Microsoft Development Tax


I used to be a Microsoft-only developer until I started working with my latest client. I used to buy my annual $3000 MSDN subscription so I could stay on top of their technology. And to a diminished extent, I still have to keep on top of this because I have several clients that are Microsoft shops. But at my current client, they use almost all open-source tools and technologies. This I initially found quite disturbing. Where would support come from? How can we run our business using these amateurish products that anyone can contribute to. Where’s the QA?!

It didn’t take long for my fears to subside. What I had initially thought to be concerns turned out to be benefits. I won’t get into the whole open/closed source debate here as it’s been done to death, but it became apparent that quality of these products, especially the more mature ones, is in fact probably better than that of the corresponding Microsoft offerings. Now, everyone makes mistakes and bugs get into products all the time. In the open source world, when a bug does get introduced, many many eyes quickly see it, and enthusiasts (as opposed to paid staff) race to fix the problem. As a result, quality really becomes almost a given because poorly-written applications are largely destined to never make it out of the gate due to a lack of adoption. Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty of junk out there. But by and large, software like Ubuntu, Ruby on Rails, and Eclipse just to name a few are very robust and proven technologies. One needs to be diligent in selecting the tools that will run their business just as much in the open source world as in the closed source world.

When asked to build a solution for one of my clients, I would normally create a .NET web app  in Visual Studio that would eventually run on Windows Server. Visual Studio is not cheap. Windows Server and its various client access licenses is not cheap. Now I write Ruby on Rails apps that run on Ubuntu Server. These are proven technologies, and Rails is one of the nicest environments to work with, which makes my work more fun and more productive. A great benefit is that all of this is free. So tell me how I am supposed to tell my clients that they should pay for Microsoft infrastructure when I can give them the same thing built faster that uses free software? I can’t.

You Expect Us to PAY for This?

But to me, there is a more fundamental problem with Microsoft. And this one is really starting to bother me.

A constant theme in the open source world is that there are minimal financial barriers to adoption of these technologies. You want to run Ubuntu or some other flavour of Linux? Download the installer disc and install it. No CALs or other license fees to worry about. You want to learn Ruby on Rails? Go to the Rails site, install the executables, and away you go. There are some free IDEs if that’s what floats your boat, but by and large people use simple text editors. And there are lots and lots of tutorials, examples, blogs, screencasts, etc. All free. Not so with Microsoft.

Now it’s technically true that you can write .NET apps with Notepad or one of the free versions of Visual Studio. But no serious developer is going to that, especially in a corporate setting. Microsoft keeps most of the really useful features out of these free versions so you are really forced to pay to write code for their platforms. It’s no secret that more people are shunning Microsoft solutions as time goes on, so you’d think Microsoft would want to reverse this trend by making their platform more attractive to developers. Instead, Microsoft seems intent on taxing developers, the very grassroots community that they built their business on, by charging them for things like Visual Studio, MSDN, TechNet, and development copies of Windows and Windows Server. This seems self-defeating in an age where there are so many free alternatives.

Instead, Microsoft should drive development by making things like VS2010 available freely. This would really help turn things around for them. It is hard for a lot of SMBs to justify spending thousands on a copy of VS2010 PLUS Windows servers, CALs, etc when they can spend nothing on Linux server apps built on free Java/Eclipse or Ruby on Rails. Once today’s open-source enthusiasts, which is predominantly a younger demographic, gets promoted within enterprises to the point that they make infrastructure decisions, Windows will be in serious trouble.

Microsoft TechDays (BlechDays?) 2010

What  brought me to write this is the upcoming Microsoft TechDays 2010. While it’s true that there is value in the sessions presented at this event, a big attraction is the “free” stuff you walk away from the event with. Last year, the only significant take-away was a one-year subscription to TechNet Plus. This product (which arguably should be made freely available to developers, see above) has a sticker price greater than that of TechDays itself, and was a major consideration in my deciding to attend. No doubt a lot of others felt the same way.

It was recently announced (note the distinct lack of comments) that a TechNet subscription would NOT be included for 2010 attendees. This was enough to make me instantly decide not to attend. Fast forward a couple of weeks however and I get an email link to a post saying that TechNet WOULD be included in 2010 because of the efforts of the event coordinators who convinced MS Canada to supply attendees with subscriptions. Here is an excerpt:

I am happy to announce that the hard work has paid off and we have been able to work with Microsoft corporate and each TechDays 2010 attendee will get a TechNet subscription!

This benefit is added to the over 50 Sessions of technical content, networking opportunities, great offers from our Partners, like Telerik, Pluralsight, Xceed, and access to 50 virtual labs to get hands-on without requiring you to provide the necessary hardware and software to support adoption. 

Now, to be clear, I did announce just a couple of weeks ago that we would notbe providing TechDays 2010 attendees with TechNet subscriptions, but understanding that now, more than ever, you need all the tools in your arsenal to help you deploy Windows 7 and Office 2010, implement Windows Server 2008 R2, Hyper-V, SharePoint 2010, and other technologies, we were able to work with our colleagues at Microsoft Corporate to make a one-time exception.

