Last week Microsoft launched the latest version of their leading development tool Visual Studio 2013 at a special event in New York. Microsoft have kept their promise to deliver a rapid release cadence with Visual Studio by putting out 3 updates to last year’s Visual Studio 2012 (a fourth was released last week) over the last twelve months. VS2013 has been trailed since the Build conference earlier in the year however there were still some surprises such as Visual Studio Online.

There were a lot of announcements at the launch including live debugging in the Cloud (Azure) and some clever uses of Signal R within ASP.NET. However there were two that stood out as being about more than just new features in what is already the best industry Integrated Development Environment (IDE) by far. The first concerns support for building hybrid mobile apps through the Xamarin product and the second is a step-up in their DevOps story.

Visual Studio, not just for Windows

Xamarin is one of a few tools in the market that add hybrid mobile app development capabilities to Visual Studio. CIC have recently evaluated another, Telerik Icenium, as part of our hybrid development report. Microsoft have now done a deal with Xamarin to bring it into their MSDN subscription offering. Unlike Icenium which utilises HTML5 and JavaScript technology to build apps that run across multiple device platforms (iOS, Android etc.) with Xamarin developers code in C#. This makes it especially easy for .NET developers to create apps and allows them to re-use existing portable code libraries.

What’s important about this announcement however is that it signals a clear move by Microsoft to support development for platforms which are not their own. Microsoft’s developer tools have nearly always been about building an ecosystem of applications that run on Windows. It is what has made Windows the ubiquitous platform that it still is today. In the new world of devices it is well known that Microsoft (Windows) has fallen behind the likes of Apple and Google.

Developers building for users both inside and outside the organisation need to be building for iOS and Android. Microsoft has had to adjust to this reality and now it looks like they have. Xamarin is still a tool for .NET developers and it would have been good to see Microsoft invest in one of the HTML5/JavaScript hybrid tools. This would have given the broadest developer community a reason to use VS2013 and shown a continued commitment to open standards which Microsoft have done in other areas.

What’s more interesting for those who do not follow Microsoft closely is that this is not entirely new. For some time now they have supported running non-Windows operating systems in their Azure cloud. Also as part of their Azure PaaS offering they have offered PHP support for building websites. There was the recent announcement regarding Oracle support within Azure. Azure Mobile Services provide example iOS and Android code downloads to make it easy for developers on those platforms to use Azure as their backend service.

Untethered Visual Studio: cool, but can it have wider appeal?

Cross platform support is now coming to the development environment. In addition Visual Studio Online includes a (very feature reduced) browser based version of the IDE which will run in any browser and that does not have to be on Windows. Currently this version of the IDE is only for basic apps or small code edits when there is no access to the main development machine. There will certainly be advancements over time and it means that Microsoft has joined the growing number of browser based IDEs.

Taken as a whole this shows a clear and significant shift in ethos away from blindly supporting the Windows platform towards supporting the developer (or Microsoft’s customer) in what they need to build. If that includes technology that is not proprietary Windows then that’s okay. The big challenge for Microsoft now will be whether they can create awareness of this outside of their Windows-centric customer base and convince non-Windows developers that they are serious in this change of attitude.

We would recommend that customers with existing Microsoft investments look again at VS and Azure and where they could leverage these across more than just their MS stack. For those not currently using VS or Azure (or Team Foundation Server) because they are not a Windows shops then this is a chance to look at these products. VS is after all an exceptional IDE that provides a wealth of productivity benefits to developers working alone or in teams.

Microsoft’s Cloud starts to grow up

The VS2013 launch was a chance to show off how Microsoft have integrated the InRelease acquisition into their ALM tooling, Team Foundation Server (TFS). This adds full release management capabilities to TFS that completes a vital part of any DevOps offering. What this also demonstrates is a maturing of their Cloud offering which is one of the target deployment platforms. Until now most of what Microsoft has had to say about Azure has revolved around individual developer accounts. They have not moved away from this entirely and at the VS2013 launch they continued to talk a lot about MSDN subscriber benefits and developers using their Azure credits to spin up VMs for development and test purposes or making use of compute and storage.

What they can now start talking about is organisation level Cloud development whereby the kinds of governance and processes that organisational IT are familiar with can be applied to delivering applications to Azure. In other words the process of deploying to Azure can now be managed in the same way as more traditional on premise applications. This allows Azure to take a big step up towards becoming an enterprise product. When talking about the Cloud and Azure it is important to note that with the Azure Pack any organisation running Windows Server can run a private version of Azure and with it get all of the benefits provided by Visual Studio and TFS’s Azure integration that were covered in the launch announcements.

A DevOps story that is stronger than first appears

Microsoft’s DevOps story that is built around TFS is not just about Windows and Azure either and can support other developer tools and environments. For example TFS can be used within a Java development environment with support that includes Eclipse based IDE connectivity and continuous builds capabilities. TFS can even be used with XCode the IDE for building iOS apps on MacOS. Therefore whether customers are using or not using Windows or Visual Studio they should look at what Microsoft now offers in this space. For customers familiar with the Microsoft stack and considering a move towards the Cloud this new version of TFS provides more mature support that enables a much stronger ALM story than both Microsoft did before and many Cloud competitors do today.

Developers keeping pace is a concern

Microsoft don’t disappoint when it comes to their developer tools and VS2013 is no exception. There is a lot here to make developers whoop. Unlike more recent launches however 2013 contains some changes that should excite organisations. Few organisations from the smallest to the largest will not be facing pressures to adopt and exploit mobile and/or the Cloud. Now Microsoft have taken major steps in both areas to address these needs in ways that don’t just help developer productivity but also help the organisation deliver broad mobile and Cloud strategies that do not have to revolve around Windows. The impact on current Microsoft developers is significant but the potential impact on the wider development community could be greater still.

Our only concern is that with the new rapid release cadence Microsoft run the risk that developers cannot keep up. New features, changes and capabilities within both VS and the .NET Framework may be lost in the multiple updates. Microsoft have always done a great job through their strong evangelism programmes to support the developer community through new releases but they have had time to plan and deliver. This will now prove challenging and it will be interesting to see how they address it. As any Microsoft stack developer will tell you, keeping up with the pace of change has always been extremely difficult and it has just got a lot harder even if the tools have got better