about Marc Fleury and about the Redmond giant, that were deliberately inflammatory and sensational to no constructive end. I know it's a bad habit to get into as a writer, and especially as a critic whose job is to interpret and not to cast judgement. This editorial style certainly doesn't make me a better person, so I've been trying to grow out of that practice. It certainly helps to have people I admire, like Richard Monson-Haefel, acting in an extremely courteous manner toward someone he's slighted. For that, Richard, I'm very grateful.

It's easy to demonize your opponent when they only exist on your computer screen, but it's another matter altogether when they're standing right in front of you. And the whole "tribe mentality" plays into it as well, as it does in software projects, as it did last June when Scott McNealy made his keynote and burned Microsoft. It isn't difficult to see how the rank and file Java developers might amplify this half-playful distain into raw contempt for the .NET crowd. But the "US versus THEM" Napoleon-complex mentality is a luxury we can no longer afford as a developer community. As an American citizen, I can definitely say that political events of the last year have given me pause to reconsider how I conduct myself in public, and especially how I regard and treat my competitors in the public arena. I don't hate these people—I have a tremendous amount of respect for them, even if I disagree with them on technical details.

Which brings me to the next part of my blog for the day. For the last year I've been flirting with the dream of bringing affordable J2EE technology to small and medium sized businesses, and of someday making it possible for small companies to buy affordable, enterprise quality software. That, more than anything, is the reason that I use, study and develop Open Source software. Sometimes I get frustrated by the high cost of deploying enterprise-strength web applications. I'm probably just trying to crack an egg with an axe, but it's the principle of the damn thing that I just can't shake. I'm a small player but I like to think big, and I admire other people with the same penchant. I'd like to be able to deliver big, even to small clients who share my unfortunate addiction to thinking big. What really bugs me is when people I know make tongue-in-cheek comments about how companies who can't afford to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for J2EE's stability and features don't deserve it. I refuse to accept that only Fortune 500 companies deserve rock-solid code. This totally ignores the market potential and the importance of small and medium sized businesses, and doesn't do much for the reputation of the Java guy.

Today, I saw more evidence of that truth than I was prepared for. Microsoft's development tools are easy to use, easy to learn, and affordable. That is why .NET is so appealing to small and medium sized companies. According to Ballmer, over 50% of IT developers in the country use .NET. These people don't write code--they have forms and wizards for developing just about anything you can think of. When they do write code, they have development tools that actually force them to write unit and performance tests. And from what I can tell, they have tools for writing those as well.

The tools they've got coming out this year will probe their software for security vulnerabilities, and color highlight the areas of their code which they have not adequately tested, forcing them to correct the error before they check the code into the repository. Tools, to amplify their productivity. Tools, to tell you while you're developing if you'll have fatal errors at runtime, thereby easing the testing and QA process. Tools for performance testing components in ASP.NET web applications, to push multiple simultaneous threads through your software, to bootstrap an ASP runtime environment and use it behind the scenes to simulate a live runtime environment. JUnit won't even add a Multithreaded Test Runner to their core API. Tools to design web UIs, built directly into their ASP.NET IDE. More tools than you can shake a stick at.

In the United States, only the pharmaceutical company Pfizer spends more money on R&D than Microsoft does. They've embraced Agile development techniques in Redmond and before long the rank and file will catch on as wel—they will have no other choice. The tools are there to make Test Driven Development ubiquitous throughout the .NET industry. In the realm of tools and ease of use, Microsoft and the ecosystem of small vendors surrounding them have got us outgunned and outclassed.

All of this was running through my mind before Mr. Ballmer even finished his keynote.

BUT—we in the Java community don't claim to be the most approachable or user-friendly development platform in the world. Usability has never been the greatest strength of the Java platform, and I know we're making strides to overcome our deficiency in that area. As I attended various sessions on .NET technologies, especially one about developing web applications with ASP.NET, it became fairly clear to me that we still have a tremendous and important role to play in the future of enterprise computing, of persistent transactional object frameworks, of distributed component frameworks, of ultra robust application servers. We've got a good handful of J2EE app servers on the market already, and more are one the way from JBoss, Jonas and Geronimo. The licensing costs will fall by necessity, freeing up more spending for support and better feature offerings.

Microsoft does not seem to have an answer to EJB, or at least the developers I've spoken with don't spend much time considering distributed component architectures. They're still coaching developers to hand-write their SQL code—the very thing that drove me from ASP technologies back in 2000. "Sometimes it's better for performance to customize the SQL", a gentleman explained to me this afternoon. Agreed, but where is the option to have a persistence engine do the heavy lifting for me? I can always subclass a BMP object to do custom transaction stuff. When the customer decides to change to a different database on a different operating system (yes, it actually does happen) and they've got to rewire their library of data access objects, it will certainly help that the SQL queries are encapsulated into objects and not scattered throughout the application, but it won't save them if they've got 6,000 unique data objects in their system. I'm not saying this to be cruel, or to spit on ASP.NET technologies. It's just my perception. ASP.NET might not be the best tool for that job. Or maybe it is. If so, is it worth the risk of lock-in? If it's not worth the risk of lock-in, does that mean that Microsoft and its employees are all terrible and evil? Of course not. It probably just means we need a two-tiered market, and that things are the way they are for a very good reason.

It always seems to return to two crucial factors: the tradeoff between flexibility and performance, and the tradeoff between vendor lock-in and the inefficiency of committee-governed standards bodies. Is that what this whole long fight has really been about?

Enterprise scale technology is not always necessary. But when it is necessary, when a distributed component architecture is necessary, when you need a Component Transaction Monitor and common server-side component model, does .NET measure up? And if so, is it worth the risk of getting locked in? This is what I still don't know. Critics of Microsoft's MTS technology always return to the issue of vendor lock-in, of the open-ness of EJB as a server-side component model, of the ability of different vendors to implement the technology and compete with each other for performance, features, pricing, etc. If the Sun and Java community weren't as dedicated to sharing the wealth of ideas, of supporting non-profit organizations who want to compete in their CTM market, projects like Geronimo couldn't even exist.

I think that, out of respect for my boundless ignorance, I'll defer any further exposition on this topic until after I've spoken with some more .NET evangelists, specifically the ones who would know about .NET's distributed component architecture capabilities. Also, out of respect for the customers and managers who ultimately must make this decision, I'll just keep looking for the common ground, the higher patterns and the difficult questions, and leave the decision to the people who ought to be making it. Finally, out of respect to the engineers and developers on both sides of the fence, I'm going to try really hard for the remainder of the week to represent the "Java guy" as a fellow developer and not as an outspoken, embittered ideologue.

I will write about this rockin' hotel room, when I get a chance. Hope everyone's having fun out there ;)

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