Fantastic! But several inconsistencies and flaws in their reasoning were apparent.

First, the email stated how significant it was that they managed to secure subscriptions for attendees. I agree. But they went on to seemingly minimize the significance of this by stating that it will NOT be included in 2011 or later, and that it’s really no big deal because it’s the sessions that provide value blah blah bullshit. So which is it? Are you just trumpeting yourselves for getting us TechNet subscriptions, or telling us that they aren’t really all that important because you aren’t going to try and get them in 2011, or they are important but you aren’t going to bother trying again? A lesson in expectation management seems in order. But I really started to boil when I read some of the comments to that post which were somewhat smugly answered, seemingly in an attempt to minimize the value of TechNet compared to the sessions. While I can’t disagree with that statement to some extent, it seems they fail to acknowledge that there are a lot of people that go to this event primarily for TechNet and the value that IT brings. Worse, in typical Microsoft style, they try to tell people how to think rather than listen to their concerns. After all, they are Microsoft, so they must know best. To wit:

The sessoins [sic] are the main “gift” you get and I think people must see the value of that.

Thanks for that blinding insight, clearly we aren’t capable of thinking for ourselves. But what really got to me was that they censored my comments to that post. I twice asked why Microsoft doesn’t make development tools more freely available, once rather pointedly, a second time in a much less aggressive fashion, but both comments were never listed. I guess they don’t want others thinking that people might not agree with their authoritative views. Well f*ck you Microsoft Canada, I will not pay even the early bird fee of $350 for the privilege of attending your TechDays now or in the future. And while I will provide Microsoft solutions to my clients if they so desire, that will not be my first recommendation.

Camping 2.0

Traditionally, we liked to go camping with Barb’s daughter Lisa and family. They would go to Birds Hill Park every chance they get (read: whenever Mike grows weary of saying “no”) and pitch their tents. Barb and I and sometimes our kids would go for dinner and campfire, then drive home to our warm beds for a comfy sleep while they braved the elements, at the mercy of rain (leaky tents), heat from the early morning sun, and noise from the early risers. It worked out pretty well but I always felt we were missing out on some of the fun, but Barb is just not a camping person.

Lisa has long dreamt of buying a camper, but two things were in her way: money and money. Specifically, money to buy a camper and money to buy a vehicle to haul a camper. This year we went with them to look at campers. We half-considered buying a small popup camper so they could move to the next stage. Over the course of the next several weeks, we looked at everything from little popups for $5,000 to $35,000 tent trailers. We looked at new and used ones, and back and forth we went. We just couldn’t see ourselves in a little popup, yet we were wary of dropping $30,000+ when we weren’t sure if we were really the camping type. At some point in the not-too-distant future though I could see us travelling in a fifth wheel. But we aren’t there yet.

Then one day we found TWO nearly-identical campers that seemed like a good fit. They are the Cadillac of popups, high-walled Starcraft 3610 with add-a-rooms. These offer dual king-sized beds, a roll-out sofabed, and a slide-out side with bench seating that converts to a large bed. It sleeps 8 easily. One had air conditioning, a power lift system, and wood-grained interior and had only been used 7 times, while the other had white interior with a bike rack and had suffered a punctured roof when a tree fell on it. Pretty easy choice, but the former cost a couple thousand new. We ended up getting it for $11,000 (it was bought a year previous for $20,000!) so it was a great deal given its low use, features, and condition. Plus the vendor delivered it to us. I had recently bought a 2000 Dodge Ram 1500 for $5,000 which was also in very good shape, and I installed a brake controller, so we were all set.

The first few trips were so-so. Because the campground’s electrical sites were long since booked, all that was left were the poor sites. The first two weekends we got low spots and the ground was always wet. It was pretty gross, especially with four dogs, but we learned each time how to set up and tear down more efficiently and bought tarps, carpets, patio lanterns, coolers, bug zappers, and other such things to help improve the experience. The next couple sites were better, and now it looks like we have nothing but primo spots for the rest of the year.

But the point of this post isn’t about how we got a camper. It’s about what I have set up in that camper this weekend.

This weekend we really have no business camping. I am feeling rather crappy with a sore throat that kept me away from work the last two days, plus it’s pouring rain as I type this. Also I have tons of work to do for the upcoming election, so I copied my election-work development virtual machine to a laptop and installed VMware. There, now I can work in the camper, mostly because my current work doesn’t require Internet connectivity. But even if it did, last weekend I got Internet tethering working through my iPhone onto a laptop, and it worked pretty well indeed. So this morning when I went home to get some more stuff, I brought along my MacBook and a netbook in addition to the dev laptop. I had previously used the Mac to test tethering, and the netbook should have worked too (but for Windows 7 Started edition, but that’s another story…) Yada yada right now we have seven devices in the camper with Internet access via my iPhone: my iPhone, my MacBook, my netbook, my dev laptop, my iPad, Barb’s phone, and Mike’s laptop. Camping has truly never been so hi-tech!

Time to get back to work. The rain has really picked up since I started writing this.